Academic journal article Studies in African Linguistics

Conditional Constructions in African Languages

Academic journal article Studies in African Linguistics

Conditional Constructions in African Languages

Article excerpt

1.Why have a special issue devoted to conditional constructions in African languages?

In contrast to the extensive literature on conditionals in English and other major European languages (see for example Lycan 2001 and von Fintel 2011 from a philosophical perspective, Dancygier & Sweetser 2005 from a cognitive linguistic perspective, and Evans & Over 2004 and Girotto & Johnson-Laird 2004 from a psychological perspective), far less work has been done on conditional constructions in other languages. Although morphological and syntactic descriptions of conditional constructions exist for many languages, these are sometimes incomplete, and information about the distribution and functions of conditional constructions is often lacking. Even the excellent World Atlas of Linguistic Structures (Dryer & Haspelmath 2013) has no chapters or features1 dealing specifically with conditional constructions.

This special volume of Studies in African Linguistics contains descriptions of conditional constructions in languages representing Chadic, Eastern Nilotic, Kumuz, Mande, Atlantic, Kwa, and Grassfields and narrow Bantu. Descriptions of the forms of conditional constructions exist for many languages within these groups, but information about the functions of such constructions is often lacking or far from complete. The contributions in this volume therefore pay special attention to the distribution and interpretation of conditional constructions.

In a conditional sentence, a (typically subordinate) clause (the protasis) states some condition, the truth of which is not asserted, under which another (main) clause (the apodosis) holds. The protasis is conventionally labelled p and the apodosis is conventionally labelled q. Examples in the contributions to this volume of SAL are presented by placing each clause in a conditional sentence within square brackets labelled P for the protasis and Q for the apodosis.2

English constructions of the type 'if p, (then) q' are often presented as archetypal conditional sentences. However, 'if p, (then) q' sentences can be used to express a range of meanings, and conversely, various other constructions in English can also express conditions. This state of affairs reflects a fundamental problem in using the label 'conditional' to describe constructions in different languages with similar but distinct functions. The mere fact of producing an issue of a journal dealing with conditional constructions might suggest that the editors believe in crosslinguistic categories, including one labelled 'conditional'; this is not the case. What we do believe, is that all languages have ways to express cases where one proposition describes the conditions under which some other proposition holds, and that many languages have constructions which are predominantly, or at least frequently, associated with the expression of such cases. We believe that there is sufficient "family resemblance" (LaPolla 2016) between such cases to warrant the use of the term 'conditional construction' to describe any linguistic construction for which the expression of such cases is, as Comrie (1986: 82) suggests, either the "basic function" or "one of the basic functions of the construction". It is in this sense that the term 'conditional construction' should be understood in this volume.

2.Classifications of conditionals

To account for the range of conditional meanings found in English and other languages, various classifications of conditional constructions have been proposed. These include the classifications in Athanasiadou & Dirven (1997) discussed in Harley (2017), Feuillet (2006) discussed in Solomiac (2017), and Bhatt & Pancheva (2006). For reasons of space, however, we will only consider three classifications here: those found in Taylor (1997) and Thompson, Longacre & Hwang (2007: 255-262) are two of the more influential recent classifications (at least in the typological and linguistic literature), and the classification proposed in Saloné (1979) has been widely discussed particularly in relation to Bantu languages. …

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