The coming apart of case and focus in Bantu


The paper presents an argument for structural case in a Bantu language, Ndebele. Bantu languages notoriously lack typical signs of case licensing, which has led to the proposal that they lack case altogether. A recent claim to the contrary, put forth in Halpert (2012, 2015), has been challenged by Carstens and Mletshe (2016), who argue that the patterns Halpert describes fall under the umbrella of focus licensing, thus undermining the need for an independent case licensing mechanism. Ndebele data invalidate this challenge, revealing a purely syntactic nature of the phenomenon in question.

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  1. 1.

    Due to space limitations, this section cannot do justice to all existing claims about potential case phenomena in Bantu languages. For a more detailed overview see Halpert 2015; Diercks and Carstens to appear.

  2. 2.

    All Ndebele data were collected during interviews with members of a Ndebele diaspora in the United States and in South Africa (Johannesburg and Durban). All speakers (14, aged 21–60), are native speakers of Ndebele and most of them identify Ndebele as their primary language.

  3. 3.

    I follow the Leipzig Glossing convention with the following additions: 1 – class 1 nominal prefix (etc.), 1s – class 1 subject agreement (etc.), 1o – class 1 object agreement (etc.), a – augment vowel, cnj – conjoint, dsj – disjoint, fv – final vowel.

  4. 4.

    Van der Wal (2015) argues that Matengo and Makhuwa are languages with abstract Case. Crucially, however, evidence for this claim comes from the fact that these two languages show the familiar abstract case phenomena that most other Bantu languages famously lack.

  5. 5.

    It is worth noting that, under this view, augmentless nouns are expected to have a wider distribution than augmented ones, which does not appear to be the case, in Kinande or other Bantu languages. For instance, Baker’s account incorrectly predicts that [−Aug] nouns should be licit in Spec,TP since that position is caseless in this analysis.

  6. 6.

    Here, I rely on Halpert’s theory which stipulates that licensing takes place after movement.

  7. 7.

    Some speakers of Ndebele allow dislocation of low adverbs. For those speakers, adverb placement is not a reliable diagnostic for object dislocation. An additional diagnostic for dislocated objects is the so called disjoint form of the verb (here, the prefix ya). Disjoint forms appear when there is no phrasal material in the vP (Buell 2006; Halpert 2012). Negative forms of the verb do not have a separate disjoint form, however.

  8. 8.

    Zulu has a fourth context: in expletive ditransitives (V-S-IO-DO), the indirect object cannot be augmentless or narrowly focused (Halpert 2012, 2015; Carstens and Mletshe 2016). I do not consider this configuration since Ndebele speakers find expletive ditransitive constructions significantly degraded, irrespective of focus/augment. Regardless, the present goal is to show that there exist positions in which [−Aug] and focus do not overlap. Another instance of an overlapping distribution does not change this fact.

  9. 9.

    In fact, the augment is obligatory there since the sentences lack negation (and these are not wh-items).

  10. 10.

    Carstens and Mletshe briefly discuss one potential problem for their claim, also observed in Buell (2009), Halpert (2012). While objects in VSO sentences cannot be augmentless, they can, at least for some speakers, be wh-items. Halpert interprets this asymmetry as evidence that [−Aug] DPs do not have the distribution of focused DPs. Carstens and Mletshe view it as weak evidence since the speakers who accept wh-items in this position report an emphatic/echo reading of such as wh-questions. They tentatively assume that wh-items in echo questions do not have a focus feature, and thus don’t constitute counterevidence to their claim that augmentless DPs are a type of focused DPs.

  11. 11.

    A reviewer suggests a different interpretation of the impossibility of augmentless nominals in (31)–(33), namely that augmentless nominals are not compatible with all types of focus, and the type(s) of focus they are compatible with is unavailable in the preverbal position. An observation along these lines was made by Van der Wal and Namyalo (2016), who show that [−Aug] is compatible with exhaustive, exclusive and indentificational focus, but not with additive focus (particle even). Such an alternative is ruled out for Ndebele due to the following facts. We know that augmentless nominals are compatible with exhaustive focus—an augmentless noun can be associated with kuphela ‘only’.

    1. (i)

    We will see shortly that preverbal subjects in these three clause types can be exhaustively focused (38)–(40). If the distribution of [−Aug] is governed by type of focus and [−Aug] is compatible with exhaustive focus, we incorrectly predict that [−Aug] should be allowed in all positions that can host exhaustive focus, including embedded preverbal subjects (see also the discussion of (38)–(43)).

  12. 12.

    The impossibility of augment drop in these contexts is not due to the absence of clausemate negation: if the embedded subject stays in situ, it can be augmentless, despite negation being in the higher clause:

    1. (i)

    Based on a similar observation in Zulu and Xhosa, Carstens and Mletshe conclude that the contrast is not due to non-local negation but due to the preverbal position being incompatible with focus (2016:792–793).

    In earlier work, Carstens and Mletshe proposed that [−Aug] nominals must undergo A′-movement to be licensed as NPIs (2015:213). The impossibility of augmentless embedded subjects was attributed to a ban on movement of the embedded subject to a local A-bar position as it would trigger the that-trace effect (following Kayne’s 1981 account of the French personne-NPI). This account of Ndebele would be challenged by the following fact: embedded subjects in subjunctive clauses can be augmentless iff the complementizer is augmentless itself, i.e. kuthi rather than ukuthi (see Pietraszko 2019 for an account of the complementizer augment):

    1. (ii)

    Carstens and Mletshe (2015) would be forced to make the odd stipulation that that-trace effect doesn’t arise if the complementizer is augmentless. In contrast, (ii) resembles cases reported in Rackowski and Richards (2005) where agreement/licensing of a phasal category (here CP) voids its phasehood, allowing interaction with embedded material. Thus, (ii) can be viewed as further supporting the case-licensing view. Moreover, since wh-items are not licensed by negation, Carstens and Mletshe (2015) do not explain why augmentless wh-items cannot appear in the preverbal subject position either (a gap they eliminate in the later, focus-based account). Note that the complementizer form is kept constant throughout the paper (ukuthi) to avoid any confounds.

  13. 13.

    In a more articulated clause structure, the adjunction site may be an aspect-related projection between TP and LP.

  14. 14.

    A reviewer points out that similar adjuncts in Zulu may be interpreted as part of vP-focus. This potentially suggests an interesting point of microvariation, which falls outside of the scope of this paper. See discussion in Poulus and Msimang (1998), Halpert (2016).

  15. 15.

    If it turns out that temporal adjuncts are indeed outside of the vP in Ndebele, conjoint morphology in this language would not indicate the absence of vP internal material, as previously proposed for Zulu (Van der Spuy 1993; Buell 2005, 2006; Halpert 2012, 2015).

  16. 16.

    The topicality of preverbal subjects in Bantu has been shown to be different than the topicality of unambiguously dislocated phrases (including dislocated subjects). For instance, Van der Wal (2009), Halpert (2012) show (for Makhuwa and Zulu, respectively) that quantified DPs can appear as preverbal subjects, but cannot be dislocated. This is true in Ndebele as well. Preverbal subjects in these languages are then perhaps better characterized as resisting narrow focus (cf. Zeller’s 2008 antifocus feature). This means that Spec,TopP, the subject position in indicative clauses, is not a dislocated position. It’s a position that always attracts the subject DP, bringing it out of the focus field. See Bliss and Storoshenko (2009), Pietraszko (2017) for an analysis of Top0 as an agreement probe which, due to locality, always attracts the subject to its specifier. See Erlewine and Lim (2019) for a similar view of clefts in Bikol.

  17. 17.

    See Buell (2005), Pietraszko (2018) for analyses of negation in Zulu and Ndebele respectively, proposing two ΣPs/NegPs: one in the left periphery and the other below T.

  18. 18.

    The relative marker a (and its class-covarying variants) has been analyzed as the relative complementizer (Khumalo 1992; Demuth and Harford 1999; Zeller 2004, 2006; Cheng 2006; Henderson 2006, 2007, among others). For a different treatment of the a marker, namely as a nominal linker, see Pietraszko (2019). This analytical choice is not important here.

  19. 19.

    The only construction that resembles focus fronting is in fact a cleft, in which the focused phrase follows an existential predicate.


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This research was supported by the National Science Foundation (BCS-1551787). I would like to thank my Ndebele consultants, as well as three anonymous reviewers for valuable feedback.

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Correspondence to Asia Pietraszko.

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Pietraszko, A. The coming apart of case and focus in Bantu. Nat Lang Linguist Theory 39, 579–599 (2021).

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  • Case
  • Focus
  • Bantu
  • Ndebele
  • Zulu
  • Xhosa