This is a report on a two-phase study of the semantics and syntax of noun classification in Swahili. Phase I, the topic of the present paper, is an investigation of the semantic structure of the noun classes, from a cognitive-semantic perspective. Data for this study include all the nouns from the Standard Swahili-English Dictionary (Johnson 1939), entered into a computer database and subcategorized according to over 75 semantic and morphological criteria. This paper proposes a semantic analysis of Classes 3, 7, 5, 9, and 11. A diagram of the semantic structure of each class is provided, showing relations of instantiation, metaphoric and metonymic extension within the class. Each diagram node is associated with a list of Swahili nouns exemplifying the relevant semantic category, which may be viewed by clicking on that portion of the diagram.

Phase II of the project will involve investigation of noun classification and grammatical agreement in contemporary discourse.

1. Introduction


Among systems of linguistic categorization, noun class systems (including systems of grammatical gender, as in German or Arabic) are usually defined as follows:

(a) all nouns in the language are divided into a small and closed set of classes, signalled by inflectional morphology;
(b) the class of a noun is obligatorily co-referenced on other elements in the sentence via grammatical agreement (see e.g. Dixon 1982; Craig 1986). The phenomenon of noun classification has long been of interest to linguists and anthropologists because understanding the basis for grouping nouns together as members of a class hints at a system of cognitive or cultural classification underlying the system of linguistic classification. However, the question what, if any, semantic principles can explain the groupings of nouns into classes in Bantu languages has been controversial. The received wisdom is that although some generalizations can be made, there is a lot of arbitrariness in these systems. In this paper I will suggest that the diagnosis of arbitriness rests on an overly restrictive definition of what `semantic coherence' means, and that a cognitive-semantic approach reveals more systematicity than might appear at first.

This paper is a report on research in progress on the semantics and syntax of the noun class system of Swahili. Swahili has a typical Bantu noun class system, but its status as a lingua franca has led to the assimilation of an unusually large number of loanwords from genetically unrelated languages, especially Omani Arabic, Persian, and various Indian languages (and more recently English). The need to accomodate nouns of foreign origin, some of which fit the phonological forms but not the semantic content associated with the various noun classes, has challenged the resources of the system (see Nurse and Hinnebusch 1993, chapter 3; henceforth N + H). Thus Swahili is an interesting case study for looking at continuity and change in noun class systems.

The paper is organized as follows. In section 2 I describe the Swahili noun class system, discuss some earlier work on noun classes in this and related languages, and introduce the theoretical approach that is being used in the present study. In section 3 I explain the methodology of this research. Section 4 presents some results of the study: an analysis of the semantic structure of Classes 3, 7, 5, 9, and 11. In Section 5 I discuss the relationship between the methodology and the analysis and draw some general conclusions.

[Section 2]