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Review of  Erzya prosody

Reviewer: Katrin Hiietam
Book Title: Erzya prosody
Book Author: Ilse Lehiste Niina Aasmäe Einar Meister Karl Pajusalu Pire Teras Tiit-Rein Viitso
Publisher: Finno-Ugrian Society
Linguistic Field(s): Phonology
Subject Language(s): Erzya
Issue Number: 15.2832

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Date: Sat, 09 Oct 2004 10:34:57 +0100
From: Katrin Hiietam
Subject: Erzya Prosody

AUTHOR: Lehiste, Ilse; Aasmäe, Niina; Meister, Einar; Pajusalu, Karl;
Teras, Pire & Viitso, Tiit-Rein
TITLE: Erzya Prosody
SERIES: Mémoires de la Société Finno-Ougrienne 245
PUBLISHER: Finno-Ugrian Society
YEAR: 2003

Katrin Hiietam, unaffiliated scholar

'Erzya Prosody' is an experimental study investigating the
patterns of contrastive suprasegmental features - quantity, tone
and stress - of a lesser-known Finno-Ugric language Erzya. It
constitutes a part of the project 'Finno-Ugric Prosody' and is a
collaborative research undertaking of several Estonian linguists
working within various theoretical frameworks (p.3). The main aim
of the book is to present new data about Erzya prosody in order
to make it comparable to more widely known prosodic systems of
Finnish, Estonian and Hungarian (p.10-11). The presentation is
clear and easy to follow, making this book suitable for both
students and more experienced researchers of prosody.

The study is based on the productions of test words (104 in two
positions in a frame sentence, the total of 208 test words) by
eight subjects, 4 males and 4 females, all native speakers of
Erzya. The subjects of the study were chosen so as to constitute
a representative sample with a more-or-less uniform dialectal
background (p.48). The test words were selected by one of the
reserachers, T.-R Viitso and they divide into the following seven
groups: monosyllabic, mono- or disyllabic, disyllabic,
trisyllabic, and words with 4-, 5-, and 6 syllables (given in
Appendix 2).

The four chapters of the book are summarised below:

Introduction, Chapter 1, gives the background of the study. Erzya
is one of the Finno-Ugric languages spoken on the territory of
present day Central Russia. Along Moksha, it has traditionally
been classified as one of the Mordvin languages (p. 3, 10).
However, Erzya has been considered exceptional among Finno-Ugric
languages because of its extremely rich inventory of
morpho-syntactic categories, the smallest number of vowels - 5 -
(Zaicz 1998:187), and its word initial consonant clusters
(p. 15, 17). Another reason why Erzya can be set apart from
other languages in this group is its prosodic system. It has been
claimed that Erzya either has free word stress or no stress at
all as opposed to the fixed word stress in the Finno-Ugric group.
In addition, a widely accepted point of view is that Erzya has
neither contrastive quantity nor tone (p.10). Chapter 1 also
briefly contrasts the Erzya prosodic inventory with that of
better studied Finno-Ugric languages, Finnish, Estonian
and Hungarian. The latter languages seem to be similar with their
opposition between short and long phonemes, tonal contrasts that
are dependent of other prosodic features, and fixed word stress
(c.f. e.g. Ross & Lehiste 2001, Abondolo 1998). That said, it
also has to be noted that Finnic languages (Finnish and Estonian)
and Ugric ones (Hungarian) form separate groups in terms of their
specific prosodic features (p.11).

Chapter 2 constitutes one of the main parts of the book, namely
it reports on previous studies on Erzya prosody. The Chapter is
largely based on previous work by one of the authors (Aasmäe
2003), and it distills the research directions that have emerged

Drawing on earlier work, two entities of the prosodic system are
reported to be present in Erzya, these are quantity and stress.
Therefore, the current research focuses on the possible existence
of contrastive duration and on the role of stress in Erzya
prosody (p.48). The relevant research question is whether a
stressed syllable is identifiable by having greater length,
higher pitch, or by lack of vowel reduction (p.11, 47).

Following the summary of the earlier work, Chapter 3 presents an
acoustic analysis of the material obtained. As the focus of the
study is the role of stress and quantity in Erzya, the measured
factors are the following: 1) the duration of sounds, 2) the
acoustic structure of vowels, and 3) their fundamental
frequencies (details given in Appendix 3). The stressed and
unstressed syllables are considered both in phrase-final and
sentence-final positions and their differences are captured. The
location of stress is identified by two authors, one of them a
native speaker of Erzya, and the other a trained phonetician. The
cases where no agreement was reached in terms of the location of
stress, have received extra attention in the discussion.
The questions that Chapter 3 is looking to answer are 1)
whether word-level stress is indicated by differences in
duration, in case there is no quantity contrast; 2) whether vowel
quality indicates the position of stress in case there is vowel
reduction in Erzya; 3) whether there is a difference between
stressed and unstressed syllables; and 4) how dynamic stress, if
there is one in Erzya, is related to sentence intonation.

Finally, Chapter 4 summarises the discussion and gives a brief
typological comparison of the results of the previous studies and
the present one. The study shows that there exists a certain
amount of externally conditioned durational variation regarding
the syllable structure (closed vs. open syllables, and simple vs.
complex syllable nuclei) but this cannot be considered a
manifestation of pure quantitative contrast (p.84). Therefore, no
independently contrastive use of duration is present in the
tested material. The same applies to pitch which would indicate
that duration and pitch in Erzya imply stressedness (p.85).
Instead, the feature differentiating between stressed and
unstressed syllables seems to be gradual vowel reduction.
However, the degree of reduction, may, according to the authors,
partly depend on the speaking style (p.85).

Although stress was not found to be either contrastive or
identificational, one of its functions that emerged was the
establishment of higher-level prosodic units, that is, dividing
words and utterances into disyllabic entities. This phenomenon is
also familiar from other Finno-Ugric languages. Yet, different
from e.g. Estonian, the higher-level rhythmical stress can
disregard word boundaries and move the word stress to even
syllables (p.86).

The book also contains an extensive Appendices section, where one
finds the map of languages and dialects of Erzya (Appendix 1),
list of test words (Appendix 2); additional data of acoustic
analysis (Appendix 3), and statistical data of analysis of
variance (ANOVA) (Appendix 4). All this proves extremely helpful
in reading the descriptive parts of the book and the analysis.

The authors state that their contribution provides a starting
point for research on Erzya and as there are not many
descriptions of the acoustic system of this language available
(to name a few recent ones, there are Aasmäe 2003 and Zaicz
1998). This said, it undoubtedly is a welcome and significant
addition to work conducted on less well-known Finno-Ugric

In addition, as also pointed out by the authors, there is ample
room for follow-up studies. The authors mention moving on the
incontestable minimal pairs for the tested prosodic features to
establish any possible effects of the frame sentence on the
tested words (86) and it certainly is a topic to consider in this
connection. Besides considering variation that is present due to
the syntactic environment of the tested words, I would suggest
broadening the base of the study and for example looking at any
sociolinguistic diversity in prosodic patterns. The subjects for
the present study had all higher education and experienced a
significant influence of other languages in their everyday lives.
Comparing the current test results with another group of subjects
who use Erzya in all spheres of everyday life would allow us to
draw conclusions on any possible second language interference to
the prosodic system of Erzya.

Furthermore, throughout the book ample reference is made to
Estonian in discussions. While it is useful to know how a Ugric
language relates to a Finnic one in terms of its prosodic
patterns, the present findings can be placed in a wider context
typologically if we could have similar test results from several
other Finno-Ugric languages. Overall, as the present study is
meant to provide a starting point for any following research
projects, it definitely has filled its function by evoking a
array of research ideas and definitely not only in the reviewer's

Aasmäe, N. (2003). Erzya Prosody: findings over time. MA thesis.
Tartu: University of Tartu, department of Estonian and Finno-
Ugric Linguistics

Abondolo, D. (1998) Hungarian. The Uralic Languages. In Abandolo
(Ed.) The Uralic Languages. London, New York: Routledge

Ross, J. & I. Lehiste. (2001). The temporal structure of Estonian
runic songs. Berlin, New York: Routledge

Zaicz, G. (1998). Mordva. In: Abandolo, (Ed.) The Uralic
Languages. London, New York: Routledge

Katrin Hiietam is currently an unaffiliated scholar. She has her
main research interests in the morpho-syntax of Finno-Ugric

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