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).


Notinthewild said...

Cool! I just saw that statement in your paper a couple weeks ago!
You know, if I could find a lacuna like that in American Literature, my future would be happily sealed. You never have to wonder what needs to be studied and written up!

Lynn said...

Oh, my goodness, you sound like a graduate programs professor!!! I learn a lot from your blog. Thanks so much for the time you put into it, you guys! Praying for you and the work you do!