Capturing Linguistic Diversity: Grammatical Tone in Gyeli

Nadine Grimm

Friday, January 25, 2019
12:30 p.m.–2 p.m.

Dewey 2-110E


The human capacity for language enables us to create elaborate multimodal systems of communication. The most striking feature of human language is its diversity of form and meaning on every level of communication (Levinson 2014). This diversity, however, is threatened by an ongoing mass extinction of languages and cultures, depriving us of the possibility to investigate the full extent of what the human mind is capable of and build a theory of language that takes all its diverse forms into account.

Couched in a documentary and descriptive framework, I contribute to the understanding of linguistic diversity by investigating a vastly under-studied field in linguistics: grammatical tone. Tone, i.e. pitch modulation, is a feature present in 60-70% of the languages of the world (Yip 2002) that comes in different forms and encodes different types of meaning, for instance, distinguishing lexical meanings or grammatical functions. Yet, most theories of grammar pay scant attention to tone due to a predominant bias towards studying Indo-European languages that lack tonal systems. Further, most literature on tone almost exclusively concentrates on the phonetics and phonology of tone (Goldsmith 1990, Gussenhoven 2004).

Based on empirical data from fieldwork in Cameroon on Gyeli, an endangered Bantu language spoken by ``Pygmy'' hunter-gatherer, I show the intricate interplay between a tonal system and its grammatical functions. Tone is the primary means in Gyeli to encode a variety of grammatical functions, including encoding seven grammatical tense-mood distinctions and the distinction between realis and irrealis categories, marking syntactic categories such as an object following a verb, forming noun compounds, and expressing deictic distance. I discuss how understanding the range of functions grammatical tone can encode and its interfaces with other parts of the grammar in Gyeli contributes to developing a typology of grammatical tone systems across languages.