Plural as value of Cushitic gender: a psycholinguistic study

Project outline

The gender systems of Cushitic languages in East Africa have the intriguing property that the third value of gender (beside masculine and feminine) is plural. Two competing analyses have been proposed: One is to analyse these systems as two valued and the third value as part of the number category; the other one is to take plural to be three valued and the third category of gender, separate an independent number system. Adjectives show a double agreement system in some Cushitic languages: to number and to gender.

The research project aims at investigating the above-mentioned two competing hypotheses psycholinguistically. By applying experimental methodology developed for the investigation of gender features in European languages to the Cushitic gender systems we intend to answer the question whether the third value for gender is a proper gender feature or rather associated with properties of number.

Earlier studies into gender and number of Germanic languages have shown that these categories are cognitively different. It is not uncommon for gender and number to be interwoven to some extent (e.g. German words forming the plural in –er are all neuter, e.g. das Gespenst ‘the ghost’ – die Gespenster ‘the ghosts’), but the way in which this is realised in Cushitic languages is unparalleled. The proposed research has the potential of providing insights into the essence of the differences and commonalities of gender and number cognitively. Furthermore, our knowledge about the cognitive representation of gender features is mainly based on Germanic and Romance languages, and in urgent need of cross-linguistic confirmation from non-western languages.

The project is conceived as a first step of introducing psycholinguistic approaches into African linguistics and of extending LIBC/LUCL psycholinguistic research to African languages. The languages of Ethiopia offer many additional linguistic issues in the area of gender and number that could be investigated in the future: (i) the complexity of number marking, (ii) the transnumeral nature that is claimed for nouns that are not marked for number, (iii) the semantic aspects of gender assignment, (iv) the notion of default gender.

Project members

The project is lead by Prof.dr. Maarten Mous and Prof.dr. Niels O. Schiller.
Mulugeta Tarekegne Tsegaye has been selected to work on this project as a PhD student.

Last Modified: 23-11-2010