South African Journal of African Languages

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Circumfixes as emergent linguistic structures

R Hendrikse, M Mfusi


One of the manifestations of linguistic complexity is what Dahl (2004:2) describes as ‘grammaticalconstructions whose expression is longer than apparently necessary from a cross-linguistic perspective’.In the morphological system of Nguni languages there is a range of co-occurring affixes in both the nominaland the verbal morphological systems that seem to be unnecessary from a cross-linguistic comparisonof Bantu languages in southern Africa. The relations between these co-occurring prefix and suffix pairshave not been accounted for in the traditional descriptive grammars of these languages despite the fact that their correlations are quite obvious. For the purpose of the development of morphosyntactic tagsfor the Nguni languages, we treated such affix pairs as discontinuous morphemes, that is, circumfixes.In this article, we would like to show that the circumfixes of the Nguni languages are typical emergentphenomena in that they ‘arose unexpectedly’ given comparable expressions in the other southernAfrican Bantu languages, and in that they have a ‘natural origin’ from a cross-linguistic perspective. Putdifferently, they are the result of what Dahl (2004:27) calls ‘a symmetric mutual attunement’ of elementsfrom similar expressions in other Bantu languages and perhaps even other African languages.

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