Universal principles and parametric variation : remarks on formal linguistics and the grammar of Zulu.
Zeller, Jochen Klaus.
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Research on topics of an essentially African nature should be regarded as a cornerstone of learning at an African university. At the same time, this research must avoid becoming insular and parochial. The study of the indigenous languages spoken in South Africa is a good example of scholarship which has a strong local focus at the same time as having relevance for a broader academic community, with the potential to inform and shape the design of linguistic theory. In this article, I want to offer an introduction to the research conducted at the Department of Linguistics in the School of Languages, Literature and Linguistics at the University of KwaZulu-Natal. The exposition draws from my area of expertise: formal linguistics (more specifically, theoretical syntax), and from my area of research: the grammar of Bantu languages (more specifically, the syntax of Zulu). Formal linguistics has a somewhat anomalous status in a faculty of human and social sciences. On the one hand, linguistics is the scientific study of human language and therefore seems to have a natural place among the disciplines in the humanities. On the other hand, formal linguists do not consider language to be first and foremost a social construct, but rather regard it as a cognitive system whose properties are best understood when studied from a strictly analytical perspective. With respect to its methodology, formal linguistics has therefore more in common with mathematics or computer science than with, say, creative arts or literary studies. In the discussion that follows, I introduce some of the methods characteristic of the field of formal syntax, and show how they are applied to the study of natural languages such as English or Zulu. In section 2, I illustrate some of the main concepts of theoretical linguistics, such as the idea of language as a “mental organ”, which implies that fundamental properties of language are innate, and therefore universal. I also discuss Chomsky’s theory of generative grammar and its most contemporary version, the syntactic model known as the “Minimalist Program”. I then demonstrate in section 3 that this theoretical framework yields interesting results when used to examine the grammatical properties of a Bantu language like Zulu. Finally, section 4 shows that, in turn, the empirical properties of Zulu have wider theoretical implications for the way non-African languages are analysed in the Minimalist Program.