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ANU-CoEDL ZOOM Seminar: Tangsa languages, Stephen Morey, 30 Apr

Australian National University, Outreach

Date: 23 April 2021

Seminar: Tangsa languages: How many tone categories and what are their features? 

Speaker: Stephen Morey (La Trobe University) 

When: 30 Apr 2021, 11am-12pm

Where: Theatre 1.04, Coombs Extension Building, ANU or via zoom (please email for zoom link invitation)


The Tangsa language varieties are spoken on both sides of the India Myanmar border in the northern Sagaing division of Myanmar (the Naga Self-Administered Zone) and Changlang district of Arunachal Pradesh state in India. 

Around 80 ‘subtribes’ of the Tangsa, termed Tangshang in Myanmar, have been identified and each of these has a distinct linguistic variety – some fully mutually intelligible and some quite unintelligible with each other, and many are somewhere in between. 

The native speakers who have developed tone marking systems for these languages have analysed them as having four tones – three on open syllables and a stop (glottal and other stops) final tone. This analysis is confirmed by modern linguistic work, such as Weidert 1987, Boro 2017, Khan Lann 2017, Morey 2017, Mulder 2020 and particularly van Dam 2018.  

The form of these tones varies significantly from one variety to another; thus in Cholim what I will term Tone 1 is high level and with final glottal constriction, whereas Tone 1 in Chamchang is a low falling tone. The group of words that carry Tone 1 is (with a few exceptions) the same in both languages, so you can almost say that a high level glottally constricted tone in Cholim corresponds to low falling tone in Chamchang. 

However, there are some variations and complications and entertaining complexities that will be the main focus of this talk: 

1) How do we identify the ‘key features’ of the tones? Tones in these languages employ a bundle of features and are not realised only by (relative) pitch and contour (rise and fall) but also by phonation and in some cases duration. It is also the case that two different phonetic realisations might be a phonemic distinction between two tones in one variety but some kind of variation of the same tone in another. 

2) In some varieties there is evidence for a ‘fourth open tone’, either at the level of the realisation of the tones or at an underlying level. 

3) Tone categories change according to a range of linguistic factors. For example, in all the Tangsa languages that have been recorded so far, there is verb stem alternation for at least some verbs, so that in the Louchäng variety the verb meaning ‘sleep’ is /kon¹/ (where the subscript represent the tone category but when prefixed with the nominalizer ɪ- the stem is /kon²/. In this talk  will examine some of the tone changing processes observed in these Tangsa languages. 

Boro, Krishna. 2017. A grammar of Hakhun Tangsa. PhD Dissertation, Department of Linguistics, University of Oregon. 

Khan Lann. (Khämlan Binkhäm) 2017. A Phonological comparison of Shecyü and Mungre and its contribution to a Common Tangshang Naga Orthography. MA Thesis. Department of Linguistics, Payap University, Chiang Mai. 

Morey, Stephen. 2017. “Tangsa”. In Graham Thurgood and Randy LaPolla, Eds. The Sino-Tibetan languages. London and New York: Routledge. [2nd Edition]. 350–368. 

Mulder, Mijke. 2020. A descriptive grammar of Muklom Tangsa. PhD Dissertation, Department of Languages and Linguistics, La Trobe University. 

van Dam, Kellen Parker. 2018. The Tone System of Tangsa-Nocte and Related Northern Naga Varieties. PhD Dissertation, Department of Languages and Linguistics, La Trobe University. 

Weidert, Alfons. 1987. Tibeto-Burman tonology. Amsterdam: John Benjamins. 

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