1. University of Virginia
  2. Arts & Sciences

Ellen Contini-Morava


 Ph.D. Columbia University 1983

Brooks Hall, 204


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.


Meanings and discourse functions of grammatical forms; pragmatics; linguistic theory and method; African linguistics (especially Bantu); noun classification.

Department Faculty

Ira Bashkow
Associate Professor
Frederick H. Damon
Eve Danziger
Professor; Affiliated Faculty: Linguistics Program; Cognitive Science Program
Lise Dobrin
Associate Professor & Director of the Interdisciplinary Program in Linguistics
Carrie Douglass
Professor & Director of Undergraduate Studies
Gertrude Fraser
Associate Professor
Richard Handler
Professor & Director of Global Development Studies Program
Jeffrey L. Hantman
Associate Professor
James Igoe
Associate Professor
Ravindra Khare
Professor & Director of the Center on Critical Human Survival Issues
Adria LaViolette
Associate Professor
Daniel Lefkowitz
Associate Professor & Director of Graduate Studies
Susan McKinnon
Professor & Chair
George Mentore
Associate Professor
Rachel Most
Associate Dean for Undergraduate Academic Programs & Professor
Fraser D. Neiman
Stephen Plog
David A. Harrison Professor of Archaeology
China Scherz
Assistant Professor
John Shepherd
Associate Professor
Margaret Smith
Director & Curator, The Kluge-Ruhe Aboriginal Art Collection
Edith Turner
Roy Wagner
Patricia Wattenmaker
Associate Professor
Kath Weston