LINGUIST List 25.2854

Mon Jul 07 2014

Diss: Swahili; Computational Ling, Pragmatics, Text/Corpus Ling: Mwamzandi: 'Swahili Word Order Choices...'

Editor for this issue: Danuta Allen <>

Date: 07-Jul-2014
From: Mohamed Mwamzandi <>
Subject: Swahili Word Order Choices: Insights from Information Structure
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Institution: University of Texas at Arlington
Program: PhD in Linguistics
Dissertation Status: Completed
Degree Date: 2014

Author: Mohamed Yusuf Mwamzandi

Dissertation Title: Swahili Word Order Choices: Insights from Information Structure

Linguistic Field(s): Computational Linguistics
                            Text/Corpus Linguistics

Subject Language(s): Swahili (swh)

Dissertation Director:
Laurel Smith Stvan
Joseph Sabbagh
Jeffrey Witzel
Jason Kandybowicz

Dissertation Abstract:

In pragmatics, cross-linguistics studies have shown non-canonical
word order can often be explained if information structure is taken into
consideration. In this dissertation, I explore the role of information
structure on word order variation in Swahili, an SVO language
belonging to the Bantu branch of the Niger-Congo languages. In
particular, I explore how the notion of topic may explain word order
variation in adnominal demonstratives phrases and reciprocal
constructions, as informed by a corpus-based analysis. The term
‘adnominal demonstrative’ is used to distinguish pronominal
demonstratives such as huyu ‘this’ from demonstratives that co-occur
with nouns such as huyu mtu ‘this person’. Aside from a brief mentions
(Ashton 1944; Givon 1976; Leonardo 1985, 1987; Wilt 1987; Carstens
1991, 1998), the pragmatic function and syntactic position of
adnominal demonstratives have not yet been investigated in Swahili via
corpus analysis. Another instance where word order variation rests on
information structure is that of Swahili Discontinuous Reciprocal (DR),
and the Simple Reciprocal (SR). While other studies have discussed
the DR as a syntactic derivative of the SR (Vitale 1981); or the DR as a
syntactic strategy to resolve unbalanced coordination (Mchombo and
Ngalande 1980, Mchombo 1993); or the DR and SR as distinct
structures that are underivable from each other (Seidl & Dimitriadis
2002), I argue that the variation is motivated by the principle of
givenness which requires familiar information to come first in a
sentence before new information. Though these constructions present
word order variation that warrants an explanation, they have received
little attention in information structure studies.
Class 1 (animate nouns) adnominal demonstratives from the Helsinki
Corpus of Swahili are examined in the two attested word orders:
NP+DEM and DEM+NP. Statistical analysis of the dataset indicated
that the NP+DEM order was more frequently used if the topic was
active (used in previous sentence), p<0.001, while the DEM+NP order
was more frequently used if the topic was semiactive or inactive
(referents within the utterance situation or after topic shift in texts),
Corpus examples from two distinct verb categories, namely
conversation and “marry” verbs (Levin 1993), were analyzed to
investigate the effect of givenness and verb category on reciprocal
variation. To complement the tokens found in the corpus, I also set
about eliciting native speaker judgments on controlled sets of
grammatical constructions using questionnaires administered via the
DMDX software. The corpus and accessibility ratings results indicated
that givenness, rather than verb category, is the main predictor of
Swahili reciprocal variation.
As mentioned above this study addressed Swahili reciprocal and
adnominal demonstrative word order variation, which to the best of my
knowledge have not been analyzed under the auspices of information
structure, or approached via corpus analysis. This research will be of
interest to those studying information structure, deixis, reciprocals, and
syntax. Further, the results of this study will help those interested in
Swahili grammar such as Swahili language instructors and Swahili
second language learners understand the different pragmatic value of
these constructions.

Page Updated: 07-Jul-2014