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Variation in color expression in languages of Cameroon

Nadine Grimm, University of Rochester

March 1, 2023 · 4:30 pm6:00 pm · 1-S-5 Green Hall

Program in Linguistics


Explaining observed variation in linguistic data and its correlates is a particular challenge when describing under-studied languages lacking huge corpora. The use of a certain variable may be conditioned phonologically or grammatically, but also by sociolinguistic factors ranging from speech registers to language contact phenomena.

In this talk, I showcase the various levels of variation in the color system of four Bantu speech communities in southern Cameroon. Based on data from my own fieldwork on Gyeli, Kwasio, and Bulu, I show that there is a high degree of variability with respect to color terms and categories. On the one hand, the variability can be linked to patterns of color innovation in language contact. On the other hand, intra-community variation in color word forms and lexical choices is considerable and leaves the question whether the variation can be explained by sociolinguistic factors or whether colors do not constitute a unitary domain in these languages (Levinson 2001).

In the second part of the talk, I argue that sociolinguistic factors are not a standard consideration when explaining variation. This is confirmed in a study of twenty recent reference grammars, where we find that most instances of sociolinguistic variation are discussed for phonetic/phonological variables and are often explained as dialectal differences. For other types of linguistic variables, e.g. syntactic, proposed social correlates of non-grammatical variation are vague.


Nadine Grimm is an Assistant Professor of Linguistics at the University of Rochester. She obtained a B.A. in General Linguistics and French at the University of Bielefeld (Germany)in 2006, and M.A. in African Studies, German linguistics, and French at the Humboldt University, Berlin in 2010, and a Ph.D. in Linguistics at the Humboldt University, Berlin in 2015.

Dr. Grimm’s research takes place in a descriptive, documentary, and typological framework with a special focus on the grammatical tone, language contact, and phonetic features of plosives in northwestern Bantu languages. Nadine has worked on Gyeli, a Bantu language of Cameroon, since 2010. Previously, she studied the numeral system of Ikaan, a Benue-Congo language of Nigeria.

She received the Pāṇini Award by the Association for Linguistic Typology in 2019 for her doctoral dissertation, which consisted in a grammatical description of Gyeli. The dissertation was published as a book in 2021 (A Grammar of Gyeli, Language Science Press), for which she was awarded the Leonard Bloomfield Book Award by the Linguistic Society of America in 2023.

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