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Grammatical sketch of Beng

Beng phonology

Section 4
Denis Paperno
p. 18-25

Texte intégral

4.1. Phonological inventory

1Beng has a typical triangular vocalic system of seven oral and five nasal vowels.

Table 2.1. Vocalic phonemes

oral

 

nasal

front

back

front

back

high

i

u

high

mid

upper-mid

e

o

mid

ɛ̰

ɔ̰

lower-mid

ɛ

ɔ

low

low

a

2Minimal pairs. Height: yé ‘mouth’ – yí ‘water’, béŋ́ ‘horn’ – bɛ́ŋ́ ‘black monkey’, bɛ̄ŋ̄ ‘fruit’ – bāŋ̄ ‘rope’, bā ‘earth’ – bɔ̄ ‘to leave’ – bō ‘to remove’, fō ‘to multiply’ – fū ‘to take by surprise’, mḭ̄ ‘to drink’ – mɛ̰̄ ‘to beat’ – mā̰ ‘to hear’, dā̰ ‘to cough’ – dɔ̰̄ ‘to know’ – dṵ̄ ‘to enter’.

3Backness: blī ‘place’ – blū ‘sorcery’, blē ‘to eat’ – blō ‘to clear’, bɛ̀ŋ́ ‘Beng’ – bɔ̀ŋ́ ‘lizard type’, (ŋó) ŋò dḭ́ wē ɛ́ ‘(I) am not near them’ – ŋò dṵ́ wē ɛ́ ‘they did not enter there’, drɛ̰̄ ‘work’ – drɔ̰̄ ‘cough’.

4Nasalization: cḭ́ ‘to vomit’ – cī ‘skin’, sɛ̰̄ ‘pain’ – sē ‘all’, klɛ̰́ ‘land’ – klɛ́ ‘bag’, bā̰ŋ̄ ‘scarification’ – bāŋ̄ ‘rope’, dɔ̰̄ ‘to know’ – dɔ̄ ‘to cease’ – dō ‘one’, bṵ̄ ‘carry’ – bū ‘ten’.

5In addition to oral and nasal vowels there is a syllabic nasal ŋ, realized as [ŋ] before a pause, a vowel, or a w. In other cases /ŋ/ undergoes place assimilation to the following consonant (but it is realized as dental [n] before a palatal consonant), compare: [m̄ pɔ̄ú] ‘my field’, [n̄ dǎ̰] ‘my pot’, [n̄ jàbò] ‘my water tank’, [ŋ̄ kàfè] ‘my coffee’, [ŋ̄m̄ kpā] ‘my locust tree fruit’.

6Vowel + ŋ combinations can be considered diphthongoids (combinations of two segments capable of bearing tone into one mora). Other diphthongs of Beng consist of /i/, /ḭ/, /u/ or /ṵ/ followed by a different vowel of matching nasality: /ia/, /ua/, /ḭa̰/, /ṵa̰/, /iɛ/, /uɛ/, /ḭɛ̰/, /ṵɛ̰/, /ie/, /ue/, /io/, /uo/, /uɔ/, /ḭɔ̰/, /ui/. In diphthongs, /i/ and /u/ tend not to combine with each other: combinations /iu/, /ḭṵ/, /ṵḭ/ are unattested, /ui/ occurs in one word only. Vowel /ɔ/ is only marginally attested in diphthongs: /iɔ/, /ḭɔ̰/, and /ṵɔ̰/ are unattested in underived forms, and /uɔ/ is found only in three words: pùɔ̀ ‘soft’ (by assimilation from */pùɛ̀/?), Sùɔ̀ ‘female name’ and Tùɔ́ ‘male name’. Combinations [uɔ] and [ṵɔ̰], however, do arise in complex forms as a result of /l/ deletion and accompanying vowel quality assimilation (see 4.2.2): [plùɔ̀] < /plù lɛ̀/ ‘the stomach’, [nṵ̄ɔ̰̀ló] < /nṵ̄lɛ̀ló/ ‘coming’ (progressive). Examples of words with diphthongs: blùá ‘to tire’, fìà ‘better’, klṵ́á̰ ‘to steal’, gbḭ́á̰ ‘smoke’, fɔ̀líɛ̀ ‘sacrificial package’, gúɛ̄ ‘friend’, ŋṵ̀ɛ̰̀ ‘fetish’, kɔ̰̀nḭ̄ɛ̰̀ ‘hunt’, sìè ‘personality’, súé ‘to uproot’, píómíóŋ́ ‘pointed’, súó ‘house’, pùɔ̀ ‘soft, mobile’, súì ‘always’.

Table 2.2. Consonantal system

labial

dental

palatal

velar

labiovelar

stops

vd

b

d

j

g

gb

vs

p

t

c

k

kp

frica-tives

vd

v

z

vs

f

s

nasals

m

n

ɲ

ŋ

ŋm

liquids and glides

l/r

y

(h)

w

7The consonantal system distinguishes five places of articulation: labial, dental, palatal, velar and labiovelar. Labiovelar consonants are produced with double stop articulation, with air blockage created by lips, on the one hand, and tongue and soft palate, on the other hand.

8Lateral [l] and vibrant [r] represent the same phoneme. In the speech of most speakers, they are distributed as follows:

  • [r] after dental and palatal consonants;

  • [l] otherwise.

[l] and [r] are written as r and l in Beng orthography according to the said distribution.

9In fast, relaxed pronunciation the allophones [l]/[r] are not in complementary distribution. In fact both the [l] and the [r] variants are attested after any consonant, but only [l] is pronounced in the syllable onset position.

10Consonant h is attested only in interjections: hà̰á̰ ‘huh?’, hàí ‘oh!’, hɛ̰́ɛ̰̄ ‘take this!’, hô ‘wow!’, hōhōhōhō ‘ayayay!’, hṵ́ŋ̄ ‘take this!’. Only the first of those can be part of complex utterances, e.g. à dɛ̄ hà̰á̰ ‘play it (e.g. drum), huh?’, ŋ́ mlɛ̰̄ bàmâ̰ dō yè gblē hà̰á̰ ‘I saw a huge snake yesterday, huh!’. Although Paesler (1992) and Murphy (1995) characterize /h/ as a voiceless fricative, it can in fact be pronounced both voiced and voiceless, usually without significant acoustic noise.

4.1.1. Tones

11Beng has three tone levels, including low (marked L or with the grave diacritic: v̀), mid (marked M or with the macron sign: v̄), and high (H or the acute sign: v́).

12There are minimal triples distinguished just by tone levels, e.g. báŋ́ trapbāŋ̄ ropebàŋ̀ shoulder; pɛ́ŋ́ mortarpɛ̄ŋ̄ talepɛ̀ŋ̀ debt. In accordance with their names, realization of the tones is manifested primarily in the pitch of the syllable. Pitch, however, also shows some contextual effects, including those of phrasal position. For instance, vocal cords do not immediately achieve the desirable vibration rate at the onset of an utterance, so level tones can be realized after a pause as raising to the corresponding level. The reverse effect of falling pitch can sometimes be observed before a pause, but is often obfuscated by a glottal stop optionally epenthesized before a pause. Consonantal context also plays a role in tone realization, so that pitch lowers automatically on voiced obstruents. In addition, transitions between tones tend to be smooth. Transitional effects particularly affect the low tone, which is normally realized after a non-low tone as a falling contour from the level of the preceding syllable to the low level:

13The tendency for the low tone (L, v̀) to be realized in falling pitch is also observed in sequences of several low tone units. In this case all the low (L, v̀) tonemes except the last one are pronounced as low-mid tone, and the last L syllable is produced with pitch falling from the low to the utra-low level, compare example (3):

14A sequence of phonologically low tones after a high or mid tone is realized as very smoothly lowering pitch from the level of the preceding syllable. One could treat this effect as a phonological rule v́v̀v̀ v́v́v̀, v̄v̀v̀ v̄v̄v̀, for example: /gɔ̄ŋ̄ bìlɛ̀/  [gɔ̄m̄ bīlɛ̀] ‘this man’, /ŋ́ gɔ̀lù dō cḭ̀/ [ŋ́ gɔ́lù dō cḭ̀] ‘I carved out a walking stick’.

15However, a phonetic sequence of [H H L] (</H L L/) or [M M L] (</M L L/) of this nature does not cause downstep (see below) in the following syllable, so the [H H L] and [M M L] derived by tone spread behave differently from the underlying /H H L/ and /M M L/.

16In addition to level tones, Beng possesses four countour tones: HL (v̂), ML (v), LH (v̌), MH (v̈). The last one is very rare and occurs only in several units, historically bisyllabic but synchronically light (monomoraic), of the form ClV (< *CVLV): blä ‘to settle’, yrä ‘to stay’, zrä ‘to lose’, glë ‘difficult’, zrɛ̈ ‘road’, blö ‘to drain, to press’, zrö ‘to wash’, bṵ́mlɔ̰̈ ‘immediately’. Besides, a contour tone can appear as a result of vowel contraction, cf. stative pronominal series: 3sg òó > ǒ, 2sg mḭ̄ó > mḭ̈; ‘this’ ɲā̰á̰ > ɲä̰.

17The falling tone HL (v̂) is phonetically characterized by pitch lowering from the high level; despite the notation, this lowering usually does not reach the low pitch level phonetically. This is one phonetic feature distinguishing the realization of HL from the realization of L after H, which is also realized with pitch fall:

18We consider contour tones as phonologically decomposable into a sequence of two level tones. This interpretation simplifies the description of both tonal sandhi and morphologically conditioned tonal alternations, see below.

4.1.2. Syllable structure

19Beng’s main prosodic unit is the syllable, which sometimes corresponds historically to a disyllabic foot of other South Mande languages as a result of a syncope CVLV>CLV. The maximum syllable structure is /ClUVŋ/, where C stands for any consonant except /l/, l is the consonant /l/, U is any high vowel, V – is any non-high vowel, and ŋ is a syllable-final nasal. Any of those components can be absent, as long as the syllable has one tone bearing element, i.e. at least one vowel, or consists of a syllabic nasal. A syllable usually carries one tonal unit, which the orthography (and the transcription system accepted here) marks on all potentially tone-bearing units. Thus [túà] to stay consists of one syllable with a falling tone, and [ā̰ŋ̄]‘us consists of one syllable with a mid tone.

4.1.3. Segmental sandhi

20After /ŋ/, the syllable-initial /l/ becomes [n]. The resulting long [nn] can then shorten to [n]. This process is regular word-internally, in suffixes ‑ and ‑lí, and optional at word boundaries. Nasalization does not spread to vowels after the [n] resulting from such progressive nasal assimilation, contra the tendency for syllable-internal nasal harmony. Examples: /ŋ̄ lá/ ⇒ [n̄ ná] ‘my medicine’, /ɲḭ̀ŋ̀-lɛ́/ ⇒ [ɲḭ̀nɛ́] ‘propping up’, |gɛ̄ŋ̄-lɛ̀| ⇒ [gɛ̄nɛ̀] ‘beauty’ (the last two examples involve the nominalizing suffix ‑), /ŋ́ lɛ́ bɛ̀ŋ́/ [ń nɛ́ bɛ̀ŋ́] ‘I am Beng’.

21The glide /w/ is optionally deleted at morpheme boundaries, especially in function words, e.g. /klɛ́ŋ́ wó wē/ [klɛ́ŋ́ ó ē] ‘in the forest’ (‘forest IN there’). Droping /w/ is regular after /ŋ/, less regular after vowels.

22After a morpheme boundary, all vowels except high-mid /e/ and /o/ undergo progressive nasal assimilation following /ŋ/ or a nasal vowel, cf. bā ɛ̀ ‘this is earth’ vs. /bāŋ̄ ɛ̀/ [bāŋɛ̰̀] ‘this is a cord’, /mlà̰ ɛ̀/ [mlà̰ɛ̰̀] ‘this is a drum’. The nasal assimilation does not occur in the “nasal consonant+oral vowel” combinations that result from the abovementioned processes of /w/ deletion and /l/ nasalization.

23Two adjacent vowels of the same quality optionally fuse into one. The tones of both underlying segments get realized on the resulting short vowel. Examples: dàáló dǎló ‘seeding’ (progressive), wlááló wláló ‘laughing’ (progressive), bàá bǎ ‘snake venom’, ɲā̰á̰ ɲä̰ ‘this’, bā à ba̚ ‘the earth’ (with the definite article).

4.1.4. Tonal sandhi

24In Beng orthography, as well as in the transcription system accepted here, tone is marked on all segments that have the potential to bear tone, i.e. on all vowels and syllable-final /ŋ/. Phonologically however the tone bearing units are not segments but morae, which contain a short vowel, a diphthong of the form “high vowel+a different short vowel” (ie, ua etc.) or “vowel+ŋ”. Of course, tone is realized phonetically on all the voiced segments of a mora. Tone alternations, discussed below, show that those segment conbinations indeed function as single tone bearing units.

v̀| ¬_{v̀; v̌} (¬_L)

25Rising tone (LH) becomes low [l] before the following tonal values: H, M, MH, ML, HL. The contexts can be generalized as “before a non-low”, assuming that low tone (L) constitutes part of the rising contour LH. Examples: dǔ ‘knife’ /dǔ LH dō M/ [dù L dō M] ‘one knife’; òó wlá wǎ ‘he will destroy the house’ /ó wlá wǎ LH nā̰ M/ [ó wlá wà L nā̰ M] ‘he has destroyed the house’, mà̰nṵ́ŋ́ nḭ̀ ó ŋ̄ flṵ̀á̰ ‘I will get bored of rice’/mà̰nṵ́ŋ́ nḭ̀ ó ŋ̄ flṵ̀á̰ LH nā̰ M/ [mà̰nṵ́nḭ̀ ó m̄ flṵ̀à̰ L nā̰ M] ‘I have got bored of rice’. The last example shows that the rising tone on a mora with two vocalic segments undergoes the change just like in a mora with one vocalic segment, as is the case in the examples above.

v́, v̌ v̄ | _ {v̀; v̌} (_ L)

26Falling tones lose the descending part before a low tone element (i.e. before L and LH tones). Thanks to the assumption that contour tones can be decomposed into level units, this rule generalizes four distinct cases (HL and ML before L and LH). Examples: zɔ̂ ‘mat’ /zɔ̂ HL ɛ̀ L/ [zɔ́ H ɛ̀ L] ‘this is a mat’, si̚ ‘oil palm’ /si̚ ML ɛ̀ L/ [sī M ɛ̀ L] ‘this is an oil palm’.

27Beng has downstep. Non-low level tones H and М are realized lower that usual after a falling tonal sequence /v́v̀/, /v̄v̀/, /v̂/, or /v̚/:

28As noted already by Paesler (ms.), the cases of downstep triggered by the underlying falling tone of the preceding syllable are phonetically opaque, in the sense that the lowering of pitch on the syllable with underlying falling tone is small, undistinguishable from the phonetically automatic transition to the lower (downstepped) pitch level, e.g. /zɔ̂ ló/ HL H [zɔ́ !ló] H!H ‘over the mat’.

29Sequences of two vowels that are not diphthongs are bimoraic, whether the two vowels have identical (e.g. bàá ‘snake venom’, pǐì ‘wee’) or different quality (dɔ̀í ‘first’). Tone combinations on them are not subject to sandhi rules for contour tones.

30The verb gṵ̄à̰ ‘to remain’ is bimoraic (even though /ṵ̄à̰/ can be a diphthong in other words), so /ṵ/ and /a̰/ in it behave as separate tone bearing units. For example, gṵ̄à̰ does not lose the low tone before another low tone element.

4.2. Morphonology

4.2.1. ŋC simplification

31Combinations of the phoneme /ŋ/ with the following syllable-initial non-fricative consonant sometimes simplify into a nasal consonant homorganic with the second underlying consonant. This rule is regular word-internally with nasals, /l/ and /w/, while with stops and /y/ its application has to be specified lexically. Examples of the change within a compound: lēnrɛ̄ ‘bride’ < lēŋ̄ ‘woman’ + drɛ̄ ‘new’, bàŋlṵ̄ ‘shoulder joint’ < bàŋ̀ ‘shoulder’ + ŋlṵ̄ ‘head’; example within a reduplicated form: plāmlāŋ̄ ‘two each’ < /plāŋ̄ plāŋ̄/ (reduplication of plāŋ̄ ‘two’).

32All examples of ŋC simplification on word boundaries include combinations with a personal pronoun and could be interpreted as indications of pronoun cliticization – however, even in this context the rule is still irregular, applying only to some frequent object pronoun+verb or possessive pronoun+noun combinations. Some examples include: nā ‘my mother, Mommy’ (form of address) < ŋ̄ 1sg+ dā ‘mother’; nē ‘my father, Daddy’ (form of address) < ŋ̄ 1sg+ dē ‘father’, ŋmā ‘give me’ < ŋ̄ 1sg+ gbā ‘to give’, cf. combinations that do not undergo any phonological rules: mḭ̄ gbā ‘give you’, à gbā ‘give him’; compare also the form ā̰nǎ ‘let’s go’ < ā̰ŋ̀ 1pl’ and tá ‘to go’ (with a unique but phonologically sensible tonal change from ā̰ŋ̀ ML tá H to ā̰nǎ M LH).

4.2.2. Deletion of /l/

33Before /ɛ/, phoneme /l/ optionally drops in two kinds of morphological contexts:

  • In the article lɛ̀, including its usage within the contrastive topic marker pɔ̄ lɛ̀.

  • In the progressive verb form ending in ‑lɛló (but not in the deverbal noun in -!).

34The deletion of /l/ is accompanied by the assimilation of the vowel /ɛ/ after the /l/ to the preceding vowel in rounding, labialization, and nasalization. Examples: bā lɛ̀ ⇒ [bā à] ‘the earth’, drɛ̰̄ lɛ̀ [drɛ̰̄ ɛ̰̀] ‘the work’, zū lɛ̀ [zū ɔ̀] ‘the breast’, mḭ̄lɛ̀ló [mḭ̄ɛ̰̀ló] ‘drinking’ (progressive), pēlɛ̀ló [pēɛ̀ló] ‘saying’ (progressive), bā̰lɛ̀ló [bā̰à̰ló] ‘provoking’ (progressive), blùlɛ́ló [blùɔ́ló] ‘getting blurry’ (progressive), bṵ̄lɛ̀ló [bṵ̄ɔ̰̀ló] ‘educating’ (progressive).

4.2.3. High tone in the low tone form of verbs

35Beng has a tonal rule that applies in a specific morphosyntactic context and cannot be reduced to regular tonal sandhi. This rule applies to the low tone form of verbs that immediately follow a subject pronoun with a high or rising tone – or, in other words, that end in a high tone element. In those cases, if the first mora of the verb bears the grammatical low tone, it changes its tone to high or falling tone:

L HL in verbs after a H or LH pronoun and before a suffix.

L HL in verbs after a H or LH pronoun and before a pause.

L H in verbs after a H or LH pronoun otherwise.

Examples:

By ‘suffixoid’ I mean here the part of verbal stem that does not change its tone in the low tone form of the verb (see 6.4). Although historically such tonally inert parts of verb stems are indeed suffixes, there are no synchronic reasons to separate them into a separate morpheme.

36Note that the L>H, HL change in verbs is not related to regular sandhi. Most similar are examples of the regular rule of high tone spread over low tone sequences, HLLHHL, which can be triggered, among other things, by high tone pronouns followed by low tone nouns and verbs. However, the HLLHHL change is restricted to its structural description; unlike the low tone form of the verb, lexical low tone won’t undergo any change before a non-low tone, cf. (9) vs. (10):

37Compare (10) with ó nṵ́ nɔ̰̄, example (7), where the underlying HLM tone sequence is identical but the L>H change does happen.

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Légende By ‘suffixoid’ I mean here the part of verbal stem that does not change its tone in the low tone form of the verb (see 6.4). Although historically such tonally inert parts of verb stems are indeed suffixes, there are no synchronic reasons to separate them into a separate morpheme.
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Denis Paperno, « Beng phonology », Mandenkan, 51 | 2014, 18-25.

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Denis Paperno, « Beng phonology », Mandenkan [En ligne], 51 | 2014, mis en ligne le 01 juin 2014, consulté le 28 juillet 2017. URL : http://mandenkan.revues.org/557 ; DOI : 10.4000/mandenkan.557

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Denis Paperno

University of Trento, Italy
denis.paperno@gmail.com

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