Microvariation and youth language practices in Africa


This project focusses on the comparative study of youth language practices in Bantu speaking areas of Southern and Eastern Africa. Youth languages are widely thought of as sites of innovation and change. Our research contributes to the understanding of youth languages by focusing on African youth language practices. We investigate young people's linguistic creativity with special focus on morphosyntactic variation. This means we look at the ways in which speakers put together words and grammatical markers in innovative ways. Through the lens of microvariation, we investigate variation among closely related language practices in order to understand process of language contact and language change. This constitutes the first approach of reconciling microvariation and youth language research.

In the course of this project, we conduct research in Eastern and Southern African countries including Zimbabwe, South Africa, Malawi, Zambia, DR Congo, Kenya and Tanzania. The data we are collecting helps us to understand morphosyntactic phenomena which play a crucial role in the microvariational landscape of Bantu-based youth language practices.
For example, interesting and relevant variation can be observed with regard to the marking and usage of diminutives or augmentatives which can also express semantic nuances. Grammatically, these are often expressed through noun class prefix or so-called “secondary noun classes”.
Other features that we are looking at in this project include:

• Agreement patterns (e.g. variation in subject and object marking)
• Relativization strategies (e.g. parallel developments across different languages including innovative markers, recycled grammatical material)
• Variation in TAM marking (e.g. emerging TA markers such as the reintroduced -ag-)
• Derivational properties (e.g. evaluative morphology, class shift)
• Sentence types and clause structure (e.g. changes in word-order, formation of conditional clauses, questions)

Given this focus and framework, the project centers on four major research questions which seek to identify commonalities and differences in youth language practices found in the regions under examination:

1. What features of microvariation can be identified in the youth language practices of speakers of Kiswahili, Lingala, Chichewa, and isiZulu-isiNdebele?
2. How can parallel processes of linguistic change in the different youth language practices be explained despite their often significant geographic distance?
3. To what extent are the properties found in these research areas reflective of broader patterns found across the language family?
4. How can this innovative approach provide further insights into both, youth language practices and grammatical variation in Bantu languages?