DescriptionPublished as Coyote Papers: Working Papers in Linguistics from A-Z, Studies on Native American Languages, Japanese and Spanish
AbstractIn motivating a set of distinctive features, at least three criteria must be taken into consideration. The first one is comprehensiveness: the features should provide enough distinctions to cover every opposition found in natural languages. The second one is phonetic reality: each feature should have some articulatory or perceptual basis (though many oppositions will, of course, need to be defined in relative, rather than absolute, terms). The third criterion is phonological function: the features should permit phonological (and perhaps morphological) processes to be stated in a simple and insightful way. Let us consider these three criteria as they apply to tone. Even though comprehensiveness is hardly an issue in segmental phonology, in tonal phonology it is, because there seems to exist a reluctance on the part of some linguists to admit the existence of complex tonal systems, and a tendency to look for abstract analyses that assign surface tone contrasts to some other parameter in underlying structure. For example, both Gruber (1964) and Yip (1980) provided feature specifications that permit only four contrasting tone levels in underlying structure even though a number of different languages with five contrasting levels oftone had been reported in the literature by the time they wrote. At the present time, there are at least nine such languages. Tone systems with four contrasting levels are even more common than those with five levels, and yet some linguists, such as Woo (1969) and Halle and Stevens (1971), provide features that permit only three levels of tone. One purpose of this paper is to document the existence of a tenth language with a five-level tone system, Copala Trique. A second purpose is to claim, on the basis of evidence from Copala Trique and from the published material on the languages cited in footnote one, that any proposed universal feature set for tone that fails to provide a unique specification for each of five levels is inadequate on the basis of the comprehensiveness criterion. At first glance, it may seem that the second criterion, phonetic reality, should present no problems in the area of tone, because tone has a well defined acoustic correlate, fundamental frequency. On closer examination, however, a number of problems arise, although I give them very little attention in this study. I include virtually nothing, for example, about the interaction between fundamental frequency and other phonetic parameters. I turn now to the third criterion, phonological function, and to the relation between the second and third criteria. These two sometimes conflict because different languages may impose differing phonological organization on very similar phonetic material. One important problem that involves both phonetic reality And phonological function is the issue of contour, or gliding, tones. Should they be treated as indivisible units in at least some languages, or should they invariably be decomposed into sequences of level tones? Because of space limitations, I do not discuss this issue in the present paper, but simply assume that gliding tones should always be decomposed. It is therefore necessary for phonological theory to provide features only for level tones. For a detailed defense of this position, the reader is referred to S. Anderson (1978, pp.146 -61) and to Yip (1980, pp.10- 30). A second problem that involves both the second and third criteria concerns binary versus scalar features. From a strictly phonetic point of view, fundamental frequency is a single, potentially multivalued, parameter. This fact can be captured simply and naturally by the use of a single scalar tone feature; such a feature is capable of handling any number of tone levels. At least one linguist, Stahlke (1977), has argued for this position. From a phonological point of view, however, binary features for consonants and vowels have proven so useful in expressing underlying oppositions and in writing rules that it seems desirable to employ them for tone as well. To my knowledge, all linguists except Stahlke who have proposed feature sets for tone have assumed that tone features should be binary, and I consider only binary features in the remainder of this study. It is clear that the choice of binary features to be used for partitioning a single phonetic parameter into three or more values cannot be made solely on a phonetic basis. There are various ways of juggling two features in order to characterize systems with three or four levels of tone, and there are even more ways of juggling three features in order to characterize systems with five levels of tone. In order to choose among these alternatives on a principled basis, it is essential to consider phonological function. Phonological processes differ significantly from language to language. In order to capture different kinds of processes in an equally insightful way, therefore, some latitude must be permitted in the way that features are selected and assigned. Most linguists who have proposed feature sets for complex tone systems, however, provide only a single choice of features, and a single way of assigning those features to different levels of tone. Even though such linguists often state that their feature set permits an insightful statement of phonological processes, their claims are usually based on a very small sample of languages. A third purpose of this paper is to claim that none of the feature sets for tone proposed to date permits enough latitude in either feature choice or feature assignment to capture the range of significant relationships among tone levels found in natural languages. Al l of these proposals are therefore inadequate as universal feature sets. To support this claim, I show precisely how each of them fails to provide an insightful description of Copala Trique tone. A fourth purpose of the paper is to present a set of three features that succeeds in capturing the significant relationships among the five tone levels of Copala Trique. The fifth purpose of this paper is to propose a new set of universal tone features that is flexible enough to accommodate the relationships among levels found in all tone systems described to date. I believe that phonological theory must provide five different underlying features, of which a language may select as many as three. I also propose a number of constraints on feature combinations.