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Review of  A Phonetic and Phonological Account of the Civili Vowel Duration

Reviewer: Yolanda Rivera Castillo
Book Title: A Phonetic and Phonological Account of the Civili Vowel Duration
Book Author: Hugues Steve Ndinga-Koumba-Binza
Publisher: Cambridge Scholars Publishing
Linguistic Field(s): Phonetics
Subject Language(s): Vili
Issue Number: 24.2902

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“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 geminates.

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 language.

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. & and Joan Rahilly. 1999. Phonetics. The science of speech. London: Arnold/Oxford UP.

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 and 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.

Format: Hardback
ISBN-13: 9781443836098
Pages: 325
Prices: U.K. £ 44.99
U.S. $ 67.99