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Review of  The Phonology of Mono

Reviewer: Mary Paster
Book Title: The Phonology of Mono
Book Author: Kenneth S. Olson
Publisher: SIL International Publications
Linguistic Field(s): Phonetics
Subject Language(s): Mono
Issue Number: 17.1958

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AUTHOR: Olson, Kenneth S.
TITLE: The Phonology of Mono
SERIES: Publications in Linguistics #140
PUBLISHER: SIL International
YEAR: 2005

Mary Paster, Department of Linguistics and Cognitive Science, Pomona College


In The Phonology of Mono, Kenneth S. Olson describes the phonological
system of the Bili dialect of Mono, which is a Banda language spoken by
approximately 62,000 people in the Democratic Republic of the Congo. This
book is a substantially revised version of Olson's 2001 University of
Chicago dissertation. The Phonology of Mono is primarily a descriptive work
but also points out issues of theoretical relevance that arise in the
analysis of the language.

Chapter 1: Introduction

This chapter discusses the classification, history, ethnography, and
dialectology of the Mono language and people. At the end of this chapter,
Olson identifies some of the most interesting features of the language,
each of which is discussed in more detail in a subsequent chapter. Some of
these features include implosives with unusual phonetic properties, an
eight-vowel system with a front vowel inventory that is smaller than the
back vowel inventory (an unusual situation that is predicted by some
theories not to exist), some interesting issues in the interaction of
phonological processes that repair subminimal words, and finally, the
presence of a bilabial ~ labiodental flap, which was part of the basis for
Olson's successful campaign to introduce a labiodental flap symbol into the
International Phonetic Alphabet (IPA) in 2005, an effort that was rewarded
with a brief period of nationwide media coverage that was mostly accurate
and attracted positive attention towards the field of linguistics.

Chapter 2: Phonemes

In this chapter, Olson very thoroughly identifies and provides evidence for
the contrastive segments of the Mono consonant and vowel inventories. Olson
gives many examples of each consonant in multiple environments. These
examples are systematically introduced and very well organized. In the
section on labial consonants, some frames from a video are provided showing
the production of the labial flap; these are informative and entertaining
for anyone interested in this unusual segment. Following the presentation
of consonants, Olson describes the vowel inventory, which is unusual for
two reasons, namely that there is no /E/ (here, a low front vowel) in an
otherwise symmetrical vowel system, and consequently that the front vowel
inventory is smaller than the back vowel inventory. Olson discusses these
facts in the context of distinctive feature theory (Chomsky and Halle 1968)
and a claim by Crothers (1978) that the ''number of height distinctions in
front vowels is equal to or greater than the number in back vowels'' (122).
Olson debates the merits of reanalyzing the feature specifications of the
vowel /a/ so that it is a front vowel rather than a central vowel; such a
move would mean that the vowel inventory of Mono does not counterexemplify
Crothers' proposed universal. Olson seems to adopt this reanalysis of /a/,
pointing out that Mono [a] is phonetically more front (has higher F2) than
the corresponding a vowel in, e.g., English.

Chapter 3: Tone

The tone chapter, while not as thorough as the preceding chapter,
nonetheless provides numerous examples of tonal contrasts in Mono. Olson
demonstrates that tone is used in Mono to make both lexical and grammatical
distinctions, and the language is shown to exhibit a three-way tonal
contrast among high (H), mid (M), and low (L). In addition to the three
level tones, there are some contour tones in the language that are made up
of combinations of the level tones. It is not made clear here exactly which
contours exist in the language; each of the possible binary combinations of
the three level tones is attested somewhere in the book, with the exception
of a MH contour, which I was not able to find in any example. Olson points
out in chapter 6 (page 84) that the LH rising tone is rare, then says later
in chapter 7 (page 90) that rising tones in general are rare in Mono, but I
did not find any explicit statement that the MH contour does not exist.
After establishing the tonal contrasts of the language, Olson anticipates
some tonal phenomena, such as polarity, that will presumably be covered in
more detail later in the book.

Chapter 4: Labialization and Palatalization

There is a lengthy discussion in chapter 4 regarding the status of apparent
secondary articulations in Mono. In the end, Olson appears to conclude that
labialized and palatalized consonants are actually sequences of two
consonants (a consonant followed by a glide), but the issue is not fully
resolved here.

Chapter 5: The Syllable

This chapter presents the attested syllable shapes of Mono. There is some
good discussion of peripheral syllable types that Olson is able to reduce
to more basic types, the overall result of which is that Mono syllables are
shown to have the shape (C)(G)V (where C is any consonant, G is a glide,
and V is a vowel). A fourth type, CV:, is shown to be a variant of CV with
contour tone-induced vowel lengthening. It is implied (page 68) that the
syllable type CLV (where L is a liquid) is a variant of /CVLV/, where the
two vowels are identical, so CLV results from elision or shortening of the
first vowel and does not constitute a basic syllable shape. However, at the
end of the chapter (page 70), Olson seems to advocate for underlying /CLV/
and posits a vowel epenthesis process that applies in the environment C_LV,
resulting in CVLV (where the quality of the epenthesized vowel is identical
to the underlying vowel). Thus, the syllable shape inventory may need to be
expanded to (C)({G, L})V.

Chapter 6: Word Shapes

Evidence is provided in chapter 6 for a word minimality condition, which is
that nouns and adjectives must have at least two syllables in their surface
forms. Subminimal words can be repaired via augmentation and/or the
epenthesis process introduced in chapter 5. Augmentation inserts an
underspecified vowel (whose value for [+/-low] agrees with the stem vowel)
at the beginning of a subminimal word, and the other features of this vowel
are filled in either with default values or based on the stem vowel via an
optional leftward vowel spreading rule. Olson points out that in the case
of a /CLV/ root, both augmentation and epenthesis apply, resulting in a
three-syllable surface form, VCVLV. The apparent overapplication of
processes that repair subminimal words is made sense of using rule
ordering. First, the augmentation rule (which is triggered in subminimal
words) applies to /CLV/, resulting in VCLV. Then, epenthesis applies since
there is a CLV sequence here (recall that epenthesis is not specifically
motivated by the minimality condition but rather applies to any CLV
sequence), and this results in VCVLV. Thus the apparent overapplication of
augmentation is resolved through rule ordering.

Chapter 7: Morphology

This chapter discusses morphological processes in Mono including
affixation, prefixing reduplication, tone and segmental changes, and
compounding. Olson notes (page 88) that the ''lack of suffixes in Mono is
typologically unusual''; this is temporarily very exciting in light of
Greenberg's (1963) generalization that exclusively prefixing languages are
very rare. However, it is revealed later (page 115) that there are at least
a couple of suffixes in the language, so the ''lack of suffixes'' refers to
the small number of suffixes and does not mean that Mono is exclusively
prefixing. Still, the predominance of prefixes in Mono is typologically
interesting if not exceedingly rare.

Several phonological rules of Mono are summarized in this morphology
chapter in a section titled 'Phonological Processes Which Cross Morpheme or
Word Boundaries'. The rules described here are leftward vowel spreading
(this is the rule introduced in chapter 6 that spreads root vowel features
to augment vowels), hiatus resolution, glide formation, and the optional
raising of /a/ to mid (the ''carrot'' vowel) when preceded or followed by a
high vowel.

The hiatus resolution processes refer specifically to sequences of a schwa
followed by another vowel. There are three possible surface forms that may
result from such sequences. The first is that the schwa and the following
vowel surface unchanged, since hiatus resolution is optional. The second is
that the schwa takes on the quality of the following vowel. The third is
that the schwa can be deleted, but this is only possible when the schwa has
the same tone as the following vowel. Though Olson does not point this out,
this tonal restriction on schwa deletion is evidence for a
one-tone-per-mora restriction in Mono. In the tone chapter, Olson mentions
(page 44) that vowels with a contour tone are always phonetically long. But
if we assume that there is actually a phonological process of
contour-induced lengthening driven by a restriction that each mora may bear
only one tone, then we can also explain the restriction on schwa deletion.
Presumably if a schwa is deleted, its tone will need to be expressed
somewhere, and a following immediately adjacent vowel seems a likely place
for it to end up. If the tone of the schwa is identical to that of the
second vowel, then the identical tones can simply fuse when the schwa is
deleted. But if the tones are different, then the deletion of schwa and
association of its tone to the following vowel will result in a contour
tone on a short vowel, which is not allowed. Alternatively, one could
assume that the schwa actually is deleted in this environment, yielding an
intermediate stage with a contour tone on the short vowel, which then
undergoes the contour tone lengthening process mentioned above, so that
actually there is really no tone-based restriction on schwa deletion but
only the appearance of such a restriction due to the interaction of
deletion and lengthening.

Chapter 8: Acoustic Phonetics

The phonetics chapter is quite detailed and informative for those wishing
to know about the phonetics of the language. This chapter presents the
results of an acoustic study of every consonant in the language, complete
with very nice screenshots showing sample waveforms and spectrograms for
each. The phonetic analysis of the vowels of Mono is also very careful and
thorough. This chapter can serve as a nice model or case study for anyone
wishing to include a phonetics chapter in a descriptive grammar, because
the methodology for doing phonetic measurements and calculations is so
meticulously laid out and the results so clearly presented.


The body of the book is followed by a lengthy set of appendices totaling
110 pages. Appendix A includes the narrative text 'The Elephant, the
Turtle, and the Hippo', a procedural text on preparing fields for planting,
and ten proverbs. Each text consists of a transcription, a
morpheme-by-morpheme breakdown, morpheme-by-morpheme gloss, and an English
translation. The texts are followed by frequency counts of all of the
consonants, vowels, and tones in the texts. Appendix B is a wordlist, which
includes reference numbers for the SIL Comparative African Word List. This
is a good-sized wordlist: by my estimate, it contains over two thousand
words. Appendix C is a list of files containing Mono recordings, and
wordlists that were used to make the recordings. This particular appendix
will not be relevant to most readers since the book does not come with the
recordings. Finally, appendix D contains additional examples and the
details of the phonetic measurements presented in chapter 8.

References and Indexes

The appendices are followed by references, an author index, and a subject
index. Both indexes are helpful and thorough.


This book constitutes an extremely valuable contribution to the study of
African languages and language in general. It is well written and edited,
and very nicely organized and presented. Although some work had previously
been done on the language, the Bili dialect had only been studied by a
couple of researchers, and this book contains a very substantial amount of
data and analysis never published before. The few criticisms that I point
out below should not be taken to undermine the importance or significance
of this excellent book.

However, there are some issues here that warrant a bit of further
consideration. The first is some uncertainty as to the place of phonetic
data in the analysis of the phonological system. This is a problem more
generally in phonology and is not unique to this book. In the introduction
to the phonetics chapter, Olson implies (page 121) that auditory
impressionistic transcriptions need to be checked via phonetic analysis in
order to be accurate and useful. While there can be no doubt that phonetic
analysis often provides valuable insights into phonological processes,
phonologists may take issue with the notion that a phonological description
is not complete without phonetic corroboration. In one particular case, the
author's tendency to look to phonetics in analyzing phonological patterns
leads to a dubious conclusion from a phonological perspective. This happens
in the discussion in chapter 2 of the possible reanalysis of /a/ as a front
vowel rather than a central vowel, where the author's justification for the
reanalysis is the frontness of Mono /a/ relative to its correspondent in
English. The feature specifications for a particular vowel in a given
language do not always correlate directly with its phonetic values when
comparing values for vowels even in the same language, so it is unclear how
a comparison with an English vowel can shed any light on the features of
Mono /a/. In a featural analysis, it is more important to find out how the
sound functions phonologically than whether its F2 puts it in a category
with the other front or back vowels. In this case, there is a rule that
targets /a/, changing it to the carrot vowel, but since this vowel is not
phonemic in the language, we cannot use this as direct evidence for the
feature specifications of /a/. In cases where a phonetic basis is used to
argue for a particular categorization of the segment, it is preferable to
compare it with other segments in the same language. Based on a visual
inspection of the plot of the Mono vowel space (F1 vs. F2) on page 148, [a]
looks like a phonetically central vowel. This makes the comparison with
English seem even less reliable.

A second problem is some inconsistency in the analysis. For example, in
chapter 5, Olson seems to say that CLV syllables are underlyingly /CVLV/.
Later, at the end of chapter 5 and in chapter 6, it is implied that surface
CVLV results from the application of vowel epenthesis to /CLV/. But even
later in chapter 8 (pages 145, 152), there are various references to
shortening, deletion, and elision applying to the first vowel in /CVLV/
resulting in CLV, so this suggests that the /CVLV/ analysis implied early
in chapter 5 may be Olson's intended analysis after all. One way to
reconcile these inconsistencies is to assume that the use of terms like
'shortening', 'deletion', and 'elision' are not intended to refer to real
phonological processes. So if there is no actual inconsistency in the
analysis, then there is at least some imprecise use of terminology. This
problem stands out in a work that is otherwise so meticulous in its
attention to detail.

A final issue is the lack of follow-up on the tonal polarity process
alluded to early in the book. Polarity is never analyzed in detail, and no
formal polarity rule is provided. Olson notes that polarity has not been
well documented for 3-tone languages, so it would have been nice to see the
details of it here, although the lack of examples of polarity in 3-tone
languages may be due to the fact that depending on one's interpretation,
the concept of 'polarity' only makes sense in a two-tone system. In Mono,
one could assume that the polar morpheme in question (the directional
prefix ga-, discussed on page 112) is underlyingly H-toned and undergoes a
(morpheme-specific) tonal dissimilation rule before H-initial stems.
Alternatively, there could be two suppletive allomorphs of ga-, one that
has L tone and is used before H-toned stems, and one that has H tone and
occurs elsewhere. Under either analysis, no 'polarity' applies if we assume
that true polarity would involve an underlyingly toneless morpheme
undergoing a rule that gives it the tone that is the polar opposite of what

Despite these issues, The Phonology of Mono is a fine and enjoyable read,
and will no doubt serve as an important resource on this interesting
language for many years to come.


Chomsky, Noam and Morris Halle. 1968. The Sound Pattern of English. New
York: Harper and Row.

Crothers, John. 1978. Typology and universals of vowel systems. Pp. 93-152
in Joseph H. Greenberg, ed. Universals of Language 2: Phonology. Palo Alto,
California: Stanford University Press.

Greenberg, Joseph H. 1963. Some universals of grammar with particular
reference to the order of meaningful elements. Pp. 73-113 in Joseph H.
Greenberg, ed. Universals of Language. Cambridge, Massachusetts: MIT Press.

Mary Paster is an assistant professor in the Department of Linguistics and
Cognitive Science at Pomona College. She recently completed a dissertation,
Phonological Conditions on Affixation, at the University of California,
Berkeley. Her primary research interests are in phonology, morphology, and
the phonology-morphology interface, and she has published descriptive and
theoretical papers on several African languages.

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