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Review of  The Phonology of Chichewa

Reviewer: Japhet Onaolapo Ajani
Book Title: The Phonology of Chichewa
Book Author: Laura J. Downing Al Mtenje
Publisher: Oxford University Press
Linguistic Field(s): Morphology
Subject Language(s): Nyanja
Issue Number: 29.3285

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The phonology of Chichewa by Laura J. Downing and Al Mtenje (2017; Oxford University Press) is a description of the phonology of Chichewa. Chichewa belongs to the Bantu language family and it is spoken in the Central and Southern regions of Malawi. Chichewa has three major dialects which exist in the Central, Southern and Eastern Regions. The authors presented data from Chichewa and other related Bantu languages.

The goal of the book, as explained by the authors, is to provide “a detailed description of the major phonological processes in Chichewa that places them in a broader typological and theoretical context” (pg. 8). With this in mind, the authors proceed to show the relationships that exist among segmental inventories, syllable structure, and prosody; and how they relate to linguistic fields like morphology and syntax. The authors draw from the wealth of previous work like Myers (1999a & b), Mtenje (1986), Kanerva (1990), Hyman and Mtenje (1999a &b), Downing and Mtenje (2011), Downing (2006), and Odden (2015) among others.

The book is organized into the following chapters:

Chapter 1: Introduction
Chapter 2: Grammatical Sketch
Chapter 3: Segmental Phonology: consonants
Chapter 4: Segmental Phonology: Vowels
Chapter 5: Syllable Structure
Chapter 6: Tonal Phonology: Lexical Tone Patterns
Chapter 7: Grammatical Tone Patterns of Affirmative Main Clause Verbs
Chapter 8: Grammatical Tone Patterns of Negative and Relative Verbs
Chapter 9: Prosodic Morphology
Chapter 10: Phrasal Phonology
Chapter 11: Intonation

Chapter 1: Introduction

This chapter introduces the Chichewa language, the dialects and related languages. It also introduces Chichewa and the phonological theories that have been used to explain it. The state of phonological analyses (and their interface with morphology and syntax) is briefly introduced. While some phonological analyses have been conclusive, the authors highlight that some have generated controversies which have encouraged research in the language over the years. The nature of tonal processes in Bantu and Chichewa is presented, briefly, in this section. The authors also give overview on morphological and syntactic interfaces with phonology of Chichewa. This chapter also presents the goals of the book.

Chapter 2: Grammatical Sketch

Chapter 2 introduces the phoneme inventory of Chichewa as well as the transcription system used in the book. Chichewa is a tonal language with two tonal levels; High and Low. The Low tone is phonetically and phonologically underspecified. In the book, High tone is the only marked or represented tone, with an acute accent mark; Low tone is not marked.
“Chichewa has agglutinating morphology” (pg. 14). Chichewa is a noun class language, that is, nouns are made up of stems and prefixes which show how they agree in classes. There are eighteen agreement classes in Chichewa nouns which are identified by the noun class prefixes (pg. 15). The prefixes are grouped into singular and plural pairs (check pg. 14 - 25 for an in-depth discussion on Chichewa Noun class system).
Finally, the chapter discusses word order and agreement in noun phrases and verb phrases with special emphasis on the class system of Chichewa. It also examines clause structures and how phonology and morphology help in the formation of the syntactic components such as questions and subordinate clauses,

Chapter 3: Segmental Phonology: Consonants

This chapter looks at the consonant inventory of Chichewa. It compares Chichewa consonants with Proto-Bantu consonant inventories. Consonantal variations are due to variation among dialects of Chichewa. Aspiration, nasal place assimilation are also discussed here. Homorganic nasals (NC) form clusters.
Two morphologically conditioned processes are identified in Chichewa. They are root initial changes in class 5/6 singular plural pairs and spirantization (fricativization). In the former, some aspirated voiceless stops in class 5 become unaspirated when the class 6 plural affix [ma-] occurs before them. For example, [thuumba] becomes /ma-tuumba/ ‘bag’. In some other instances, stem initial alveolar fricative /s/ and /z/ in the plural class 6 replace voiceless alveolar affricates in class 5. For example, [tsaamba] becomes /ma-saamba/ ‘leaf’. On causative spirantization, stem final consonants are affected. /k/ and /l/ become fricatives /ts/ and /z/ respectively. For example, [tuluuka] ‘come out’ becomes /tuluutsa/ ‘bring out’.

Chapter 4: Segmental Phonology: Vowels

This chapter examines the vowel inventory in Chichewa and how they relate to Proto-Bantu vowels. How Chichewa vowels are used phonologically and morphologically is examined. The chapter also looks at vowel height harmony in Chichewa and how it contributes to the development of phonological theories. Chichewa has five vowels which are [i u ɛ ɔ a] compared to other Bantu languages’ seven contrastive vowels. An interesting mention of the vowels in Chichewa is the long vowels that only occupy the phrase penult position. This position is predictable in every instance in this language. The authors mention that “the long vowel contrast is only found in root-initial position, the position of maximum phonemic contrast in Chichewa” (pg. 67). For example, [vula] ‘undress’ vs [vuula] ‘pull out of the water’.

Looking at Chichewa Vowel Height Harmony or VHH which is a phonological phenomenon where vowels agree in height and can only be used with vowels of the same height in words, the authors identify three features of Bantu VHH, these are (a) front-back asymmetry, (b) the low vowel a is also asymmetric and (c) morphological conditioning by drawing from Hyman (1999) and Odden (2015). To explain phonological approaches to VHH, the authors present underspecification theory, markedness/faithfulness theory in OT and element/licensing theory (which is the most plausible argument). The book did not agree on which of the three phonological approaches to VHH would best explain VHH in Bantu languages. one may then assume that the authors’ analyses only complicates the initial knowledge of VHH.

Chapter 5: Syllable Structure

This chapter examines the syllable structure of Chichewa, sound sequences, and loanword phonotactic resolution. Chichewa syllable structure is CV which can be found in all positions. Meanwhile, a syllable can be made up of a vowel; that is, an onsetless syllable, but it is restricted to only word initial positions (pg. 91). Chichewa allows only three types of consonant sequences and only two sequences; they are: consonant glide (CG) and homorganic nasal consonant with a non-syllabic nasal (NC). They can only occur morpheme internally and across morpheme boundaries. These sequences are created by phonotactics as well as nasal prefix contraction, which is another interesting topic in Chichewa.

CG are formed in Chichewa, as a vowel hiatus resolution technique, from clusters of consonants and underlying [+high] vowel. This happens because Chichewa places a ban on the number of consonants that may be in sequence. The authors recognize that NC sequences in Bantu languages is a controversial topic because different arguments support NC sequence as a cluster or not. Meanwhile, they argue that “NC is a cluster, and when the nasal of the cluster is postvocalic, it is syllabified in coda position.” Meanwhile, the authors suggest a phonetic analysis of the argument.

On loanword adaptation in Chichewa, vowel epenthesis was identified, as the strategy used in the adaptation of consonant sequences. Anderson et al (1973: 95), explaining borrowing, state that “when cultures come into contact with one another, borrowing takes place primarily in the realm of lexical item”. In the case of Chichewa, the language has borrowed mainly from English. The epenthetic vowel must agree in features with the preceding consonant. /i/ is the default epenthetic vowel in Chichewa but /u/ can be used to similarity in features of a preceding labial consonant. (see pg. 96 for examples).

If vowel sequences occur across morpheme boundaries, some morphologically conditioned processes must step in to resolve the sequences. Glide formation resolves vowel sequences between a Subject Marker and a vowel initial Tense-Aspect-Mood (TAM) prefix. If the Subject Marker consists of “a bilabial or velar consonant followed by a high back vowel or only of a high vowel”. For example, /mu-a-gon-a/ → [mwagoóná] ‘you have slept’, where /u/ becomes a glide after the bilabial nasal /m/. In contrast, glide formation will not take place if the TAM and stem begin with a consonant. Compare this example, [mú-góóná] ‘you will sleep’.

Chapter 6: Tonal Phonology: Lexical Tone Patterns

This chapter introduces tone in Chichewa. It looks at lexical tone patterns and tonal processes and functions of tone in the language. The authors declare that “Chichewa is a tone language” (pg. 109). It is a two-tone system; High and Low, tone is contrastive, tonal processes take place and verb tonal patterns are complex. In the language, low tone is underspecified because, according to Myers (1998), “it does not play any active role in Chichewa”.

On tones on nouns stems in Chichewa, according to Kanerva (1990), it is unusual for a noun to have more than one underlying high tone. But there are exceptions in borrowed and ideophonic words where two high tones can be realized. High tones can appear on any syllable of Chichewa nouns. Interestingly, Chichewa verbs stems can be toneless, that is, low toned, or bear only one high tone. The study of Chichewa tone also compares tones in other Bantu languages and in Proto-Bantu. Verbs in Chichewa can take three verbal extensions or affixes. These are the stative/passive, -ík-/-ék-, the intensive, -íts-/-éts and the reversive ‑úk‑. The authors note that when these verbal affixes are added to inherently toneless verbs, a high tone will result. For example, (pg. 115), when these verbal extensions are added to the imperative toneless verbs, a high tone will appear on the final two moras of the imperative verb stem; meny-eék-á ‘be beatable’. Compare ‘meny-eets-a ‘cause to hit’. (note that the second tone on the final vowel /a/ is not part of the discussion).Some of the tonal processes identified in Chichewa include, tone doubling, tone plateauing, final retraction, tone deletion (Meeussen’s Rule) and tone shift.
Finally, on the phonetics of tone and how consonants can influence pitch of following vowels, the authors indicate that more research needs to “test whether pitch is a reliable cue to laryngeal quality of a preceding consonant in Chichewa (pg. 132).

Chapter 7: Grammatical Tone Patterns of Affirmative Main Clause Verbs

This chapter discusses different grammatical tone patterns of affirmative main clause verbs. It shows the connections that exist between tonology and syntax.

As indicated by the authors, inflectional properties of the verb complex are derived through association of high tones to the verbs. “These grammatical high tones sometimes are added to the lexical tone contributed by the verb stem and sometimes replace the lexical tone” (pg. 136). Tonal processes, mentioned in Chapter 6, work on the different realizations of tones on Chichewa grammar. The authors analyse how tone interacts with imperative, perfective and permissive forms, subjunctive mood, simple past tense, progressive tense, past tenses, and future tense among other grammatical types.

Finally, while raising concerns about the ambiguity surrounding high tones and its patterns on some morphemes, the authors conclude that it “remains a topic for future research” (pg. 172).

Chapter 8: Grammatical Tone Patterns of Negative and Relative Verbs

Building up on the issues raised in Chapter 7, this chapter evaluates grammatical tone patterns of negative and relative verbs in Chichewa. It also looks at how tone behaves in relative clause construction.

The authors provide data showing tonal behaviours in negative perfective and simple past tense, negative infinitive verb forms, negative subjunctive verb forms, and negative future tenses, among other negative categories studied. On relative clauses, differences in tone patterns of the verb show the differences between relative clauses and main clauses.

Finally, the authors address where grammatical tone is represented in the grammar of the language. The authors note that the answer to the “question is not obvious” but encouraged future research to look at the question and some other related ones.

Chapter 9: Prosodic Morphology

This chapter focuses on how prosodic principles contribute to word formation processes in Chichewa. Drawing from previous research, the authors point out that disyllabic or bimoraic minimality, and nominal and verbal reduplication are important in the morphology of Bantu languages and, by extension, Chichewa. Quoting McCarthy and Prince (1986), they identify two main strategies that make minimality requirement important, cross-linguistically. The strategies are (a) phonological augmentation of subminimal forms and blocking of deletion processes to avoid creating subminimal forms and (b) that word bases should be minimally disyllabic (pg. 209-210).

On nominal reduplication, it is noted that it is “the last two syllables of the base that reduplicate […] no matter how long the base noun (or pronoun) is” (pg. 214). Contrastively, verbal reduplication, the authors observe, “is not subjected to a disyllabic maximality condition. The entire verb stem is copied, no matter how long it is” (pg. 219).
Finally, the disyllabic syndrome is discussed as a prosodic well-formedness condition in the language and it plays some important roles in its morphological processes. The authors point out how controversial and ‘problematic’ (pg. 227) it is to try to link the disyllabic syndrome to metrical foot binarity, because,for one reason, Chichewa, like most Bantu languages, is not a stress language.

Chapter 10: Phrasal Phonology

In this chapter the authors evaluate a well-known aspect of Chichewa – phrasal phonology. As stated earlier, one of the most predictable features of the language is penultimate vowel lengthening. The chapter also looks at how tonal processes operate within phrasal phonology. Citing Kanerva (1990) and Bresnan and Kanerva (1989), four phonological processes are conditioned by prosodic phrasing in the language. These are: penult lengthening, tone doubling, tone plateauing, and final retraction.

The role of syntax in Chichewa prosodic phrasing and the interface between phonology and syntax are also discussed. On pg. 236, the authors note that “prosodic phrasing in Chichewa is predominantly conditioned by syntax: the right edges of prosodic phrases align with the right edges of clauses”. The alignment is further called Intonation phrase. It is maintained that Chichewa does not have focus prosody. Quoting Kanerva (1990), two levels of prosodic phrasing in Chichewa are identified. They are (a) the phonological phrase and (b) the intonation phrase. Kanerva further provides two cues that define intonation phrase differently from phonological phrase: (a) culminative penult lengthening and (b) lengthening of the final vowel and downstep/register rest. (see Kanerva 1990 for more details). They conclude that “Kanerva’s phonological phrases can be reinterpreted as minimal intonation phrases, contrasting with maximal intonation phrases” (pg. 253).

Chapter 11: Intonation

This section discusses intonation phonetically and phonologically in Chichewa. It gives an overview of intonation in three basic constructions in the language: declarative sentences (simple and complex), content questions and answers, and polar questions. It also considers emphasis prosody.

Declarative sentences often undergo what Myers (1996) calls “dramatic fall” in pitch at the end of the sentences. In complex sentences, downstep is observed. Therefore, lexical tones are important in the behaviour of intonational tones in Chichewa. Downstep, the cause of intonational fluctuation is found throughout most declarative utterances with one exception which is that “downstep appears to be suspended in the context of a non-restrictive relative clause” (pg. 259). In addition, intonation of content question is similar to that of the declarative sentences. But, downstep is not operational in polar questions and the register is raised. Using the study by Downing et. al. (2004), emphasis prosody “is realized with optional prosodic phrasing before or after the emphasized word”.

The chapter concludes that intonation is not minimized in Chichewa; it also shows that intonation does not overrides lexical tones. Lexical tones, as we have seen in the chapters on tone, is capable of influencing morphology and syntax of Chichewa.


The book is a rich source of information on a Bantu language. The authors have, by combining and analysing previous studies on Chichewa and related languages, succeeded in providing links that exist within Bantu languages.

This book has also opened up emerging and thought-provoking research areas in phonology in Bantu languages and it is believed that those research areas can be extended to other languages.

This book is an eye opener for phonologists who are interested in the phonological issues emanating from Bantu languages and how they pertain to Chichewa. It is of interest to those who intend to find connections that exist between phonology and morphology, especially prosodic morphology, and syntax. It is also a good reference for understanding interfaces between phonology and other linguistic study areas of Chichewa. It is, however, not a reference for beginners in phonology as it does not give the kind of introduction they would expect when they are to be introduced to a concept. Overall, the book shows how research in Bantu languages have evolved over the years and how it can be advanced by opening up some fantastic research areas for interested researchers in this line of study.

This book stands as a reliable and robust source on the phonology of Chichewa.

Anderson, Stephen R. and Paul Kiparsky (eds.). 1973. A Festschrift for Morris Halle. New York: Holt. Reinehart & Wiston.
Bresnan, Joan and Jonni Kanerva. 1989. Locative inversion in Chichewa: A case study of factorization in grammar. Linguistic Inquiry 20: 1–50.

Downing, Laura J. 2004. Jita causative doubling provides optimal paradigms. In Laura J. Downing, T. Alan Hall, and Renate Raffelsiefen (eds), Paradigms in Phonological Theory. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 122–44

Downing, Laura J. 2006. Canonical Forms in Prosodic Morphology. Oxford: Oxford University Press.

Downing, Laura J. and Al Mtenje. 2011. Prosodic phrasing of Chichewa relative clauses. Journal of African Languages and Linguistics 32: 65–111.
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Hyman, Larry M. and Al Mtenje. 1999a. Non-etymological High tones in the Chichewa verb. Malilime: Malawian Journal of Linguistics 1: 121–56.

Hyman, Larry M. and Al Mtenje. 1999b. Prosodic morphology and tone: The case of Chichewa. In René Kager, Harry van der Hulst, and Wim Zonneveld (eds.). The Prosody–Morphology Interface. Cambridge: Cambridge University press, 90–133.

Kanerva, Jonni. 1990. Focus and Phrasing in Chichewa Phonology. New York: Garland Publishing.

McCarthy, John J. and Alan S. Prince. 1986. Prosodic Morphology Report no. RuCCS-TR-32. New Brunswick, NJ: Rutgers University Center for Cognitive Science. Available online at:

Mtenje, Al D. 1986. Issues in the nonlinear phonology of Chichewa. PhD dissertation, University College London.

Myers, Scott. 1996. Boundary tones and the phonetic implementation of tone in Chichewa’. Studies in African Linguistics 25: 29–60.

Myers, Scott. 1998b. Surface underspecification of tone in Chichewa’. Phonology 15: 367–91.

Myers, Scott. 1999a. Downdrift and pitch range in Chichewa intonation’. Proceedings of the 14th International Congress of Phonetic Sciences (ICPhS 99), San Francisco, 1981–4.

Myers, Scott. 1999b. Tone association and F0 timing in Chichewa’. Studies in African Linguistics 28: 215–39.

Odden, David. 2015. Bantu phonology. Oxford Handbooks Online, DOI: 10.1093/oxfordhb/9780199935345.013.59.
Japhet Ajani is a Ph.D. Fellow in the Linguistics Program at Tulane University, New Orleans, USA. His research interests include phonetics, phonology, sociophonetics, and linguistic fieldwork.

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ISBN-13: 9780198724742
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