Exploring Nigeria’s linguistic wealth:
grammatical analysis and linguistic documentation
of the Adamawa languages

AdaGram is a research project funded by the “Emergence(s)” program of the City of Paris for the period of 2016–2019. Its main goal is to produce a comprehensive grammatical analysis and linguistic documentation of several Adamawa languages of Nigeria, a language family of which very little is known today. The project is based at the research unit “Langage, Langues et Cultures d’Afrique Noir” (UMR 8135 CNRS - INALCO) and brings together a new team which consists of two CNRS researches, four PhD students and one undergraduate student.

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With its 500-plus living languages, Nigeria is the third most linguistically diverse country in the world. It is also the country of which the languages are the least known, studied or developed. With only 3 languages (or 7%) out of 43 having a grammar, the Adamawa languages of Nigeria are understudied even according to Nigerian norms.

In order to achieve a qualitative breakthrough in our knowledge of these languages and to give a new impetus to the study of the languages of Nigeria in general, the AdaGram project aims to produce a comprehensive grammatical analysis and linguistic documentation of five Adamawa languages: Baa (glottocode: kwaa1262), Bena-Yungur (glottocode: bena1260), Wom (glottocode: kamm1249), Wam (glottocode: kuga1239) and Sam (glottocode: kpas1242). Insofar as possible, we will also collect basic lexical and grammatical information on a number of other languages.

To circumvent the security issues which are largely responsible for our ignorance of these languages, the project proposes an innovative methodological solution based on a more direct involvement of the speaker communities in the documentation of their languages.

All the primary data collected will be treated according to the standards that have been recently developed within the field of documentary linguistics. The grammatical analyses will be informed by typological and comparative hypotheses. We will pay particular attention to language contact phenomena and phenomena that are typologically exceptional but common in the languages of the region, such as logophoric pronouns, intransitive copy pronouns, labial-velar consonants, V-(O)-X-NEG constituent order, pluractional aspect and reversal of dependency in attributive constructions.

Furthermore, the location of the Adamawa languages at the transition from the Niger-Congo languages of the “Kwa” type to those of the “Eastern Bantu” type suggests the possible relevance of the hypothesis on the influence of prosodic restrictions on morphosyntax. Our linguistic data and analyses will be essential for reconstructing the history of the peoples of the region and for a critical reassessment of the genealogical classifications of African languages, which in all probability underestimate the degree of linguistic diversity of the continent. Finally, the relevance of studying linguistic diversity for linguistic theory is becoming more and more evident as we are starting to realize that the grammatical variation among the languages of the world is much more profound than generally assumed in the second half of the 20th century.