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Review of  Tone and Inflection

Reviewer: Katie Schack Tang
Book Title: Tone and Inflection
Book Author: Enrique L. Palancar Jean-Léo Léonard
Publisher: De Gruyter Mouton
Linguistic Field(s): Language Documentation
Language Family(ies): Oto-Manguean/Otomanguean
Issue Number: 28.308

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Reviews Editor: Helen Aristar-Dry


“Tone and Inflection,” edited by Jean-Léo Léonard, seeks to offer an in-depth look at a phenomenon that, to date, has received sparse attention from linguists: the role that tone plays in morphology. This type of tone, termed relational tone by the editors, is, they believe, widespread but rarely described. Many of the papers included in this volume were originally presented at a workshop in 2013 titled “Tons et paradigmes flexionnels: modélisation et parsimonie/ Disentangling the inflectional role of tone.”

Chapter 1 is the editors’ overview of the book. It briefly introduces the purposes of this volume and offers a summary of each of the chapters. The introduction indicates at least seven goals:

1. Challenge the common perception that tone is a lexical phenomenon only.

2. Offer a greater imperative for all linguistics students to be introduced to tone and for all linguistic researchers to document any tonal phenomena present in the languages they study.

3. Offer clear fieldwork-based descriptions of relational tone in a diverse set of languages, as well as a more in-depth look at relational tone in the Oto-Manguean language family of Mexico.

4. Explore the relationship between relational tone and lexical tone.

5. Explore possible historical sources for relational tone, as well as the possibility that tone can emerge spontaneously in a grammar.

6. Explore the phonological behavior of relational tone and the ways in which relational tone may affect the phonology and syntax of a language.

7. Offer a preliminary look at the typology of relational tone.

A proposed universal is also implied: all languages that use tone for morphological inflection also make use of tone lexically.

The remainder of the volume is divided into two parts. Part 1, “Tone and inflection: General questions with a focus on inflectional tonogenesis,” consists of five papers offering a beginning look at relational tone in a genetically and geographically diverse set of languages. Part 2, “Tone and inflection: Insights from the Oto-Manguean languages” consists of seven papers which, together, offer a picture of the diversity of relational tone within a single language family.

Chapter 2, “Morphological tonal assignments in conflict: Who wins?” (Larry Hyman), serves as a general introduction to morphological tone, with the goal of both presenting an inventory of possible morphological tone functions and examining how morphological tone behaves in relation to phonology and syntax. Hyman focuses especially on Haya (Bantu) verb stem tonology, but he also includes data from a number of African languages, as well as Iau (Papuan). The majority of the chapter addresses verbal inflection, including examples where tone is used to mark agreement, tense, aspect, modality, transitivity, and negation. Hyman also includes data from Maasai showing that tone marks case on nouns. Part of Hyman’s goal is to examine what happens when tonal assignments from different domains, e.g. lexical and morphological, conflict with each other; however, from the overview offered in this chapter, the primary conclusion appears to be that the answer to this question is language-specific. Hyman also points to intriguing data from Kikuria and Chimwiini (both Bantu), in which a high tone marking verbal morphology is, in some cases, actually pronounced on a following noun. He suggests this long-distance morphological marking is part of what makes tone unique.

Chapter 3, “Tonogenesis and tonal alternations in Khaling” (Guillaume Jacques), examines the source of inflectional tone in Khaling (Kiranti, Nepal). Within the verb system, tone is one of several factors that change within a complex system of stem variations as the verbs are inflected. The majority of the paper is dedicated to a careful analysis of tonogenesis in Khaling, as Jacques argues that inflectional tone in Khaling has the same historical source as lexical tones in the language. Jacques identifies two sources for falling tone: (1) loss of a voiceless obstruent in coda position, and (2) loss of a syllable.

Chapter 4, “Tonal inflection in Mian” (Sebastian Fedden), gives a clear overview of inflectional tone in Mian (Trans-New Guinea, Papua New Guinea). Mian is a tone language in which the word is typically the domain of the tone. Tone plays very little role in the morphology, with one key exception: the non-hodiernal past is distinguished from the imperfective by the presence of a high tone. Fedden suggests that this limited use of morphological tone is due to homophony avoidance.

Chapter 5, “Tonal inflection in Mande languages: The cases of Bamana and Dan-Gwɛɛta” (Valentin Vydrin), contrasts the use of tone in two related languages, Bamana (Mali) and Dan-Gwɛɛta (Côte d’Ivoire), demonstrating that related languages may use tone quite differently. Bamana has only two tones, and inflectional tone is limited to the definite article, which is realized as a floating low tone. Vyrdin points to the article *-ò, still used in many closely related languages, as the likely historical source for this tone. Dan-Gwɛɛta, on the other hand, has five level tones, and tone also plays a critical role in inflection: auxiliary verbs and locative noun cases are distinguished, in part, by tone; morphological tone may overwrite a stem tone to indicate neutral aspect, nominalization, or head-marking; a low tone may be inserted to indicate an infinitive; or a tone may be lowered to mark the conjoint status of a verb. Vydrin indicates that several of these inflectional tones have their historical origins in postpositions, while the source of others is unclear.

Chapter 6, “A typology of tone and inflection: A view from the Oto-Manguean languages of Mexico” (Enrique L. Palancar) serves as an introduction to the second part of the book, introducing the Oto-Manguean languages and offering an overview of the roles tone plays in their inflectional systems. At one end of the spectrum, tone plays a very simple role: tones are assigned to affixes, just as they are assigned to words, and in some cases these affixes are distinguished only by tone. At the opposite end of the spectrum, tone is the only exponent of a morpheme. Palancar suggests, however, that morphological tone in Oto-Manguean is typically somewhere in the middle: tone plays a critical role in inflection, but it is not associated with a single morphosyntactic function. Finally, Palancar shows that tone may be the best way to define inflectional classes in the morphology of some languages. He closes with a plea for linguists who work on tone languages to carefully document full inflectional paradigms so that relational tone can be better understood.

Chapter 7, “Tone and inflection in Zenzontepec Chatino” (Eric Campbell), gives a thorough overview of the role tone plays in verbal inflection in Zenzontepec Chatino (Zapotecan) and also offers an outline of the language’s verbal morphology and tonal phonology. Zenzontepec Chatino makes use of tone throughout its verbal inflection system, but it does so in two distinct ways. The tone of personal inflection is predictable and depends on the tone of the uninflected stem. For most pronominal enclitics, this just means that the tone on the pronominal enclitic follows the regular phonological rules of the language. However, the second person morpheme has no segmental material; it is realized only as a tone on the stem, but it is nonetheless phonologically predictable. Aspect/mood morphology behaves quite differently. Aspect/mood is marked both with a prefix and with tone changes on the stem, but neither of these is predictable from the other. In total, when combined, Zenzontepec Chatino has 31 inflectional classes for aspect/mood that can be considered regular. Despite this large number, Campbell points to comparative evidence to show that this system is both enduring and stable.

Chapter 8, “Tonal inflection and dialectal variation in Mazatec” (Jean Léo Léonard and Julian Fulcrand), undertakes a comparative examination of verbal inflection in the highly diverse Mazatec (Popolocan) diasystem. The authors take historic data from Huautla as a reference point and show that those inflectional tonal patterns no longer hold completely, even in the Huautla dialect. Data collected from other dialects show considerable divergence. Nevertheless, there are two basic types of tonal inflection in the Mazatec languages. In the Central Highlands type, including Huautla, verbs have lexical tone, which is a combination of preverb and root tone, in the 3rd person; a downstep pattern in the 1st singular and incompletive verbs; and an Obligatory Contour Principle-driven pattern elsewhere. In the Lowlands type, these patterns show a strong tendency towards neutralization. Some of these dialects show clear morphological patterns based on tense/aspect/modality paradigms, while in others the distribution of tone appears to be random. The authors suggest that further research will reveal a strong influence of sociolinguistic factors in these verb paradigms.

Chapter 9, “Tonal overwriting and inflectional exponence in Amuzgo” (Yuni Kim), explores the complex person inflection system in Amuzgo (Eastern Oto-Manguean). Kim shows that, although tone is associated with inflection, it carries no specific morphosyntactic meaning. In fact, tone does not carry crucial information about the inflection system at all; person inflection can be determined from segmental information alone. Nevertheless, tone is a critical part of the inflection system, and Kim proposes a minimum of eleven tonal inflection classes in Amuzgo. These inflectional tones frequently overwrite the lexical tones on the verb stems. Thus, Kim proposes that in the resulting system, tone plays a unique role for listeners: by identifying the inflection class to which a stem belongs, it allows them to retrieve the correct lexical item.

Chapter 10, “Abstract and concrete tonal classes in Itunyoso Triqui person morphology” (Christian DiCanio), addresses the tonal morphology of Itunyoso Triqui (Mixtec) person clitics. As background, DiCanio offers a thorough phonological analysis of tone in Itunyoso Triqui. He then applies this analysis to person cliticization, arguing that much of the clitic-induced tone change is driven by the phonology. Not only do inflectional tones spread and associate according to regular phonological rules, but the phonology also plays a role in allomorph selection. However, the phonology cannot fully account for morphological variation; some tonal alternations are purely morphological. For example, mid tone stems must be lexically specified as belonging to either a tone raising class or a non-tone-raising class.

Chapter 11, “Tracing the emergence of inflectional tone in Cuicatec” (Timothy Feist and Enrique Palancar), explores the highly complex inflection system for verb aspect in Cuicatec (Mixtecan). Cuicatec verbs can be divided into a large number of inflectional classes as determined by either affix patterns or tone, but these classes do not match; any given affix class can be matched with tone patterns from one of four tone classes. A large portion of this chapter focuses on data and methodology, laying out clear verb paradigms and explaining how one can begin to make sense of such a complex system. The authors also draw conclusions about a likely historical path through which this inflectional system has arisen and propose that the Cuicatec system is a system in flux.

Chapter 12, “Verbal inflection in Yoloxóchitl Mixtec” (Enrique Palancar, Jonathan Amith and Rey Castillo Garcia), offers an overview of the tonal morphology of Yoloxóchitl Mixtec (Mixtecan), with a special emphasis on verb aspect. Tone plays a role throughout the morphological system, not only in the inflectional morphology but also in the derivational morphology, and the authors include a wealth of data illustrating its use. The most detail is given to the description of Yoloxóchitl Mixtec verb inflection, where tone marks first person singular, along with aspect, mood, and polarity, typically without any accompanying segmental information. Much of the system is highly regular. The authors conclude with a comparison of Yoloxóchitl Mixtec inflection to that of other Mixtecan languages and end with a final call for more documentation of these endangered languages.


This book offers a fascinating look at a wide variety of morphological systems, many of which have received very little attention from linguists who are not specialists in these languages. Most obviously, it provides a basis for continuing research on the grammatical nature, historical source, and typology of relational tone and for research on morphology in general. However, as data-rich introductions to the morphological systems in question, many of the individual papers may also be viewed as a starting point for work on the languages they describe.

This book is, of course, of special interest to linguists specializing in morphology or Oto-Manguean languages. The general topic of the book is morphology, but the papers in the book are almost all written from the perspective of morphophonology rather than morphosyntax; beyond offering a label, most authors pay little attention to syntactic function of the morphemes they describe. Most of the papers are not highly theoretical, but to the extent that they do delve into theory, it is primarily phonological theory rather than morphological theory, with Kim’s paper being a notable and interesting exception. Thus phonologists, especially those researching tone, will also find much of interest in this book. Researchers specializing in morphological or tonal typology will also be interested this book; many of the languages in it have highly complex tone or morphology systems. Finally, some chapters may be of interest to linguists who teach morphology or phonology and are looking for new data sets to use; many of them include data presented in clear paradigms that would be relatively easy to adapt as classroom materials.

Overall, the book meets its stated goals, which are repeated below:

1. (Challenge the common perception that tone is a lexical phenomenon only.) No chapter of this book leaves any doubt that tone plays a vital role in inflection.

2. (Offer a greater imperative for tone to be introduced to all linguistics students and for all linguistic researchers to document any tonal phenomena present in the languages they study.) Although this is largely accomplished implicitly, it is clear that an account of the phonology or syntax of the languages addressed in this volume would be impoverished, sometimes severely, without a thorough and accurate description of their inflectional tone systems.

3. (Offer clear fieldwork based descriptions of relational tone.) One of the strengths of this volume is the large amount of primary data included in it. Some papers are highly descriptive in nature, while others are more theoretical, but all of them are strongly based in data, and the majority of the papers include data collected by the authors.

4. (Explore the relationship between relational tone and lexical tone.) Many of the papers in this volume demonstrate ways in which lexical tone can be overwritten by relational tone, although no overarching description or theoretical approach is given.

5. (Explore possible historical sources for relational tone, as well as the possibility that tone can emerge spontaneously in a grammar.) The majority of the papers in this volume touch on historical sources for tone, although again, the integration of this information is left to the reader. Although the idea that tone can emerge spontaneously in the grammar is intriguing, the papers in this volume do not seem to offer evidence for it.

6. (Explore the phonological behavior of relational tone and the ways in which relational tone may affect the phonology and syntax of a language.) Most papers in this volume offer considerable analysis of the phonology of relational tone; the syntax of relational tone receives very little attention.

7. (Offer a preliminary look at the typology of relational tone.) Given the wide variety of relational tone types found in the languages in this volume, it certainly offers a preliminary look into typology. As can be expected in a book of collected papers, the integration of the data in individual papers into a typology is, again, largely left to the reader. However, a number of the papers do offer cross-linguistic comparisons of relational tone in related or unrelated languages, including Hyman; Vydrin; Palancar; Léonard and Fulcrand; and Palancar, Amith, and Castillo Garcia.

As a whole, this volume coheres on a topical level, in the sense that all of the papers deal with relational tone, and the introduction helps to create a more coherent whole. However, the wide variety of approaches does make it less coherent, and while this means a much broader audience will take interest in at least some chapter, some readers may find this to be a weakness. At the very least, the book may have benefitted from more effort towards coherence in areas such as terminology. While each of the authors made very reasonable choices, the switch between, e.g., two systems of tone numbers can be a bit jarring, and one author seems to use a different definition of inflection than the others do. A more consistent approach to data presentation, including a requirement that complex examples include interlinear glossing, would also be helpful to the reader. Related to this concern, this volume would have benefitted from more consistent editing. While most of the issues are relatively minor, some papers would be more approachable with careful editing. The biggest concern for this reader is that, in a few cases, it appears that alignment of data with tone labels may be incorrect. These shortcomings, however, are small compared to the value this book offers to the field.
Katie Tang teaches phonetics and phonology at Portland State University. Her research interests include tone as well as the phonetics of Chinese dialects; she is also interested in applications of phonetics and phonology to language teaching.