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LINGUIST List 24.2902

Wed Jul 17 2013

Review: Phonetics; Phonology: Ndinga-Koumba-Binza (2012)

Editor for this issue: Joseph Salmons <jsalmonslinguistlist.org>

Date: 30-May-2013
From: Yolanda Rivera Castillo <riveraygmail.com>
Subject: A Phonetic and Phonological Account of the Civili Vowel Duration
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Book announced at http://linguistlist.org/issues/23/23-3683.html

AUTHOR: Hugues Steve Ndinga-Koumba-Binza
TITLE: A Phonetic and Phonological Account of the Civili Vowel Duration
PUBLISHER: Cambridge Scholars Publishing
YEAR: 2012

REVIEWER: Yolanda Rivera Castillo, University of Puerto Rico

“A Phonetic and Phonological Account of the Civili Vowel Duration” provides an
analysis of vowel length in Civili, a member of the Kongo language group
(H10), couched in “Experimental Phonology”. It consists of seven (7) chapters,
and provides acoustic data, as well as results from perception tests.

This book should be of interest to Bantuists, phonologists, phoneticians, and
linguists in general. It discusses descriptive, observational, and explanatory
issues and provides a general description of the main tenets of experimental
approaches to the study of phonology. It also includes general
socio-historical background on the language and the Bavili, the Civili
speaking group.

The first chapter provides a succinct description of the contents and
socio-historical background on the language. He also discusses Civili’s
genetic affiliation, from the position of those who determine affiliation
based on diatopic distribution to those who compare lexical sources for the
same purposes.

Chapter 2 describes previous analyses of this language, including some by the
author himself. There are few similar studies of other Bantu languages of the
region, since, as the author states: “This study is the first of its kind in
Gabonese languages, and in Bantu languages of the Western Coast of Africa” (p.
135). Chapter 3 addresses issues of measuring vowel duration, contextual
conditioning of variation, and the complexities in the interpretation of
duration in phonetic studies. It describes specific phonological contexts in
which vowels are lengthened, such as preceding a prenasalized stop and in
vowel sequences. In both contexts, the author argues, there is “compensatory
lengthening” since the duration of the adjacent segment is shortened. The
analysis discusses the issue of phonetic duration, phonological length, and
its representation in an autosegmental framework. An additional section brings
in the issue of how to represent length distinctions in writing systems.

Chapters 4 and 5 describe the phonetic analysis and perception experiment. A
statistical analysis of the results was applied to both types of experiments.
The main conclusion is presented in Chapter 6, where the author argues that
vowel length is distinctive but subject to some conditioning from the
phonological and sentential contexts. The phonological conditioning features
include foot structure, the presence of a sonorant in the coda, or a preceding
glide. Vowels in sentence or phrase final position (penultimate syllable) are
longer than vowels in other sentential positions.

Chapter 4 describes his methodology for the acoustic analysis, and the need to
distinguish between intrinsic duration, context-driven duration, and length as
a distinctive feature. Four informants were recorded, with 384 entries for
single words, and 768 phrases and sentences. Sound was recorded directly onto
a harddrive, and the phonetic analysis conducted with PRAAT. The analysis of
vowels included formant patterns, spectrum, duration, fundamental frequency,
formant bandwidth, and formant amplitude. His work shows careful planning,
selection of instruments, and well-thought-out methodology.

Similarly, the perception study includes three tests. A total of 4760
responses were codified with a program prepared especially for this study. The
first test provided a choice of two definitions to match with one word; the
second one included the words “SAME” and “DIFFERENT” to compare words in
minimal pairs; and the third one offered two synonyms to match one with
individual words. All tests had “UNCERTAIN” as a third option. Additionally,
the author allowed participants to answer the test at their own pace “to allow
slower participants to maintain composure” (p. 85). However, participants
could not return to a previous answer to change it. This kind of modification
to suit test takers’ needs shows an understanding of cultural and individual
differences. Fieldwork requires this kind of accommodation when necessary.
Finally, his perception study includes discrimination and identification
(based on four types of evaluations described by Ball and Rahilly 1999).

Chapter 6 includes a vowel chart with ten (10) short and long vowel phonemes
for Civili (p. 113): /i/, /i:/, /e/, /e:/, /u/, /u:/, /o/, /o:/, /a/, /a:/.
His conclusion regarding vowel duration is that the phonetic description
supports a phonological analysis of these as long vowels, not sequences of

The last chapter (7) describes practical applications of these findings to the
development of orthographic standards for this language. This is important for
language planning, particularly for languages that are developing writing
standards. This chapter also addresses implications for phonological theory
and for the relation between phonetics and phonology.

The description and analysis of lesser-known languages is a task of utmost
importance. Even if our ultimate goal is to analyze the abstract internal
systems of human language, studies such as this enrich the pool of criteria
needed to determine what constitutes a phonologically relevant feature. Native
speakers’ judgments as well as systematic descriptions of attested forms,
among others, are necessary tools in fulfilling this goal.

Bird and Simons (2003) describe the challenges a linguist faces when
conducting research on little-studied languages: “The small amount of existing
work on the language and the concomitant lack of established documentary
practices and conventions may lead to specially diverse nomenclature” (p.
569). Ndinga-Koumba-Binza deals with these challenges by combining acoustic,
perceptual, and phonological analyses of vowels. He describes the scarcity of
previous data sources and the lack of a comprehensive description of the
language system. He uses Experimental Phonology to overcome flaws of
“descriptions [that] have proven to be inaccurate, incomplete,
non-representative and even misleading” (p. 3). In his view, experimental
studies should go hand-in-hand with a phonological analysis, as Ohala and
Jaeger (1986) state:

Without theory there would be no indication of what to observe and how to
interpret it once observed. […] On the other hand, theory construction (when
this is correctly considered not as a static thing but as something that
develops and evolves) that is not checked and guided by experiment is equally
useless […]. (pp. 3-4)

Along these lines, the author adopts what is usually called “Laboratory
Phonology” to accomplish two important goals: (a) to determine if the phonetic
analysis of vowel duration supports previous phonological descriptions of
minimal pairs (acoustic analysis), and (b) to establish whether native
speakers identify such distinctions as phonologically relevant (perception
experiment). He achieves both goals and provides substantial evidence that the
vowel system includes a set of phonologically distinctive long vowels.

This book could benefit from some small changes. The first chapter deals with
too many issues. The complex socio-historical background could have been the
subject matter of a separate chapter. Also, the second part of the book
includes numerous tables, graphs, word lists, and figures, which make up about
half the book. The author could have described some of this in one of the
chapters. There are also some typographical and grammatical errors, so the
book would have benefited from additional editing (“to to be” p.19). However,
these are minor issues and the book’s contribution to linguistics greatly
outweighs them. For example, even when the number of addenda might have been
reduced, these are ultimately important data for those unfamiliar with the

Ndinga-Koumba-Binza’s work contributes to the description of Bantu languages,
the documentation of a lesser-studied language, and to understanding the
phonetic correlates of vowel length, an issue subject to many interpretations
in the study of phonological systems (Fox 2000, pp. 33-34). Although he
describes in the “Preface” that he “was introduced (to Civili) at age 11” (p.
viii), he does not rely on his knowledge alone but conducts this experimental
study to confirm many of his own impressionistic descriptions. His work on
Civili spans many years of research, and constitutes a milestone in the study
of this language.

Ball, Martin J. & Joan Rahilly. 1999. Phonetics. The science of speech.
London: Arnold/Oxford University Press.

Bird, Steven & Gary Simons. 2003. Seven Dimensions of Portability for Language
Documentation and Description. Language 79(3). 557-82.

Fox, Anthony. 2000. Prosodic Features and Prosodic Structure. Oxford: Oxford
University Press.

Ohala, John & Jeri J. Jaeger. 1986. Experimental Phonology. Orlando:
Academic Press.

Yolanda Rivera Castillo is a professor at the University of Puerto Rico-Río
Piedras. Her main interests comprise the study of Creole Phonology and
language genesis. She is currently working on the description of the prosodic
systems of a diverse set of Creole languages.
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