Accommodating Linguistic Diversity in Conversation: Modal Expressions and Multilingualism in South Africa

Project: Research project

Project Details

Description (abstract)

Theories of contact linguistics might predict that in intense contact situations, minor differences between typologically similar languages would converge. However, South Africa’s Bantu languages exhibit fine-grained distinctions at multiple levels. This project investigates variation in expressions of mood and modality, and how these differences are dealt with in multilingual discourse. The objectives are to probe the limits of semantic and pragmatic variation amongst closely-related languages in intense contact, and to identify strategies to negotiate differences in meaning.
Modality, the expression of necessity and possibility, lies at the border between semantics and pragmatics. It is borrowable and subject to change. Pilot research shows important cross-linguistic differences in modal expressions in South Africa’s Bantu languages. I will investigate along what parameters these differences are maintained; to what degree speakers are aware of and attend to the differences; how semantic and pragmatic mismatches are accommodated in multilingual communication; how these differences are maintained in an environment of heavy contact; and how semantic and pragmatic differences may be used to index speaker and group identities.
I will first conduct a broad survey of the semantic mappings of modal expressions in South Africa’s major Bantu languages, followed by deeper study of one or two pairs of languages that are in contact yet exhibit significant differences; these will be the focus of the rest of the study. In a series of experiments, speakers will produce naturalistic parallel texts in both languages of the pair under investigation. These texts will include modal expressions predicted to differ across the languages. Some participants will also be asked direct questions about modal expressions in each language. Data analysis will examine how speakers perceive and perform cross- linguistic differences. To see how speakers avoid and accommodate cross-linguistic modal mismatches, I will record and analyse (semi- )naturalistic interactions between speakers of different linguistic backgrounds, given tasks designed to evoke particular modal configurations. Using sociolinguistic interview data, I will examine correlations between professed linguistic identity and actual patterns of production. How do speakers perform linguistically in different contexts and languages, and how do these performances correlate with their attitudes towards different varieties?

Layman's description

All communication involves the negotiation of meaning: speakers work together to achieve communicative and social goals, without direct access to each other’s thoughts. Multilingualism is the norm for much of the world, but relatively little research has focused on collaborative communicative practices in multilingual settings. In highly multilingual South Africa, closely related languages in heavy contact show significant differences, although linguistic theories might predict their convergence to a few shared varieties. This project investigates, using story-telling and interactional experiments, how these differences are perceived, maintained, and accommodated in a multilingual society. The focus is on the domain of modality (the expression of possibility and necessity, like ‘can’, ‘should’, or ‘must’ in English), a domain in which differences could potentially cause substantial misunderstandings, and where significant cross-linguistic distinctions are found in South Africa.
Effective start/end date01/11/201931/08/2024