John T. M. Merrill

Graduate student, UC Berkeley Linguistics



I am a graduate student in the UC Berkeley Department of Linguistics. I am currently writing my dissertation, titled "The Historical Origin of Consonant Mutation in the Atlantic Languages" (advised by Larry Hyman).


My principal interest is in historical and comparative linguistics, focusing on linguistic reconstruction within the Niger-Congo language family, as well as phonology and morphology from a historical perspective. Within Niger-Congo, I have worked mainly on the reconstruction and internal classification of Northern Atlantic languages, and also on the Bantu language family.

In my own fieldwork, I have worked with speakers of Sereer, Noon, Wolof, and Kobiana. I have also worked on Fula as well as the Tenda, Bainunk, and Cangin language families, focusing on lexical and morpho-phonological reconstruction. I am especially interested in the historical evolution of the noun class and consonant mutation systems which are prevalent in the area. One of my ongoing goals is to reassess the current hypotheses of the internal classification of these languages, disentangling linguistic features spread by areal contact from those passed down through genetic inheritance.

Within Bantu, I have worked first-hand on Herero (Namibia: R30) and Lulamogi (Uganda: JE16), dealing also with the history of the R-Zone languages as a whole. My undergraduate thesis at Dartmouth College explored the behavior of valence-changing extensions in Herero. More recently, I have been working on the history of the Proto-Bantu "super-high" vowels, and the related phenomenon of Bantu Spirantization.

My other linguistic interests include the Iberian Romance languages, and the role of diachrony in synchronic phonological and morphological analysis.


A Historical Account of the Fula and Sereer Consonant Mutation and Noun Class Systems

PhD Qualifying paper, updated October 2014 | pdf

A Typological Overview of Consonant Mutation

Dissertation Prospectus, November 2014 | pdf

Morphology, Irregularity and Bantu Frication (with Larry Hyman)

"Actualités des Néogrammariens", Memoires of the Société de Linguistique de Paris. Paris: Peeters, pp. 139-157.


The glottal stop in Sereer: a new type of marginal contrast

CLS 50, April 10, 2014 | handout

Nasalization as a Repair for Voiced Obstruent Codas in Noon

LSA Annual Meeting, Portland, January 8-11, 2015 | slides

Proto-Cangin Phonological Reconstruction

UC Berkeley Historical Linguistics *dhworum, March 20, 2015 | handout

Bantu Spirantization is a Reflex of Vowel Spirantization (with Matthew Faytak)

ACAL 46, Eugene, March 27, 2015 | slides

Contraction in Lalane Noon Verbal Paradigms (with Nico Baier)

Colloque Sénélangues, Dakar, April 25, 2015 | handout

The Use of Gedney Surveys in African Historical Linguistics

Wocal 8, Kyoto, 2015 | slides

Consonant Mutation and Initial Prominence: The Historical Loss of Lexical Contrastiveness

LSA Annual Meeting, Washington D.C., 2016 | slides

Changing Motivations for Consonant Mutation in Atlantic

LMU-UCB Workshop on loss of functional motivation | slides

Language Resources


The Sereer project began as a year-long field methods class in the 2012-13 academic year with our consultant El-Hadji Malick Loum, after which I continued working on the language with Nico Baier in Berkeley, and then in Ndorong, Senegal in the Summer of 2015. The dictionary is the work of myself and Malick Loum, and much of the data in the FLEx file was elicited by members of the field methods class: Nico Baier, Kayla Carpenter, Oana David, Erin Donnelly, Matthew Faytak, Jevon Heath, Kelsey Neely, Melanie Redeye, and Vivian Wauters.

Dictionary | FLEx

An analysis of the earliest Sereer wordlist from c. 1670 | Summary | Spreadsheet

Attested Sereer Saalum verb root shapes (see Wocal presentation) | Spreadsheet


The following materials on Noon were gathered by myself and Nico Baier in the 2013-14 academic year from our consultant Christine Diop Homan. This research was made possible by a grant from the Robert L. Oswalt Graduate Student Support Endowment for Endangered Language Documentation. The dictionary is in a preliminary state.

Dictionary | FLEx

Description of the Noon ATR system | pdf


The Kobiana wordlist is the result of fieldwork in Senegal and Guinea Bissau in the Summer of 2016 (primary consultant Joelle Gomis). This research was made possible by a grant from the Robert L. Oswalt Graduate Student Support Endowment for Endangered Language Documentation.