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ANU zoom seminar: Verbal morphology in a tonal language: a case of Tsum, Tibeto-Burman language, 3 Dec

Australian National University, Outreach, Shape

Seminar: Verbal morphology in a tonal language: a case of Tsum, Tibeto-Burman language

Speaker: Naijing Liu (ANU) 

When: 3 Dec 2021, 4pm-5pm (AEDT)

Where: via zoom (please email for zoom link invitation)


The tense and aspect conditioned verbal paradigm is widely discussed for Tibetan (Coblin 1976, Hill, 2010; Blemier, 2004; Zeisler and Saxena, 2004). This complex verbal morphology is also reflected in other Tibetic (Huber, 2005; Liu, 2019) and Bodish languages (Mazaudon, 1994; Zhuang, in prep), but a precise morpho-phonological mechanism is yet to be revealed, especially for those languages which are tonally complex.    

Tsum (ISO code: ttz; Glottolog: tsum1240) is an endangered Tibetic language spoken in northern Gorkha, Nepal. It is a word tone language and has been identified as having five tones (Liu, 2015). Tsum shows a highly complex pattern of stem alternation in encoding tense and aspectual meanings, along with other available morphosyntactic devices, and the stem modification becomes even more complex in negation.  

This presentation aims to demystify the stem alternations relating to relative tense and aspectual values in Tsum language by focusing on the phonological features of stems, illustrated by how vowel alternation works in the vowel space and how tones change in the tonal acoustic space (Shen, 2016). I argue that the morphological stem modifications must be understood both segmentally and tonally. The present vs. future stem opposition reduction in modern Tibetan languages (Zeisler & Saxena, 2004: 876) does not hold true in Tsum, in which we see the counterexample specified by tone. The segmental-tonal duality is further supported by re-examining the verbal paradigm of the closely-related Kyirong language (Huber, 2005). This interface study brings together analyses of the verbal morphology with investigations of the high functional load of phonemes and tones, and invites us to rethink the role of sound patterns in the expression of grammatical nuances.  


Bielmeier, Roland. 2004. “Shafer’s Proto-West Bodish Hypothesis and the Formation of the Tibetan Verb Paradigms.” In Himalayan Languages: Past and Present. De. De Gruyter, Inc. 

Coblin, W. South. 1976. Notes on Tibetan Verbal Morphology. T’oung Pao, 62(1/3), 45–70. 

Hill, Nathan. 2010. A Lexicon of Tibetan Verb Stems as Reported by the Grammatical Tradition. 

Huber, Brigitte. 2005. “The Tibetan Dialect of Lende (Kyirong).” Beiträge Zur Tibetischen Erzählforschung 15. 

Liu, Naijing. 2019. Verbal Tone in Tsum. Presented in the 25th Himalayan Languages Symposium. Sydney, 29th Jun 2019. 

Mazaudon, Martine. 1994. Problèmes de comparatisme et de reconstruction dans quelques langues de la famille tibéto-birmane. Thèse d'Etat, Université de la Sorbonne Nouvelle.  

Shen, Ruiqing. (2016). Tonal Variation: A Quantitative Study of Jianyang Min Chinese. Ph.D. Dissertation. Hong Kong University of Science and Technology. 

Zeisler, Bettina. 2004. Relative Tense and Aspectual Values in Tibetan Languages. Mouton de Gruyter, Berlin. 

Zhuang, Lingzi. (In prep) "GL-impsing Bodish: Agentive Causative g- in Tibetan and Tamangic. 

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