Talk by McDonough on May 27

Departmental Colloquium

Documentation of tone in the Mackenzie Basin Dene languages

Joyce McDonough
University of Rochester

Cobb 201

As part of a study of the phonetics of the Dene languages, this talk examines the realization of tone in several Athabaskan, or Dene (as speakers prefer) languages in the Mackenzie Basin area of Canada, an important group of language communities and dialects for which little instrumental phonetic documentation has been available. The Dene languages are polysynthetic; words are multisyllabic, and these languages are considered to be among the most morphologically complex known to us. Many of these languages have contrastive tone. Despite their enormous spread, the languages are phonetically and morphologically conservative, resisting ‘exotic influence’ (Sapir 1945), they share a surprisingly consistent phonemic inventory, phonetic realization patterns and morphological structure, thus providing a ground of stability in which to examine tonal variation.

There are several reasons why tone in this group is interesting. First, these inventories are heavily obstruent, the stop series include ejectives and glottal stops, the sonorant consonants are limited. Thus pitch contours are broken up by often robust (in duration and intensity) stops and fricatives; tonal contours are systematically disturbed in ways that they are not in other tone language groups. Second, tone is paradigmatic rather than lexical, broadly marking inflectional, morphological and lexical categories. Third, tonogenesis arguably resulted from the incorporation of glottal suffixes into the word-final stem, but produced both H and L marked tone language communities (Sapir, 1925; Li, 1930, 1933; Leer, 1979, 1999; de Ruse, 2005; Krauss, 2005; Kingston 2005). Thus the documentation of this type tone reversal within a closely related group with near identical tonongenesis patterns is important to theories of tone and language change. Fourth, despite the diachronic consistency in their grammars and lexicons, a great deal of prosodic variation has been observed across the group. Typologies include metrical stress, pitch accent and non-tone systems. This has not been instrumentally documented, which is essential to the understanding and description of prosodic variation and discourse related intonation patterns across these language communities and theoretical constructions based on this data.

In this talk, we examine tone from 4 communities in the Mackenzie Basin group, with examples of both H and L tone-marked languages (tone reversal), in an instrumental analysis of fieldwork data, in a preliminary analysis of the tone data. The broad goal is to provide a documentation of the pitch typology and variation in this area and its relationship to the theories of Athabaskan tonogenesis, with an instrumental analysis of pitch patterns including pitch range, tone bearing units, peak/valley alignment, tone distribution, and patterns in tone realization between the morphological categories (pre-stem (inflectional) versus stem (content) domains (McDonough 1999, 2003; Gessner, 2005; Kingston, 2005.))

This talk will also outline the issues related to the collection and analysis of fieldwork data from small speech communities and/or endangered language communities, and the generalizations that can be drawn from this type data.

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