Noun classification in Niger-Congo in synchrony and diachrony: Typology, history of study, problems, prospects

2021. №3, 120-141

Aleksandr Yu. Zheltov
Saint Petersburg State University, St. Petersburg, Russia;
Museum of Anthropology and Ethnography, Russian Academy of Sciences, St. Petersburg, Russia;


The article offers an overview of the current state of study of noun classes in the Niger-Congo languages, the largest of the existing macrofamilies in the world (about 1500 languages), and one of the four autochthonous families in Africa. Nominal classes in the languages of this family are of great interest both for the typology of noun classifications and the argumentation of the genetic unity of the Niger-Congo languages. Along with personal pronouns and verbal derivative suffixes, noun classes often exhibit reflexes of a hypothetical proto-language. The article provides an overview of the most significant literature containing information on noun classification (taking into account numerous important works that appeared recently), considers the general typological features of noun classification in these languages (pair correlation of classes by number, often alliterative agreement, the presence of semantics in the classification, distinction between nominal forms and concordant classes), the specificity of noun classes in different families (prefixes and suffixes, series of alternations depending on belonging to a particular class, full and reduced concordance models), the role of noun classes in genetic classification. The article contains information on an alternative variant of noun classification — the systems of numeral classifiers in some of Niger-Congo languages (Kana, Gban, etc.), which for a long time remained beyond the attention of linguists. The special place of Niger-Congo noun classes in the semantic typology of nominal classifications is also determined and analyzed. It is characterized by a large number of classes compared to traditional Indo-European genders and the absence of “masculine / feminine” opposition, the most “popular” among the classification systems in the languages of the world.

For citation:

Zheltov A. Yu. Noun classification in Niger-Congo in synchrony and diachrony: Typology, history of study, problems, prospects. Voprosy Jazykoznanija, 2021, 3: 120–141.


The reported study was funded by RFBR, project No. 19-112-50230.