Is Sengwato a Possible Language? – Elizabeth Zsiga (Georgetown University)

April 4, 2006 all-day

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Sengwato, a dialect of Setswana spoken in Botswana, ought to be impossible. In this talk, we’ll examine two aspects of the sound structure of Sengwato that ought to be impossible: doubly-articulated fricatives, a sound that shouldn’t occur and post-nasal devoicing, a process that shouldn’t occur. Doubly-articulated labio-coronal fricatives, which produce audible turbulence with the tongue blade and lips simultaneously, have been argued to be physically impossible (Ladefoged and Maddieson 1996). Post-nasal devoicing, a preference for voiceless consonants after nasals whereby [bata], “look for”‚ becomes [mpata] “look for me”‚ can not be derived from the interaction of phonetically-grounded constraints. The aerodynamic consequences of velum lowering and raising for nasality have been shown to promote voicing Hayes 1999, and all other languages examined Pater 1999 show either no phonological effect of the nasal environment, or a preference for voiced stops after nasals. For example, English allows both [mp] and [mb] camper vs. amber, and Kikuyu allows only [mb] /n+koma/ “I sleep”‚ becomes [Ngoma] (Clements 1985). Setswana is the only clear case where it has been argued that [mb] is prohibited and [mp] is preferred. The case has thus proven problematic for the typological predictions of theories such as OT Hyman 2001, Odden 2003. This talk will present a reanalysis of the consonant system of Sengwato, based on acoustic data from six speakers of the dialect, recorded in the village of Shoshong, Central Botswana Tlale 2005; Zsiga, Gouskova, & Tlale in press. Acoustic and video recordings confirm that labio-coronal fricatives are indeed double articulations and not sequences. Realization of the voiced‚ stops varied by speaker, by place of articulation, and by position. Post-nasal stops are confirmed to be voiceless. In other positions, however, segments that are described in the literature as voiced stops are generally found to be either not voiced or not stops. We conclude that the Sengwato consonant system can be better analyzed by reference to phonetically-grounded constraints against voiced stops and to an independently active process of post-nasal hardening. In the one case, I will argue that we need to adjust our understanding of universal constraints based on what we know about Sengwato. In the other case, I will argue that we need to adjust our understanding of Sengwato in light of what we know about universal constraints. Lisa Zsiga, Department of Linguistics, Georgetown University in collaboration with Maria Gouskova NYU and One Tlale University of Botswana.

Center for Language and Speech Processing