* * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * *
LINGUIST List logo Eastern Michigan University Wayne State University *
* People & Organizations * Jobs * Calls & Conferences * Publications * Language Resources * Text & Computer Tools * Teaching & Learning * Mailing Lists * Search *
* *
LINGUIST List 18.2716

Tue Sep 18 2007

Disc: Response to: Tones and Genes: A Question

Editor for this issue: Ann Sawyer <sawyerlinguistlist.org>

To post to LINGUIST, use our convenient web form at http://linguistlist.org/LL/posttolinguist.html.
        1.    Bettina Zeisler, Response to: Tones and Genes: A Question

Message 1: Response to: Tones and Genes: A Question
Date: 15-Sep-2007
From: Bettina Zeisler <zeisuni-tuebingen.de>
Subject: Response to: Tones and Genes: A Question
E-mail this message to a friend

Re: LINGUIST List issue: http://linguistlist.org/issues/18/18-1697.html 

To answer - with some delay - Hal Schiffman's question (''...there are
tonal languages like modern Tibetan that were originally non-tonal, i.e.
Classical Tibetan has no tones. Would the genetic hypothesis claim that the
genes of Tibetans have changed radically in the last two millennia?''):

1. How do we know that Classical Tibetan CT, nota bene only a written
language, had no tones? We have some indications that at least at the time
when the second grammatical treatise, the so-called _rtags-kyi vjug-pa_,
was written or compiled (unfortunately we can only speculate when this
happened, probably not before the 9th century CE), the spoken language must
have developed tonal register properties, most probably on a sub-phonemic
level, since we can find a four-fold classification of root consonants (the
core initial following the pre- or superscribed consonants) in terms of
gender: 1. 'male' (CT unvoiced root consonants), 2. 'neutral' (CT unvoiced
aspirated consonants), 3. 'female' (CT voiced consonants), and 4. 'very
female' (CT nasals).

The gender description most probably did not refer to the pitch but to the
articulation force ('male' = forced = high; 'female' = soft = low), as the
same or similar tonal (register or pitch) properties can be found in some
of the modern emerging-tone dialects. While the phonemic register
distinction is only binary (former unvoiced = high vs. former voiced =
low), some modern emerging-tone dialects in eastern Ladakh and possibly
elsewhere may have a sub-phonemic five way distinction: 1. high for
originally unvoiced root consonants, 2. neutral for originally
unvoiced-aspirated root consonants, 3. low for devoiced root consonants
(those that originally had no initial affixes), 4. lower for still voiced
initial consonants (originally with initial affixes), and 5. lowest for
voiced nasals (originally without initial affixes; those nasals which had
affixes became unvoiced and thus high).

2. 'Modern Tibetan' is a quite misleading term, referring only to the
Central Tibetan coiné and its further development in the exile or even more
specifically only to the dialect (sometimes even only a particular
sociolect) of Lhasa. There are many modern Tibetan varieties that are non
tonal or emerging-tone dialects, particularly those of Amdo and Kham
(Eastern Tibet), Ladakh (India), and Baltistan (Pakistan).

3. The earliest documents of the Tibetan language date from the 7th century
CE, the question whether genes might have changed is thus not one of 2
millenia but hardly of 1. But why not?

We have some evidence that throughout the documented history, i.e. since
the 7th century as well as in the prehistorical era, the whole Tibetan
speaking area suffered repeated migrations, involving not only
Tibeto-Burman groups, but also Indo-European, Turco-Mongolic, and most
probably other minor groups. Thus first of all, we cannot start with a
genetically well defined Tibetan identity. And secondly, yes the genetic
composition on the Tibetan plateau may well have changed during the last 1

Furthermore, it is well possible that (some of) the prehistorical ancestors
of the now Central Tibetan population were originally speaking a tonal
language. We know from a 9th century inscription in Lhasa containing
Chinese transcriptions of Tibetan names that the officials at the Central
Tibetan imperial court were obviously speaking quite a different
dialect/language than those people who were responsible for the Old Tibetan

4. However, and this as well as the following is a comment on D.R. Ladd &
Dan Dediu's paper, low tone (pitch or register) is apparently only one
phonetic feature attached to voice (which seems to be the outcome of a
bundle of accustic or articulatory features) and can also be found in the
European languages as a specialist in phonetics once explained to me.
According to him, many if not most phonemic pitch oppositions resulted
diachronically from an original voice opposition. Apparently the speech
community starts neglecting one of the features, emphasizing one of the
other features. I really wonder whether this shift in acoustic attention
can be triggered by a genetical disposition, particularly as this shift may
be very gradual: As one can observe in the modern Ladakhi varieties, the
voice distinction may partially break down without the introduction of
pitch distinctions, or a pitch distinction may evolve while retaining the
voice distinction to a great extent. Phonetic pitch distinctions (as
perceived by the speakers themselves) might be 5-fold as described above or
only binary, leading to the inability of speakers to correlate aspirated
and voiced consonants in any meaningful way (say 'neutral') to this opposition.

It would be very promising to look for possible genetic correlations to
these quite distinct developments in a quite restricted area. It might be
even more promising to look whether the individual abilities to perceive
non-phonemic pitch distinctions might be correlated to the proposed genetic
variation. Such correlation should follow from the authors reaffirmations
that, on the one hand, tonal distinctions can be introduced into a speech
community by language contact, but that, on the other hand, there is
something like a genetic disposition to focus on pitch or register instead
of on voice.

5. Many tonal languages do not only have phonemic pitch distinctions, but
also contour distinctions (level, falling, rising, etc.), which might
likewise be connected with diachronic sound changes, e.g. in the syllable
coda as in the Tibetan tone languages. The reasons for giving up voice
distinctions is certainly a different one than that for reducing syllable
codas. How does the genetic hypothesis account for this difference?

6. The - at least in some cases - observable diachronic shift from voice
distinctions to pitch distinctions seems to be at variance with the claim
that ''the distribution of the older ... alleles ... resembles the
distribution of tone languages'' and that the ''new alleles'' correlated to
non-tonal languages ''seem to be spreading quickly in the human species''.
From these statements one should have expected a diachronically observable
shift from tonal to non-tonal languages, not the opposite way.

Linguistic Field(s): General Linguistics
                            Historical Linguistics

Read more issues|LINGUIST home page|Top of issue

Please report any bad links or misclassified data

LINGUIST Homepage | Read LINGUIST | Contact us

NSF Logo

While the LINGUIST List makes every effort to ensure the linguistic relevance of sites listed
on its pages, it cannot vouch for their contents.