The goal of this project is to investigate grammatical number in the nominal and verbal domain of Eastern Sudanic languages, and to investigate whether a cyclic optimization approach is better-suited to account for the attested cross-linguistic variation.

In the last decades there has been significant progress in research on the typology (e.g., Corbett 2000), morphosyntax (e.g., Carstens 1991, Ritter 1991, Wiltschko 2008, Kramer 2016), and semantics (e.g., Link 1983, Chierchia 1998, Sauerland 2003, Harbour 2007, de Swart & Farkas 2010) of the grammatical category of number. This research has revealed striking similarities, but also significant differences, in the expression of number distinctions cross-linguistically, both in the nominal and in the verbal domain. Despite this progress, the theoretical implications of the number systems of non-Indo-European languages remain poorly understood. The goal of this research project is to fill in this gap by investigating number phenomena in the severely understudied Eastern Sudanic branch of Nilo-Saharan languages, spoken in East Africa. Eastern Sudanic languages were chosen as the focus of the investigation for two main reasons: a) like other Nilo-Saharan languages, they are well-known for complex systems of number morphology in both the nominal and the verbal domain, (Dimmendaal 2000,  2014 a.o.), and b) they are among the least studied languages of Africa, with even basic descriptions lacking for some of them. Understanding the number systems of these languages is, therefore, of fundamental importance for theoretical treatments of grammatical number in particular, and for theories of the syntax-morphology mapping more generally.

The more specific focus of the investigation will be on phenomena pertaining to the underexponence of number (i.e., the presence of fewer than expected number morphemes in a given word) and the overexponence of number (i.e., the presence of more than expected number morphemes in a given word). The theoretical goal of the project is to investigate whether a Cyclic Optimization (CO) approach is better-equipped to account for the attested cross-linguistic variation in these phenomena, which has more general implications for the theoretical treatment of multiple exponence and haplology-like phenomena, ranging from Impoverishment to Exponent Drop. The CO approach to be developed (mostly) follows the assumptions of Minimalism for syntax and Distributed Morphology for exponence, but introduces two optimization steps at the interfaces: an optimization step for the determination of a phase boundary in the syntax (which then triggers spellout) and an OT-based theory of post-syntactic operations like Impoverishment.

The empirical phenomena to be investigated include: the tripartite system of number marking in the nominal domain (featuring a variety of plural and singulative affixes), reduplication and pluractionality in the verbal domain, as well as various phenomena in verbal agreement of Eastern Sudanic languages: discontinuous exponence, multiple exponence of person and/or number agreement, and inverse marking in person hierarchy-driven agreement.

The bulk of the empirical data for this project will come from original fieldwork conducted in Kenya with speakers of different dialects of four Eastern Sudanic languages (Kalenjin, Turkana, Maa, Didinga), making a significant empirical contribution.