Sunday, November 28, 2010

Watch your tone (Part 3)

Two reasons compelled me to take six whole weeks to investigate Ik tone (and it wasn’t long enough!). First, for science and posterity, I wanted to give the language the descriptive attention it deserves. That includes the long delayed description of tone. Second, for language development, I needed to understand the tone system to know if or how to write tone in the writing system.

Although quite a bit of linguistic work on Ik had already been done before we arrived on the scene, the tone system itself had been largely neglected. In 2009 we created a ‘trial alphabet’ despite the fact that we hadn’t gotten to the bottom of the tone question. Uneasy about that, I jumped at the opportunity to attend a workshop led by an expert in African tone systems, Keith Snider. At this point after the workshop, I have a pile of data, much of which is still not analyzed. Hopefully in the next few months I’ll be able to take a close look at the data and write up the results. Then, the following statement I wrote in a paper almost two years ago will no longer be true!

Ik is a tonal language, but because the tone system has yet to be adequately analyzed, it will not be dealt with here.

With my current level of understanding, I don’t think we’ll need to indicate tones in the writing system, at least not extensively. Ik nouns and verbs can take a few suffixes and can get quite long, thus providing enough information to let the reader know what the word is (and knowing the word, the reader will know the tone as well). Also, though tones are involved in the grammar, no grammatical meanings rely solely on tone changes. Instead, the rely on tone plus word order, or tone plus an affix. So the word order or affix may be enough to signal the reader as to which tone is called for. All this needs to be tested with real live readers!

An ongoing project over the next how many years will be the Ik dictionary. In the dictionary, I’d like to indicate the tones of each word to help non-native speakers know how to pronounce the words. Otherwise we’d be lost!

At any point we decide to write tone, I expect we’ll mark High tone with an accent aigu (á) and leave Low tone unmarked (a).

Saturday, November 27, 2010

Watch your tone (Part 2)

So, what did we find out about the Ik tone system? First, we discovered that Ik has four basic tone 'melodies': High (H), Low (L), High-Low (HL), and Low-High (LH). Whether an Ik word has one, two, or three syllables (or more), these same four melodies are used. They just look a bit different depending on how many syllables a word has. Here's what they look like on nouns with two syllables:

H ƙálítsʼ ‘jaw’
L tsòrìt ‘vein’
HL kúràk ‘crow’
LH dèréƙ ‘wasp’

Second, we discovered that Ik has what linguists call depressor consonants. Depressor consonants are sounds that affect the tones around them. In Ik, the consonants /b/, /d/, /g/, and sometimes /h/ have this effect. For example, in the following data, the possessive pronoun ntsí ‘his/her’ usually gives the noun following it a High tone, as in:

ntsí ‘his/her’ + kòp ‘vulture’ = ntsí kóp ‘his vulture’

In other words, while kòp has a Low tone melody assigned to it, in this grammatical construction it comes out with a High tone: kóp. But now compare with the following example:

ntsí ‘his/her’ + dì ‘sitting place’ = ntsí dì ‘his sitting place’

Both kòp and have the same underlying Low tone melody, but the /d/ in is blocking the High tone that we would normally expect to appear.

This ‘his/her_____’ construction brings up a third thing we can say about the tone system: it has replacive grammatical tone. This means that certain grammatical constructions simply replace the underlying tones of some of the words involved.

Fourth, Ik has automatic downstep. Conditions for automatic downstep are fulfilled when two things happen in a language:

1) A Low tone following a High tone drops to a lower ‘register’ (if you’re a musician you can think of it being the same key but an octave lower)
2) Any High tones after the lowered Low tone will also be lowered (so that a ‘downstepped’ High is lower than any Highs before it)

This should be clearer once illustrated. Consider the following example:

béɗá róƙóà dé ‘he wants that tamarind‘ ⟶ béɗá róƙóȁ dē

On the left, you see the underlying tones of the words in this example. On the right, you see how the tones actually get pronounced. The symbol over the /ȁ/ means ‘extra low’, and the symbol over the /e/ in /dē/ means ‘mid’. Here ‘extra low’ is a downstepped Low, while ‘mid’ is a downstepped High.

A lot more about Ik tone is left to be figured out, but we’re off to a good start! Stay tuned for Part 3 where I talk about how to mark tone in the Ik writing system.

Tuesday, November 23, 2010

Watch your tone (Part 1)

It’s time to break my ‘blog silence’ after our six-week stay in Nairobi, Kenya. We had gone there mainly to participate in a linguistic workshop on ‘tone’. Tone is one of the aspects of the world’s languages that many people (namely speakers of non-tonal languages like English) find mysterious. People often think tone is exotic, and students of language often say they are ‘tone deaf’. Both perceptions are myths. In fact, as many as 60-70% of the languages in the world are tonal. That means that non-tonal languages like American English are more exotic, if by ‘exotic’ we mean unusual. Moreover, if we were ‘deaf’ to ‘tone’ we wouldn’t be able to speak or understand English very well! Take the following example:

“You are going.”

“Who is going?”
“Me.” (or “Me!”)

In spoken language, the difference in the meaning of the two ‘me’s is made solely on the basis of tone, whereas in written language we indicate the meaning difference with our punctuation. Though this example shows that we aren’t deaf to tone, it doesn’t mean that English is a ‘tonal language’. Instead, linguists call languages like English ‘intonational’ languages. In the first instance of ‘me’ above, the word receives a rising interrogative pitch; in the second, it receives a low (or high) declarative pitch. The crucial point is that in both cases the word ‘me’ still means ‘me’. Though in this example, the intonation patterns of English apply to only one word (‘me’), they can also apply to longer strings of words.

The difference between an intonational language like English and tonal language like Ik is that English marks the nature or purpose of a whole sentence or phrase with pitch contrasts (like questions, statements, surprise, etc.), while Ik marks the meanings of individual words with contrast in voice pitch. For example, in Ik we find pairs like the following:

sé ‘white stone’
sè ‘blood’

búdes ‘hide oneself’
budés ‘hide something’

Because the consonants and vowels are basically the same for each member of these pairs, the only way an Ik speaker can know what is meant is to listen to the tone contrast. So, unlike English, where consonants and vowels make up the sounds necessary for meaningful contrasts between individual words (e.g. between me and be), Ik uses consonants, vowels, and pitch (tone) to make meaningful contrasts. It’s as simple (and complicated) as that! We need to study the tone system of Ik because otherwise we’re only familiarizing ourselves with 66% of the sound system!