Tag Archives: Linguistics


As we mentioned before we left, one of the main goals of our March trip to Cameroon was attending the second National Symposium on Cameroonian Languages (NASCAL2). It was good that we could schedule the trip to coincide with this conference, as this is part of a significant goal for my work: interacting in national linguistics conferences. Because this conference was held some six hours by road north of Yaoundé, it took some work getting there, which I’ve chronicled here.

This is the view out my hotel balcony:

and one with me in it:

Arriving on time, we had lots of time to stand around waiting for things to begin:

This is what the plenary room looked like for the first couple hours:

This gave me a number of opportunities to meet people, such as Joseph, a professor in the German department in Yaoundé:


Nelson (A PhD student):

and Elijah:

But eventually everyone got there, and the first plenary sessions got going:

I was somewhat surprised to see the style of journalism that I had assumed was unique to DRC, recording the presentations:

and the audience:

Unfortunately, the delay starting wasn’t particularly well accounted for in the schedule, and was complicated by power being cut just as the sun was going down, making light even more necessary:

Since most presenters depended on a projector, the room I was in quit for the day, in consultation with the organizers. But this decision wasn’t coordinated across the conference; at least one other room was still going a couple hours later:

So we got dinner and headed back to the hotel, to prepare for the next day:

The next morning, we were back in the same room, but with power on (and an adjusted schedule):

I got to hear presentations from other missionary colleagues, like Sarah:

And Cam:

As well as from Cameroonians like Adriel (another doctoral student at Yaoundé)

I even got to make my own presentation (on how to evaluate the importance of tone in a given language, which sparked a decent conversation):

There was also more time for side conversations with Joseph Bushman:

and Ayunwe, a professor at the University of Buea (which hosted WOCAL7):

And I got to help out with a group photo for people working with CABTAL (Cameroon Association for Bible Translation and Literacy, a member of the Wycliffe Global Alliance), plus a friend or two:

And I got to speak briefly the with Mathaus, the head of linguistics for CABTAL:

and with Adriel Bebine, who is working on his doctorate at the University of Youndé I (we also got to sit together over the closing meal, so we got to chat some more):

There were lots of corridor conferences with the organizers:

and there were a couple local performers, though I only got a pic of this one:

In the end, we had the obligatory ceremony, wherein I got a certificate confirming my participation (:-)):

After the closing ceremony, and the closing meal (which I guess I didn’t get pictures of!), we headed off to see the local attraction “Museum of Civilizations”:

though on the way I ran into Jeff, a student at the University of Dschang, who gave a loose-fitting shout-out to the Pacific Northwest:

Here is the museum, across the lake in blue:

and my selfie with the lake:

The lake itself is a fairly major feature of the area:

I have lots of pics of the museum itself, but I won’t spoil the surprise, in case you might go there yourself some day (:-)). They were very proud of it, and kept it open late to allow us to see it.

So over all, the conference went well. The organization did not allow as much time for informal interaction as I’m used to having (between presentations, over meals, etc), but I did get to make a number of introductions, which was much of what I was hoping for. On the way home, I texted with one contact I’d made about the possibility of helping with some teaching on tone, which would be a strategic way for me to use my training. So we got some relationships started, with those currently in and out of Bible translation work, and with people in universities and in other institutions. As we make our move to Cameroon this June/July (Lord willing!), we’ll be able to further cultivate these relationships, and see how we can best help the church and Bible translation movement in Cameroon!


Why I attend national conferences

One of the purposes of going to Cameroon this march is to attend the second “National Symposium on Cameroonian Languages”, at the University of Dschang, in Dschang, Cameroon. I assume it may not be obvious to you why this is a good thing, so I’ll lay out some of my thoughts on linguistics conferences here.

First of all, recall that I am a missionary linguist. That is, I am a missionary and a linguist, something like a missionary pilot is a missionary and a pilot, or like a missionary doctor is a missionary and a doctor. And I challenge people to see that I am not less of a missionary because I am a linguist, and I am not less a linguist because I am a missionary. One might even argue that these two vocations encourage and better each other —that I am a better linguist because I am a missionary, and that I am a better missionary (at least in some ways) because I am a linguist. I love that I get to analyze languages, serve minority (and therefore disadvantaged) peoples, and glorify God, all in one job. The work I do today helps people to read better, which helps their lives today. But it also gives them more powerful access to the scriptures, which provides “value in every way, as it holds promise for the present life and also for the life to come.” (1Tim 4:8b ESV)

So how does my work as a missionary linguist apply at linguistic conferences? I have been tempted in the past to look at conferences as a massive information dump, and I think some people do look at them that way. But one obvious (yet astounding) observation I’ve made about conferences is that they are full of people. And they’re run by people. People presenting, people listening, people asking and answering questions. So whatever else is true of linguistics conferences (local, national, or international), they are an occasion for lots of people with similar interests to get together.

Which doesn’t mean that I man a booth at the side of the food court reading “come to know Jesus through linguistics”. Rather, I get to practice what Jesus teaches me about getting along with people, among perhaps the most secular crowd of people I ever interact with. There are people who are ornry and disagreeable. There are people that don’t know yet how little they know about something. There are people who know more than I ever will about something, and who have no interest in relating to mere mortals as myself —though most people I meet at these conferences could be described as “people”, without stretching the imagination much. :-)

I was at a conference a few years ago, where I had a particular opportunity to show compassion to another person there. It was an international conference, but hosted at a particular university in an African country, so lots of people from that area were able to come. This means that there were people who came from other African countries (like me), people who came from America or Europe, and people who came to the conference without using a passport, all at the same event. At one talk, the speaker used some words in a way that was initially at least confusing, if not just plain wrong (about a fairly basic concept that most people at the conference would be expected to know). I was not alone in this opinion; others asked questions afterward, trying to get the guy to clarify what he meant. They went around a couple times, but eventually they gave up on him, with a response that might be translated “he’s nuts.” Time for questions was up, and we were on to the next speaker, and people cut their losses.

But other missionary linguists and I caught up with him later, and asked him to explain himself more privately. It turned out that he was using a particular theory of a particular linguist that had been published, but that almost no one had heard of. And apparently he was using those words correctly within that theory, but that wasn’t enough to help us understand him without this much longer conversation. In the end, we were able to explain to him that the theory he was using wasn’t known or used many others, so he should either use more standard terminology, or else explain very clearly that he was using these words differently.

But the more important message, to me, was that we cared enough about him as a person (and as a linguist) to follow up with him, and help him get his thinking straight. It cost more time and energy than writing him off when his presentation didn’t make sense (even after questions), but it was worth better understanding him, and helping him be better understood. This idea is part of a core goal of my work: mentorship. That is, I want to have alphabets and writing systems done, so people can read (see above!), but if I can do that, and at the same time train up others to do this work, then I multiply myself, and the work gets on better and faster.

So while an introvert like me is certainly tempted to take every 15 minute brake I get for myself, those breaks are often taken up by processing things with people I know, and getting to know others that I don’t. And often all that rubbing shoulders yields unexpected results.

At the last conference I went to (in the US), there was a team of linguists from Ghana (IIRC), who were trying to analyze a tonal language (what I do), but without any particular training or orientation. I was able to point out Tone Analysis for Field Linguists, by Keith L Snider (full disclosure: he was on my committee),  probably the most helpful and practical approach to doing tone analysis. And I was able to sit and do some actual acoustic analysis with them. That is, they got out their computers, and showed how they were looking at the speech stream in their recordings (as I described for consonants here). Because all those lines and differently shaded areas require interpretation, and because good interpretation requires experience, I was able to give them some pointers to help them see their data in a more helpful way. It took maybe an hour altogether, but it was time well spent to help someone get along better in this work, and to show friendship and solidarity as well, and that in Jesus’ name.

Anyway, because of the prejudice against Christian missionaries common in most linguistic circles I’ve been in, any time I can show people compassion, care, and honest friendship is a win, even if just a PR win (people know who I work for; it’s on my name tag). But it isn’t just people thinking better of Christian missionaries, or of the church generally. I also get to mix friendliness and compassion with excellent academics (well, I try anyway :-)). So every chance I have to help someone think more clearly, or present his ideas more clearly, or understand someone else’s ideas more clearly, is a chance for people at the conference to see that Christians worship the Truth (John 14:6).  Not that everyone receives this, of course: “But let none of you suffer as a murderer or a thief or an evildoer or as a meddler. Yet if anyone suffers as a Christian, let him not be ashamed, but let him glorify God in that name.” (1Peter 4:15-16 ESV)

So regarding this upcoming conference, there are two kids of relationship to build. One is with my expatriate colleagues, other missionary linguists like myself. I know some of them a bit, but most not at all. So it will be good to interact with them through the conference, to enable better collaboration down the road. The other kind of relationship to build is with national linguists, whether they are involved in Bible translation movement or not. I anticipate my work in Cameroon including relationship with government and university entities; this work can only be helped by knowing and being known by Cameroonian linguists. And for those that are still in training, there is a great opportunity to come alongside them, and encourage them in ways that will facilitate more mentorship down the road.

Anyway, I look forward to this opportunity to glorify God by seeking truth and loving people in a way that I am particularly enabled to do, and in a way that will amplify our effectiveness in facilitating local Bible Translation movements throughout the central African basin.

Assignment Details

Francophone countries in blue; LST works in darker  blue countries
The LST domain is the central African Basin (darker) subset of the francophone African countries (blue). Yaoundé (captial of Cameroon) is starred.

We recently accepted an invitation to work in the Cameroon, on the Linguistics Service Team (LST). We’ve already begun sharing some of this informally, but I’ll describe the LST here, rather than leave anyone out. The basic facts are that my work won’t change, though the location and level of that work will.

The LST has been described as “a fairly loose association of linguists who work together on specific activities and come together to encourage each other”. I find this rather loose description encouraging, first because I have not worked in a team of linguists before (recall that I’m a missionary linguist). Everyone in Wycliffe has some knowledge of linguistics, but so far my interaction with other professional linguists has been limited to conferences, which I have attended maybe once a year. So I look forward to having other linguists look over my work, and to being able to help other linguists improve their work.

What will stay the same

The basic paradigm for my work will stay the same. As indicated in past newsletters, and in the Africa Night post, a lot of what I have done (and will continue to do) involves helping people get involved in the analysis of their own language. We use what we call Participatory Research Methodology, often sitting around a table sorting cards as a group. The purpose of this work remains twofold: to understand the sound system of a given language in order to develop a writing system for it, and to train a group of people who can take that writing system and do something with it.

What will change

While the basic paradigm of my work will remain the same, the geographic and academic scope will involve some changes. As the director described the Linguistics Service Team (LST) to me recently:

The vision of the team is to provide linguistics services that will help meet the needs of language communities, and translation projects, both SIL and with partner organisations, both in Cameroon and in the Central African Basin zone. A secondary vision is to help in the development of linguists, both expat and nationals at various levels and to provide a place where each linguist can belong and pursue their interests while working in a team.

I like this quote because it deals with a change in scope, in two dimensions.

Geographically, we’ll be working in Cameroon, but also in surrounding countries which have French as a national or official language (i.e., Francophone Africa). We plan to live in Yaoundé, the capital of Cameroon, but we will help linguists and translation projects in other countries, such as Chad, (RO)Congo, Central African Republic, and maybe some day western DRCongo.

Administratively, I will also be working more actively to develop, train, and mentor other linguists, in order to multiply the people ready and able to do this work. This will involve bringing along assistants to workshops and identifying and mentoring leaders in each community, but also teaching at a university and seminary level. The goal, again, is to work more effectively to get more of the work done faster, without sacrificing quality.

Fluent Reading Makes Powerful Bibles

As we have thought through our messaging lately, one thing we saw friends do was develop a personal ministry hashtag. This is not just to try to be trendy (though hashtags are integral to communication these days), but to communicate a particular repetitive theme in a terse manner.

I think this was a good exercise, because it forced us to think about how we would summarize our Wycliffe Ministry in a few words, even if it was in the format #MyHashtagIsLongerThanYourHashtag…

So we came up with #FluentReadingMakesPowerfulBibles, and I’d like to take this post to explain why. First of all, as a full sentence, I hope that it doesn’t require much explanation. 🙂

But to explain our thinking in any case, #FluentReadingMakesPowerfulBibles makes a connection that I often find myself communicating face to face. That is, what do I do as a missionary linguist, and how does that connect to the larger Bible translation movement?

Thinking about #PowerfulBibles, something that has plagued some Bible translation projects is the question of whether the Bible will be used once produced. I think we all agree that a Bible on a shelf is not the point; we want Bibles in use, powerfully sustaining, encouraging and growing the church for the people who speak the language of that translation.

There are certainly many reasons why a Bible translation might get less usage, but the one that impacts my work the most directly deals with the fluency with which people can read the translation (#FluentReading). If people stumble over words they’re not sure how to pronounce (e.g., because a given spelling could be pronounced multiple ways), or if they have to read a sentence to understand it before they can pronounce all the words (therefore reading parts multiple times to pronounce the words correctly), then we should not expect reading or listening to be very enjoyable.

Such a lack of ability to clearly and fluently communicate meaning translates almost directly into a lack of power. If your mom calls you to the table, but stumbles over the words, would that mean the same to you? Or again, if your father corrects you, but stumbles over his words, would that mean the same? When we hear God say

Come, everyone who thirsts,
come to the waters;
and he who has no money,
come, buy and eat!
Come, buy wine and milk
without money and without price.
(Isaiah 55:1 ESV)

This should sound as a mother calling children to the table, with power to provide, and pleasure on the other side for all who respond. And when we hear God say

let the wicked forsake his way,
and the unrighteous man his thoughts;
let him return to the Lord, that he may have compassion on him,
and to our God, for he will abundantly pardon.
(Isaiah 55:7 ESV)

That should sound like a father disciplining a son, with power and fear for the rebellious, and compassion and pardon for the repentant.

We are, of course, not denying the power of the Holy Spirit to communicate in spite of a bad writing system. But He typically chooses to communicate through the written word, that written word is contained in one writing system or another. And that written word is turned into the spoken word by people more or less able to do so well.

The goal of my work developing writing systems is to remove as many barriers as possible to fluent reading, that the path of communication between God’s word and peoples’ hearts would be as clear and direct as possible. And this is why I’m going to keep talking about how #FluentReadingMakesPowerfulBibles.

Epiphany 2017

the LORD opens the eyes of the blind.
The LORD lifts up those who are bowed down;
the LORD loves the righteous. (Ps 146:8 ESV)

I took two days off altogether from writing, for Sunday worship and rest, then Christmas day, and yesterday I got back to putting edits into my manuscript. While doing this somewhat mundane work, God opened my eyes to see something in my analysis that I’ve been looking for for over a year.

Last week, when meeting with a mentor in Canada, he encouraged me to rethink something I’d decided to leave out of my dissertation, since I simply couldn’t get it to work. And also, I had plenty of other things to write about, including a fairly important theoretical issue in the development of new tones.

But yesterday I took another crack at it, made an assumption that I hadn’t liked (and still don’t really like, honestly), and the rest of the pieces just started falling into place.

So in the middle of the afternoon on Boxing Day, God opened my eyes. I thank God that he still does that. And thank you for your prayers for us, and especially for my ability to do my work. We really can’t do this without your support, and we’re grateful that you’ve joined us in this work.

Merry Christmas!

Presenting New Research


Yes, I was somewhat blinded by the projector, but on October 20 I got to present some new directions my research has been taking at the Metroplex Linguistics Conference, hosted this year by UTA.

In summary, the comparisons I was hoping to make to analyze what’s going on in languages today have not been as fruitful as I had hoped, while they are saying a lot about what has happened to these languages over time.  Which will likely make this work significantly more interesting to most linguists, though less immediately valuable for writing system development. I still hope to maintain value for the people who speak these languages, though it is not as immediately available as I had thought it would be.

Reformed Doormat

Joel and I had the pleasure of staying in a house with this doormat greeting us as we first walked in the doorː
My immediate thought was that it was a relief to be staying with people who were so OK with their frailty that they would greet people with such an openly selfish doormat. Just come out and say it: “I’m a rebel; I only really care about myself.” It seems like we spend so much time putting on a good face, it’s very refreshing to have someone admit selfishness (which we ultimately know is really in each of us) up front. Not only is this refreshing to the rest of us (who see another’s good face as intimidating, because we know what we’re really like inside), but it is prerequisite to receiving Good News. If we insist we are OK, then forgiveness of sins doesn’t really do much for us. But

If we confess our sins, he is faithful and just to forgive us our sins and to cleanse us from all unrighteousness. (1 John 1:9 ESV)

And that is good news, that the rebellion I feel inside can be confessed and forgiven in Jesus’ name!

Unfortunately, moving the door and doormat a bit more makes the above homily into a lesson on linguistic context. Show a bit more context, and the message changes a lot:

Theoretical Musings

Throughout most of my career as a linguist, I have enjoyed doing descriptive work. Practically, that means I describe what is found in languages, rather than prescribing what should be in a given language (as a teacher might). But descriptive work can also find itself set against more theoretical work. That is, figuring out what makes up language more generally, as opposed to how things work out in a particular language. So far, I have been content to figure out what’s going on in a particular language, since that’s my concern: I want to see particular people groups able to read and write. While studying for my M.A., a teacher once described theories as tools in a toolbox. One may be useful for solving one problem, and another may be useful for solving another, so we use the tool that is useful, then set it down when we finish that problem.

Needless to say that for some linguists, this is a horrifying idea. For some, the whole purpose of doing linguistics is to understand the principles of language generally, not the details of a given language. The desire is to understand the language functions of the human mind, not how a particular subset of humans uses it. But there is another reason the concept of theory I picked up at Oregon horrifies some: for many, a linguistic theory is not just helpful (or not) in a particular instance, it is supposed to be True (note the capital ‘T’; this is not the ‘my truth’ v ‘your truth’ kind of truth). So if a theory is supposed to reflect what’s actually going on in the mind, then it shouldn’t be dropped in favor of another theory to deal with the next problem.

During my last several years at UT Arlington, I’ve had plenty of chances to interact across this divide; few people here are interested in descriptive linguistics. And I often get the question, after presenting a good (IMHO) description, “so what does this mean (i.e., about language in general)?” And “it means that this is how these people use language” is not a sufficient answer.

I’ve grown more competent in developing more theoretically interesting conclusions (i.e., interesting to those interested in theory development, not only theoretically interesting…:-)), but I have remained mostly uninterested in developing theory, nonetheless. So I continue to do my descriptive work, showing what’s in a particular (set of) language(s), and I throw in more theoretically interesting conclusions for those more interested in theory.

Until recently, when I got hit by something I hadn’t expected. What would happen if you were working on a complex job, and you realized you needed two different tools to make it work? What if those tools were not designed to work together? What if you could only figure out a couple ways of making them work together at all, and any one of those ways limited the operation of each of the two tools? This is something like what I’ve run up against.

For over a decade, I’ve been using a theory of what makes up tone that has been described in The Geometry and Features of Tone, by Keith Snider. It builds on earlier work in Feature Geometry (how the bits that change one meaningful sound into another interrelate) and Autosegmental theory (how things like consonants and vowels interact with things like tone and stress). Perhaps the most important contribution of GFT is that tone is made up of two features that distinguish sound, and each has its own contribution to how a word with tone is pronounced.

More recently, as I’ve interacted more with languages with Consonant-Tone Interaction (see this blog entry for more on these consonants), I’ve been using a theory ([L/voice], from Bradshaw 2000) that says that low tone is intrinsically bound to voicing (when your voice box vibrates, more or less). This theory has proved helpful as well, though perhaps in a smaller selection of languages. But in any case, those are the languages I’m working on now, so this tool is in my hand, as it were.

But as I was writing up some of my work based on these two theories, I realize that GTF says that low tone is really two features (low tone and lower register), while the [L/voice] theory says that low tone is intrinsically linked to your voice box. But neither theory explicitly addresses the other, despite the fact that I need to use them both at the same time. I originally thought that I would sit down one afternoon and sketch out a number of different ways to possibly make them work together, but I could only come up with two. The longer I beat my head against this problem, the more I found arguments against any other way of making the two theories fit together. That is, voicing must be bound to either low tone, or lower register. Period.

I had been assuming that I would be able to make both tone and register features bound to voicing, but that simply can’t work, at least not without making radical adjustments to either or both theory.

Anyway, I’ve been presenting this information to my committee, and for the first time in my career as a linguist, I’m seeing not only very practical implications of our theoretical assumptions, but I’m seeing things that need to be figured out on a theoretical level, and I might be the person best placed to do it. Which is to say that I entered this Ph.D. program to help develop a number of languages in eastern DRC in a more strategic way, but I may well end up with something of broader implications (with whatever theoretical claims I make informed by, and informing, the description).  But maybe that’s why they call this degree Doctor of Philosophy, and not Doctor of a couple things I wanted to write about.

Anyway, as I make this turn, I’m looking forward to see how these musings can benefit a larger set of people groups, which remains the point of what I’m doing at all. I remain committed to linguistic description, and trust that the languages I describe in my dissertation will have good tone work represented there, at least, and that the people who speak those languages will be better able to read and write as a result of it. And as a result of that, that they would have better access to information about this life, and the next.




For those of you that have followed my analysis of sound systems in (so far) unwritten languages, I’m sure you’ve already heard enough about tone and vowels. So today, I thought I’d write about consonants!

Language sound systems generally store information in three places. We know consonants (with obstructed airflow) and vowels (with shaped, but not obstructed airflow) from English, but probably about half the world’s languages also use tone (and some estimate 80% of those in Africa). Other languages (which are more like English) use contrastive stress, meaning that the stress on a word changes not only the pronunciation, but the meaning. If I say emPHAsis instead of EMphasis, you get what I mean, though it sounds wrong. But CONvert and conVERT are two different words, the first being a noun, and the second being a verb. We don’t do this kind of thing much, but this is just one of the several ways languages communicate the difference between one word and another.

So you know that tone is like stress (though more complicated, and used a lot in Africa, but not really in English). And you know about ATR, which gives some African languages interesting vowel harmony patterns (and more vowels than Spanish, but less than English). But what about consonants? You might think that I don’t work with consonants much, since I’m studying tone, but that’s just not so. First of all, almost every word has consonants, so they can’t be avoided.

Secondly, and slightly more importantly, there are slight and meaningless (i.e., not changing word meaning) but potentially distracting changes to pitch made by consonants, as in the spikes circled in the following picture:

calculated pitch spikes surrounding voiceless consonants

It would be easy to look that those quick jumps and drops in pitch, and say “wow, something’s going on there”. But there isn’t. These are just a result of the vocal folds starting and stopping vibrating as they go between vowels (with vocal fold vibration) and voiceless consonants (where the vocal folds are relaxed). So as I look at pitch traces with these effects, its important to understand what they are, and to abstract them away, rather than pay much attention to them.

There is a third reason, which is more important to my research. Not only do I work with tone, but the languages I’m working on now have what we call Consonant-Tone Interaction. That is, the tone of these languages is actually impacted by the consonants around them. So it’s important to understand what consonants are in each word.

Normal consonants (in these languages) have a slight negative pressure (sucking) before release, and these consonants don’t impact tone. But those where the airstream is more like typical English pronunciation are less common, but they impact the tone. So how do we tell the difference? There are many ways, but one I’d like to show you can be seen in the following picture:Find the egressive, implosive, and voiceless consonants

I originally developed this image as an exercise, so rather than just go and give you the answer, I’ll pose the question, and you can submit answers in the comments. 😉

I’ll help you out with a few points:

  • The three categories are named and described in the key on the right
  • The vowels are the dark vertical bands; the consonants are between those. 🙂
  • Most of the vertical space for consonants is blank/white, but there is a small dark band at the bottom for some, which indicates voicing.
  • If you look at pitch, recall that tone is relative pitch, so compare the drop over a consonant to the pitches over the vowels on each side, which may not be the same.

So, which consonant types can you find? How many of each, and in what order?



The Importance of Tone

I presented a poster earlier this term at the Metroplex Linguistics Conference, a conference for linguists throughout the Dallas/Fort Worth area. This year it was sponsored by the Graduate Institute of Applied Linguistics (G.I.A.L.), where a lot of our colleagues either teach or get training before heading to the field. My poster was on the functional load of tone:


While much of that detail may not make much sense to you, the main point is that tone is important for conveying meaning in tonal languages, but not necessarily to the same extent, or in the same ways, from one language to another. So this poster took four of the (tonal) languages that I’m working on, and compared them to each other, alongside Swahili, a non-tonal language used to communicate between people groups where these languages are spoken.

One thing that I found out that was interesting was that the importance of tone in a given language can’t be determined by the number of consonants or vowels in the languages. Each of these languages have about the same consonants (27-33) and vowels (7-9),  but they use tone in very different ways.  This can be seen in the conjugation of verbs, where subjects, for example, are indicated by consonants, vowels, and tone in each of these languages (this is like the ‘s’ in ‘He walks‘, which is not there in ‘I walk’) . But in some of these languages, the consonants and vowels are enough to tell who is doing the action, so at least that part of the writing system could work without writing the tone. In one of those languages (Bɨra), there are letters for each kind of subject. For the other (Bʉdʉ), one of the subjects has no consonant or vowels (like the agreement on ‘I walk_’), but it is still clear who is doing the action, since there is only one such subject. But in the other two languages, there are two subject pronouns that have no consonants or vowels, so you can only tell them apart with tones. And in one of those languages (Ndaka), there is another pair of pronouns, which are both ‘n-‘ , so they are also distinguished only by tone.

So each language puts progressively more importance on tone; it becomes harder and harder to convey all the language’s meaning without indicating tone. In addition to the above, Ndaka also has verb root minimal pairs. For instance, the difference between ‘cook’ and ‘become tired’ is only in the tone; they have the same consonants and vowels. That leads to the following set of eight words, at least six of which are distinguished by tone:

  1. ɔjana. [˨˨˨˨ ˨˧˦ ˧˨˩] You were tired.
  2. ɔjana. [˦˦˦˦ ˦˦˦˦ ˨˨˨˨] He/she/it was tired.
  3. ɔjana. [˨˨˨˨ ˦˦˦˦ ˦˦˦˦] You will be tired.
  4. ɔjana. [˦˦˦˦ ˦˦˦˦ ˦˦˦˦] He/she/it will be tired.
  5. ɔjana. [˨˨˨˨ ˨˧˦ ˧˨˩] You prepared food.
  6. ɔjana. [˦˦˦˦ ˦˦˦˦ ˨˨˨˨] He/she/it prepared food.
  7. ɔjana. [˨˨˨˨ ˨˨˨˨ ˦˦˦˦] You will prepare food.
  8. ɔjana. [˥˥˥˥ ˨˨˨˨ ˦˦˦˦] He/she/it will prepare food.

If you want to pronounce these, in the International Phonetic Alphabet j is pronounced like ‘y’ in ‘you’, so these might be pronounced something like “oh-yawn-ah”, though with different pitches, [˥˥˥˥] being higher and [˨˨˨˨] being lower.

One of the things I’m doing now is developing this material into a presentation for the Annual Conference of African Linguistics (ACAL) next spring. And that will further develop my analysis of the tone in these languages, which will form the majority of my dissertation.