Mawukakan tonal patterns

Mawukakan words can be distinguished by their pitch patterns, and these distinctive pitch patterns are naturally modeled as simple sequences of distinctive high (H) and low (L) tones rather than as arbitrary melodies. Many languages around the world have lexical tone, but his aspect of Mawukakan phonology has a less commoncharacteristic: all words, regardless of their length, exhibit one of exactly four possible tone patterns.

Table 1 below shows a sample of monosyllabic Mawukakan words that differ minimally in tone. In these cases, the way the speaker modulates the pitch of his or her voice makes the difference between words. The CV syllable /so/ said with pitch rising from low to high means  "horse'', while /so/ said with pitch starting high and remaining high means  "village".

Table 1 illustrates the fact that monosyllabic Mawukakan nouns, even if only a single vowel is present, can have four distinctive pitch patterns: low tone, which is written L, rising tone, which is written LH(L), and two kinds of high tone, which we write as H and H(L):

L LH(L) H H(L)
"squash seed"


In isolation, patterns H and H(L) sound exactly alike. Thus /si/  "seed'' and /si/ "fly'' are pronounced identically if said in isolation. The difference comes out only in combination forms. For instance, the Mawuka indicate plurality with an element /lu/ that occurs following the noun phrase to be pluralized. The plural element /lu/ has no distinctive tone of its own--its tone is always predictable from context. When added directly to a noun with the H tone pattern, /lu/ also has a high tone, so that /si/ H "seed'' + /lu/ is /silu/ HH "seeds", with a high tone on both syllables. When added to a noun with the H(L) tone pattern, /lu/ has a low tone, so that /si/ H(L)  "fly'' + /lu/ is /silu/ HL  "flies'' said with a falling tone pattern.

A similar state of affairs applies in the case of rising-tone words such as /so/ LH(L) "horse''. Such words start low and end high; however, following a rising-tone word, a determiner element such as /lu/ will get a low tone.

For the purposes of the present discussion, the main point is that every Mawukakan word has one of the four tone patterns L, LH(L), H, H(L). This is true for the monosyllabic words shown in Table 1 above, and it is equally true for longer words, including borrowed words, as illustrated in Table 2:

L namaa "paralytic" safɛɛniN "donkey"
LH(L) sukuu "kind of dance" falati "provocation"
H namaa "trouble" ɲamakuuN "ginger"
H(L) ɲɔɔmɛɛ "camel" bɔlɔsi


The patterns L, H, and H(L) assign a uniform phonological tone to the whole word, either low or high. The pattern LH(L) requires a transition from low tone to high tone somewhere in the word. If tone were freely contrastive on vowels or syllables in Mawukakn, we might expect to see words differing only in where this rise takes place. Instead, the location of the rise is predictable from the rest of the phonological spelling of the word. The final high tone is associated with the last vowel of the word, and the initial low tone is associated with the first vowel of the word. If the word has only one or two vowels, there is nothing more to say. If there are three or more vowels, then the initial low tone spreads as long as it encounters only vowels or approximant consonant. The first sufficiently strong consonant will form the boundary between the low tone region and the high tone region. For example, the three vowels of /salaba/ LH  "lamp wick'' will have the tone pattern LLH, while the three vowels of /jaNgalo/ LH "sickness'' will have the tone pattern LHH.

Thus the only tonal choice that can be made for a Mawukakan word is to pick one of the four tonal patterns. The four options are the same whether the word has one vowel in it or six vowels. This is a clear example of the way in which phonological features sometimes operate on distinct strands or tiers. In Mawukakan, the phonological spelling of a word on the tonal tier is decoupled from its spelling in terms of consonants and vowels or even syllables. If we had to describe Mawukakan tone in terms of high- and low-pitched varieties of vowel phonemes, we would have to use schematic descriptions of sequences of these classes of vowels to describe the set of possible tonal categories. tonal categories. It is much simpler just to talk about whole words having tone patterns like L or H or LH(L).

Such independence of the tonal tier is commonly found. However, in other tone languages the tonal choices available in constructing a word may be more closely linked to the rest of its phonological spelling. In Yoruba, each vowel may be given one of the three phonologically distinct tone levels low, mid or high; and in Mandarin Chinese, each syllable may have one of four tone patterns that may be described as high, rising, low or falling.

In the case of Mawukakan, there is good evidence that the limitation of words to four basic tonal patterns is part of what every speaker understands implicitly about the language. For instance, the limitation is maintained in a systematic way for compound words, even newly-minted ones. Mawukakan has a productive system for making new words out of old one--nouns, verbs, adjectives and adverbs can all be made this way. One aspect of this derivational system is the combination of two words into a compound word, just as with English compounds such as  phonebookhorsehair, and  oxcart.

When a Mawukakan compound is made in this way, its tone pattern is predictable on the basis of the the tone patterns of its constituent parts. Not only is the output predictable, but the predicted output in each case is also one of the four basic tonal patterns. Table 3 below shows the outcome for each of the sixteen possible inputs:

Word 1 Word 2 Compound 1+2
L H(L) LH(L)
LH(L) H(L) LH(L)
H LH(L) H(L)
H H(L) H(L)
H(L) L H
H(L) LH(L) H(L)
H(L) H H
H(L) H(L) H(L)


Thus /jɛɛ/ H "fish" combines with /kuN/ L "head" to make/jɛɛkuN/ H "fish head"; /kuN/ L "head" combines with /sje/ H(L) "hair" to make /kunzje/ LH(L) "head hair"; /caaN/ L "peanut" combines with /fjɛ/ H "farm'' to make /caamvjɛ/ L  "peanut farm"; /la/ H  "mouth, door" combines with /kuu/ L  "hill, bump" to make /lakuu/ H "chin".

As these examples suggest, such compounds can sometimes be somewhat idiosyncratic in the way that their meaning is related to the meanings of their parts, but they can also be formed in quite a regular way. For instance, /faa/ L "skin, rind" can be combined with the word for any animal, fruit or vegetable to make a compound word to refer to its skin or rind, and all such compounds will follow the tonal relationships laid out in the table given above.

These principles can apply recursively to create compound words of three or more elements, such as /kawacelwa/ H "quarry", made from /kawa/ H "rock", /ce/ L "to break by striking", and /lwa/ H "place". Such examples also stay within the lexical pattern of four possible tone patterns, which is a durable characteristic of the notion "possible word of Mawukakan".

The situation as we have described it seems complex enough. Imagine how difficult it would be to encompass it at all in a purely alphabetic theory, in which tonal categories might be expressed as varieties of vowels, whose co-occurrences at the level of simple and compound words would have to be restricted so as to be consistent with the patterns so far described. By treating tonal phenomena as a separate strand or tier of activity, at least the basic tonal facts of Mawu can be laid out in a straightforward fashion.

But faced with patterns like these, an experienced linguist will be restless and suspicious. What could be the real meaning of these rather odd constraints? Why limit tone patterns to four, and why limit them to this particular, somewhat odd, set of four patterns, two of which have floating tones that are hidden except when a toneless particle follows? Having decided on such a limitation, why maintain it in compound words through the odd pattern of combination rules expressed in the table above?

We might simply shrug and mention the boundless variability of the human imagination. In fact, the description given here has only begun to scratch the surface of the complex tonal phonology of Mawu. But a more careful consideration of a wider variety of facts suggests a simple and rational account, although a slightly more abstract one, according to which Mawu looks very much like many other languages. Such an account has been proposed in Bamba (1991). We can see the essence of his proposal--the presentation here is superficially a bit different--by considering an analogy to the facts of Japanese.

The Tokyo dialect of Japanese is usually described (Haraguchi (1977), Poser (1984), Pierrehumbert and Beckman (1988)) as having lexically distinctive accent. Any syllable in a word may be accented, or none may be. Thus hashi with initial-syllable accent means "chopsticks", hashi with final-syllable accent means "bridge", and hashi with no accent at all means "edge". All words typically begin on a low pitch, rising immediately if the first syllable is long, or just after the first syllable if it is short. An accent is realized as a fall in pitch just after the accented syllable, while an accentless word stays high to the end. Therefore it is said that the final-syllable accent and the accentless case are usually pronounced in the same way; however, when a particle such as the subject marker -ga follows, a final-accented word expresses its latent pitch fall with a low tone on the following particle, while the particle remains high following an accentless word.

In the Osaka dialect of Japanese, an additional degree of tonal differentiation is possible. Whether the word is accented or accentless, it may begin with a low tone or begin with a high tone. Thus in Osaka Japanese, there are four types of words from the point of view of tone and accent:

  1. low beginning, accentless;
  2. low beginning, accented;
  3. high beginning, accentless;
  4. high beginning, accented.


These are essentially the same as the four tonal types of Mawu. The Mawu tone patterns H(L) and LH(L) are like final-accented words in Tokyo Japanese, with the final floating L tone only emerging if a particle is added so as to give it a place to dock. The Mawu tone patterns L and LH(L) are like the low-beginning words of Osaka Japanese, accentless and accented respectively, while the tone patterns H and H(L) are like the corresponding high-beginning words.

The similarity is disguised by a few differences. In Osaka Japanese, an accent can be on any vowel, except that high-beginning words cannot be final-accented, and low-beginning words cannot be initial-accented. In Mawu, on the other hand, an accent if present can only be on the final vowel, regardless of whether the word begins high or low, but high and low beginnings can freely combine with presence or absence of of accent even in monosyllables. Thus Osaka Japanese cannot exhibit the full range of four categories on monosyllabic words, as Mawu does; on the other hand, Mawu cannot exhibit the range of options for accent placement in polysyllabic words that Japanese does.

In Osaka Japanese, because we can place an accent almost anywhere in polysyllabic words, we tend to think of the facts primarily in terms of variable stress or accent, although they clearly have a tonal dimension as well. In Mawu, because the four tonal patterns remain available in words with only one vowel, and because the options for accentuation are only final-syllable accent or absence of accent, without any variation in accent location, we tend to think of the facts primarily in terms of tone, although they have an accentual dimension that comes out more clearly as a wider range of phenomena are examined.

As a further demonstration of the fundamental similarity, consider the treatment of compound nouns in Osaka Japanese. Such compounds remain within the basic scheme of the language: they may begin high or low, and they may be accented or accentless. Whether or not the compound is accented depends on the second member, whereas whether or not the compound has a high beginning or a low beginning depends on the first member.

The basic relationship is given in Table 4. We can ignore whether or not the first word is accented, and likewise whether or not the second word starts low or high, because these questions will have no impact on the starting tone or the accentuation of the compound. Each cell in the table shows the outcome for the whole compound, as a function of whether the first word starts low or high, and whether the second word is accented or accentless:

  Word 2 is accented Word 2 is accentless
Word 1 begins L Result begins L, is accented Result begins L, is accentless
Word 1 begins H Result being H, is accented Result begins H, is accentless

Table 4, presenting the compounding facts for Osaka Japanese, is exactly a schematic form of Table 2, which presented the compounding facts for Mawukakan!

The abstract ingredients in both cases are the same: the formation of compound words in a phonological system whose words can be high or low at their beginning, and may also be either accented or not. In both cases, the basic outcome is the same: compound words remain within the system, exhibiting the same range of tonal/accentual behaviors as simple words do, with the initial-tone specification of the compound taken from its initial word, and the accentuation of the compound determined by the final word. In both languages, both simple and compound words remain limited to the four basic patterns, because the elements of the patterns are defined phonologically at the level of the word, and not at the level of the individual vowel or even syllable.

It is clear that a single theory of tone and accent should be able to encompass both the Mawukakan and the Japanese systems, since the facts, in a slightly abstracted form, are essentially the same in both cases. A careful consideration of the distributional peculiarities in each language leads us to an analysis that makes otherwise odd and complex phenomena seem sensible and simple. Curiously, the analysis is nearly the same for (this aspect of) two languages spoken at opposite ends of the world, by peoples who have surely been separated for a long time. This similarity cannot be due to cultural influence or to inheritance of a shared feature from a common parent language. Instead, it can only mean that both peoples happen to have picked up the same pieces from the phonological tool kit that is the common property of humanity.