Ellen Contini-Morava



Department of Anthropology
204 Brooks Hall
PO Box 400120
Charlottesville, VA 22904-4120

Ph.D., Columbia Univesrity

I had an early childhood fantasy that my unique brain wave configuration made me the only person on Earth who would be able to communicate with the space aliens I hoped would show up.  Later I became interested in human languages, but I resisted learning my father’s native language, Italian, until our family moved to Somalia when I was 12 and it turned out that the only middle school in Mogadishu was Italian.  There I also studied Latin and Arabic, and for fun I attended Russian classes that were run by the Soviet embassy for Somalis en route to study in the USSR.  I didn’t learn Somali, though, which was not written then and not formally taught.  This I felt as an unpaid debt that followed me back to the U.S., which led to my later focus on African languages and linguistics.

According to Franz Boas, anthropology’s intellectual forebear, each language is a principle of classification, and its grammar encodes only a subset of the infinite number of meanings that people can imagine wanting to communicate.  Two questions that have inspired most of my research are:  (1) what are the meanings encoded by the grammatical categories of particular languages? and (2) how do people employ these sparse and abstract meanings to convey an infinitely varied set of messages in actual discourse?

My early work was on the meanings expressed by verb tenses and “aspects” (forms indicating ongoing or completed action, as opposed to location in time) in Swahili.  I was intrigued by the fact that Swahili, like other Bantu languages, had a different set of tenses and aspects in the negative from those used in the affirmative.  In my first book I discuss how the negative forms express meanings having to do with defeated expectations, i.e. they say more about what might have been than about what actually happened.  Later I turned to the system of noun classification for which Bantu languages are famous.  These resemble “grammatical genders” such as those found in French or Spanish, except that there are a dozen or more “genders” instead of just two, and the basis for classification has nothing to do with sex/gender.  In this work I have been interested in both why a noun is assigned to one class rather than another (why are hippos, diminutives, and names of languages put into the same class in Swahili?), and what is the communicative function of noun classification in general.  After all, languages like Turkish make do without noun classes, modern English has abandoned them, and English speakers find it an illogical burden to learn the genders of nouns in French or German.  

Noun classes are part of a broader linguistic phenomenon of grammatical classification that shows up in languages as disparate as Chinese and Menominee.  In current work I am exploring the cognitive and communicative functions of these systems in a cross-linguistic study conducted jointly with Marcin Kilarski of Adam Mickiewicz University in Poland, and in a collaborative project with my U.Va. Anthropology colleague Eve Danziger on noun classification in the Mopan Maya language of Belize.

Selected Publications
2012 - The message in the navel: (ir)realis and negation in Swahili. Language Sciences 34 (2): 200-215.
2008 - Human Relationship Terms, Discourse Prominence, and Asymmetrical Animacy in Swahili. Journal of African Languages and Linguistics 29 (2):127-171.
2007 - Swahili Morphology: Morphologies of Asia and Africa. . Alan Kaye, ed. Pp. 1129-1158. Winona Lake, IN: Eisenbrauns .
2006 - The Difference Between Zero and Nothing: Swahili Noun Class Prefixes 5 and 9/10. In Advances in Functional Linguistics: Columbia School Beyond its Origins. Joseph Davis, Radmila Gorup, and Nancy Stern,eds. Pp. 211-222. John Benjamins.
2004 - Cognitive and Communicative Approaches to Linguistic Analysis. (With Robert S. Kirsner and Betsy Rodriguez-Bachiller). Amsterdam/Philadelphia: John Benjamins.

Faculty and Staff

Hanadi Al-Samman

  • Associate Professor of Arabic Literature

Abigail Arnold

  • Lecturer in Women, Gender & Sexuality

Lanice Avery

  • Assistant Professor of Women, Gender & Sexuality and Psychology

Lawrie Balfour

  • Professor of Politics

Rae Blumberg

  • William R. Kenan, Professor of Sociology

Alison Booth

  • Professor of English

Feyza Burak-Adli

  • Lecturer in Women, Gender & Sexuality and Middle East Studies

André Cavalcante

  • Assistant Professor of Media Studies and Women, Gender & Sexuality

Mrinalini Chakravorty

  • Assistant Professor of English, Postcolonial Literature and Theory

Ellen Contini-Morava

  • Director and Professor of the Interdisciplinary Program in Linguistics

Shilpa Davé

  • Assistant Professor of American Studies and Media Studies

Amanda Davis

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Corinne Field

  • Associate Professor of Women, Gender & Sexuality

Susan Fraiman

  • Professor of English

Gertrude Fraser

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Lisa Goff

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Bonnie Hagerman

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Cynthia Hoehler-Fatton

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Samantha J. Hume

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Claire Kaplan

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Anne Behnke Kinney

  • Professor of Chinese

Edith "Winx" Lawrence

  • Professor of Education in Clinical and School Psychology and Director, Young women Leaders Program and Program Chair, Youth and Social Innovation

Karlin Luedtke

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Lorna Martens

  • Professor of German and Comparative Literature

Fred Maus

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Deborah E. McDowell

  • Alice Griffin Professor of English and Director of the Carter G. Woodson Institute

Susan McKinnon

  • Professor of Anthropology

Doug Meyer

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Farzaneh Milani

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Jaronda Miller-Bryant

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Bridget Murphy

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K. Sara Myers

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Emily Ogden

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Victoria Olwell

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Geeta Patel

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Charlotte J. Patterson

  • Chair of Women, Gender & Sexuality and Professor of Psychology

Gustavo Pellón

  • Professor of Spanish

Andrea L. Press

  • William R. Kenan Jr. Professor of Media Studies and Sociology

Allison Pugh

  • Associate Professor of Sociology

Claire Raymond

  • Lecturer a the Department of Art History and Sociology

Caroline Rody

  • Professor of English

Marlon Ross

  • Professor of English

Lynn M. Sanders

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Sybil Scholz

  • General Faculty, Lecturer and Language Coordinator

Lisa Shutt

  • Lecturer of African American & African Studies

Karl Shuve

  • Assistant Professor of Religious Studies

Lisa Speidel

  • Assistant Professor, General Faculty, of Women, Gender & Sexuality

Elizabeth F. Thompson

  • Associate Professor of HIstory

Denise Walsh

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Gweneth West

  • Professor of Costume Design

Kath Weston

  • Professor of Anthropology

W. Bradford Wilcox

  • Associate Professor at the Department of Sociology

Eleanor V. Wilson

  • Associate Professor of Instruction and Special Education

Michiko Wilson

  • Professor of Japanese LIterature

Nicholas J. G. Winter

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Lisa Woolfork

  • Associate Professor of English