Verbal Categories in Niger-Congo


The genesis of this project lies in the early 1990s, when one of the three authors taught a graduate course in Comparative Bantu at this university, with a small number of mainly African participants. At the end of the term, the material was not exhausted, so the course continued. As it lasted through the 1990s, the focus narrowed to Bantu verbal categories, while the number of participants grew. Around 2000, the focus changed again, widening to Niger-Congo verbal categories (Niger-Congo being the phylum of which Bantu is a small part), and the core participants were now just four: Christa Beaudoin-Lietz, John Hewson, Derek Nurse, Sarah Rose.

We wanted to cover Niger-Congo as well as we could but it is a huge phylum with over 1500 languages. So we selected 21 languages, one language from each of the major divisions, largely on the bases of the availability of a reasonable description and the languages apparently being typical of its group. This arbitrary decision making will inevitably lead to charges of limited and incomplete coverage. The analyses of the aspect and tense systems of these languages are the content of chapters 2-22. We divided the languages up among the team. We worked actively from 2000 to about 2008, meeting once a week to discuss a language. Each language sketch is based on examination of the source chosen. One member of the team would present their analysis, lively discussion and modifications ensued. It often took weeks, even months, to cover a language. The first of the four participants moved away half way through the work and her languages were redistributed among the three remaining participants.

Our aims were various. We wanted to examine the background from which tense and aspect in Bantu had emerged historically (Bantu languages have tense and aspect). We wanted to examine how aspect and tense worked in the languages of Africa and the worlds largest phylum (most Niger-Congo language have aspect without tense) and present this to linguists outside Africa. We wanted to compare Niger-Congo aspect-tense systems with those elsewhere in the world, and assist in the search for universals.

Our original intent was to assemble all this as a book but we settled for this web presentation. Although the descriptions are but sketches, we hope readers can get a reasonable overview of aspect and tense in Niger-Congo and then make up their minds about the theoretical issues. We have used a fairly uniform format for each sketch, and most but not all terminology is also uniform. In some cases it differs from that used in the sources.

Although for many languages we sought input from native speakers of the languages, we were not able to do this for all. Some of the descriptions may therefore contain errors. We welcome comments and corrections from readers.

Chapters (available in PDF)


Chapter 1- Aspect and Tense

Chapter 2- Aghem

Chapter 3- Bambara

Chapter 4- (Narrow) Bantu

Chapter 5- Bijago

Chapter 6- Degema

Chapter 7- Donno So (Dogon)

Chapter 8- Doyayo

Chapter 9- Ejagham

Chapter 10- Ewe

Chapter 11- Fula

Chapter 12- Godie

Chapter 13- Ijo

Chapter 14- Jukun

Chapter 15- Kabiye

Chapter 16- Kisi

Chapter 17- Makaa

Chapter 18- Obolo

Chapter 19- Otoro

Chapter 20- Supyire

Chapter 21- Yoruba

Chapter 22- Zande

Chapter 23- Conclusions

  Appendix- Charts


Derek Nurse

John Hewson

Sarah Rose

Department of Linguistics,
Memorial University of Newfoundland,
Newfoundland and Labrador, Canada.

Christa Beaudoin-Lietz


Department of Linguistics

230 Elizabeth Ave

St. John's, NL A1B 3X9 CANADA

Tel: (709) 864-2530

Fax: (709) 864-2552