LINGUIST List 24.2902

Wed Jul 17 2013

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

Editor for this issue: Joseph Salmons <>

Date: 30-May-2013
From: Yolanda Rivera Castillo <>
Subject: A Phonetic and Phonological Account of the Civili Vowel Duration
E-mail this message to a friend

Discuss this message

Book announced at

AUTHOR: Hugues Steve Ndinga-Koumba-BinzaTITLE: A Phonetic and Phonological Account of the Civili Vowel DurationPUBLISHER: Cambridge Scholars PublishingYEAR: 2012

REVIEWER: Yolanda Rivera Castillo, University of Puerto Rico

SUMMARY“A Phonetic and Phonological Account of the Civili Vowel Duration” provides ananalysis 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, andlinguists in general. It discusses descriptive, observational, and explanatoryissues and provides a general description of the main tenets of experimentalapproaches to the study of phonology. It also includes generalsocio-historical background on the language and the Bavili, the Civilispeaking group.

The first chapter provides a succinct description of the contents andsocio-historical background on the language. He also discusses Civili’sgenetic affiliation, from the position of those who determine affiliationbased on diatopic distribution to those who compare lexical sources for thesame purposes.

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

Chapters 4 and 5 describe the phonetic analysis and perception experiment. Astatistical analysis of the results was applied to both types of experiments.The main conclusion is presented in Chapter 6, where the author argues thatvowel length is distinctive but subject to some conditioning from thephonological and sentential contexts. The phonological conditioning featuresinclude foot structure, the presence of a sonorant in the coda, or a precedingglide. Vowels in sentence or phrase final position (penultimate syllable) arelonger than vowels in other sentential positions.

Chapter 4 describes his methodology for the acoustic analysis, and the need todistinguish between intrinsic duration, context-driven duration, and length asa distinctive feature. Four informants were recorded, with 384 entries forsingle words, and 768 phrases and sentences. Sound was recorded directly ontoa harddrive, and the phonetic analysis conducted with PRAAT. The analysis ofvowels 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 4760responses were codified with a program prepared especially for this study. Thefirst test provided a choice of two definitions to match with one word; thesecond one included the words “SAME” and “DIFFERENT” to compare words inminimal pairs; and the third one offered two synonyms to match one withindividual words. All tests had “UNCERTAIN” as a third option. Additionally,the author allowed participants to answer the test at their own pace “to allowslower participants to maintain composure” (p. 85). However, participantscould not return to a previous answer to change it. This kind of modificationto suit test takers’ needs shows an understanding of cultural and individualdifferences. 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 phonemesfor Civili (p. 113): /i/, /i:/, /e/, /e:/, /u/, /u:/, /o/, /o:/, /a/, /a:/.His conclusion regarding vowel duration is that the phonetic descriptionsupports a phonological analysis of these as long vowels, not sequences ofgeminates.

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

EVALUATIONThe description and analysis of lesser-known languages is a task of utmostimportance. Even if our ultimate goal is to analyze the abstract internalsystems of human language, studies such as this enrich the pool of criterianeeded to determine what constitutes a phonologically relevant feature. Nativespeakers’ 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 whenconducting research on little-studied languages: “The small amount of existingwork on the language and the concomitant lack of established documentarypractices 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 ofprevious data sources and the lack of a comprehensive description of thelanguage 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, experimentalstudies should go hand-in-hand with a phonological analysis, as Ohala andJaeger (1986) state:

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

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

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

Ndinga-Koumba-Binza’s work contributes to the description of Bantu languages,the documentation of a lesser-studied language, and to understanding thephonetic correlates of vowel length, an issue subject to many interpretationsin the study of phonological systems (Fox 2000, pp. 33-34). Although hedescribes 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 experimentalstudy to confirm many of his own impressionistic descriptions. His work onCivili spans many years of research, and constitutes a milestone in the studyof this language.

REFERENCESBall, 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 LanguageDocumentation and Description. Language 79(3). 557-82.

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

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

ABOUT THE REVIEWERYolanda Rivera Castillo is a professor at the University of Puerto Rico-RíoPiedras. Her main interests comprise the study of Creole Phonology andlanguage genesis. She is currently working on the description of the prosodicsystems of a diverse set of Creole languages.

Page Updated: 17-Jul-2013