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Tone in Binumarien (Trans-New Guinea): mora-based melodies

  • Renger van Dasselaar
Friday 7 June 2019
Descriptive and Anthropological Linguistics Discussion Group
Matthias de Vrieshof
Matthias de Vrieshof 1
2311 BZ Leiden


Not much has changed since Donohue (1997) observed that tone languages in New Guinea are “poorly known”. With this paper I add data from Binumarien (bjr; Kainantu, Trans-New Guinea languages), based on recent fieldwork. Donohue (1997) proposes a continuum of tonal variation to classify tonal information from languages in New Guinea. On one end of the continuum are complex syllable-tone type languages like Iau (Lake Plains family, Irian Jaya) (Donohue 1997). These languages assign a separate tone to each syllable in a word, like many of the languages of East and Southeast Asia. On the other side are languages with a ‘simple’ pitch-accent system, such as Una (Mek languages, Irian Jaya) (Donohue 1997). Polysyllabic words in Una must have one and only one syllable with high pitch. Donohue states that many languages in New Guinea are ‘intermediate’ on the continuum, displaying features of both extremes, as is the case in Binumarien.

In Binumarien, tonal contour is assigned to the word as a whole, much like pitch-accent languages. However, the tonal contour is further specified on the level of morae. Morae are tone-bearing units (TBUs) in Binumarien and can be either low (L) or high (H). On the word-level, Binumarien has four tonal melodies at the surface: H, HL, LH and LHL. As is clear from the melodies, Binumarien words must have one and only one high tone per melody. In this respect, Binumarien is like pitch-accent languages. Unlike typical pitch-accent languages, however, Binumarien words can have more than one TBU with high tone. For example, trimoraic words could be LLH or LHH within the tonal melody of LH, which provides a meaningful distinction as shown in (1) (examples are personal field notes).

(1) eeqa LLH ‘banana’
eeqa LHH ‘I myself’

The tonal melody is the same in both words on word-level as shown in example (2) below, but on the level of morae the melody is further specified by means of an attachment point. In eeqa ‘I myself’ the high tone is attached to the second mora, whereas in eeqa ‘banana’ the high tone is attached to the third mora (the point of attachment is represented by '). The high tone spreads rightward. The analysis of the attachment point can be accounted for when we compare (3) and (4). Aaku ‘rain’ has no attachment point, so the (obligatory) high tone attaches by default to the last syllable in isolation (3). But when the word hosts the toneless suffix -faqa ‘with’, then the high tone attaches to the suffix (4). Doona ‘mud’ has the same tonal melody in isolation, but its point of high tone attachment is on the last syllable (3). This means the high tone will stay on this syllable, regardless of suffix marking, as shown in (4).

(2) L H
μ μ 'μ eeqa L H
μ 'μ μ eeqa

(3) L H
μ μ μ aaku L H
μ μ 'μ doona

(4) L H
μ μ μ μ μ aaku-faqa L H
μ μ 'μ μ μ doona-faqa
‘banana’ ‘I myself’
‘rain’ ‘mud’
‘rain and mud’

By presenting new data on a previously understudied tone language of Papua New Guinea, this talk will add to our understanding of Binumarien in both a Papuan and a global typology of tone.

Donohue, M. (1997). Tone systems in New Guinea. Linguistic Typology 1, 347-386.

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