Unabating Things You Didn’t Know You Didn’t Know—Madalena Cruz-Ferreira SpecGram Vol CLXVIII, No 2 Contents Rizzoto Belletti—Maraci Rubin

Cultural Tones
Semantically significant suprasegmentals
in the Kamgala language

H.D. Onesimus

Readers of Speculative Grammarian will be aware that I have not always turned a kind eye or a benevolent pen towards the subject of linguistic fieldwork. Indeed, my vehement objections against this activity have been both forceful and sustained. Over the years I have received some correspondence regarding the expression of my opinions, and I have always been pleased to find that at least a few linguists agree wholeheartedly. Not that one needs confirmation in the form of sycophantic imitation or blatant heraldry, but there is a certain validation which, not having manifested itself in one’s formative years, one appreciates the bestowal of by one’s professional peers.

It is a bit embarrassing to confess in public to having undergone even a partial change of heart, but I have recently endured something of the sort. During an evening of unevenly distributed libations, I apparently undertook sponsorship of a brief fieldwork experience myself. The graduate students responsible for extracting this pledge were subsequently placed on probation, and assigned teaching assistantships in the course Linguistics for Education Majors, but honor nonetheless constrained me to go. In this brief squib, I report on the results, which I must admit did turn out to be slightly interesting.

In the forests of Borneo (where I am given to understand that our adventure took place) our band of intrepid data harvesters encountered the Kamgala people, hitherto unknown to linguistkind. Friendly, hospitable, fun-loving, charming, hardworking, monolingual to a faultthe Kamgala people surpassed the wildest hopes of my naïve graduate students with respect to their social engagingness and linguistic uniqueness. I must confess that some of my preconceptions gradually fell away as we uncovered the amazing secrets of the Kamgala language and the speech community which bears it. By the end of the trip I was almost enjoying it.

After a short time of adjusting to the segmental inventory of Kamgala, which proved extremely straightforward, we began to develop an interest in what seemed to be a robust binary contrast between rising and falling intonation, as illustrated in the examples (1) and (2), which give the fundamental frequency pitch traces for a couple of typical utterances:

(1) The ants have eaten all the sugar.

(2) The football is up in a tree.

Notice that in both examples the pitch contour continues unidirectionally across the entire utterance, with no resetting of absolute pitch. Rising pitchas in example (1)consistently rises; falling pitchas in example (2)consistently falls. All utterances were produced with one of these contours.

At first we believed this was merely a very strong intonational pattern, most likely correlating to the language’s clause-chaining system of nonfinal vs. final verbsfinal verbs would naturally occur under falling intonation, to indicate the completion of a grammatical sentence, while rising intonation would appear with nonfinal verbs, to indicate that the clause was not final and that the sentence would be continuing. However, two facts about the distinction quickly became apparent which caused us to think more deeply.

The first fact which caught our attention was the prosody of the focus marker ta. This form appears in (3) and (4) and I will let the reader observe for him or herself its remarkable suprasegmental properties.

(3) It is the ants which have eaten all the sugar.

(4) It is a tree that the football is up in.

Even my graduate students noticed that the pitch direction of ta always contrasts binarily with that of its utterance. This suggested that it was not intonation which we were observing, but tone. Intonation should not be expected to undergo sandhi as ta seemed to do, but such a flip of pitch is of course quite common in contrasting tonal environments.

The second fact was gender-related. Pattern 1 was vastly more frequent among women than among men, and in fact was used for all utterances by women over the age of 35. Pattern 2, in contrast, was used much more frequently by men, and all utterances by men over the age of 25 conformed to this pattern. Again, this suggests tone, not intonation, because it is quite well-attested in the world’s languages that men and women may have tonal systems which differ in detail, while we ought surely to expect that intonation, which serves a set of pragmatic functions which are shared across the entire speech community, should be relatively consistent across genders.

With this analysis under our collective belts, I and the cohort of graduate students turned our attention from the Bloomfieldian what? to the Sapirian why? Why, in fact, should men and women have such radically different tone systems? What functional load could justify such a distinction?

The answer to this question did not, of course, turn up during our investigations of grammaticality, but rather when we turned to acceptability. For example, the translation equivalent of the following sentence was deemed perfectly grammatical, but utterly senseless, by all informants:

(5) ???John is ambitious.

However, if we simply replaced John (a man’s name) with Mary (a woman’s name), the sentence is both grammatical and acceptable:

(6) Mary is ambitious.

Conversely, the translation equivalent of (7) is grammatical but unacceptable, while (8) is both grammatical and acceptable:

(7) ???Mary has no aspirations.

(8) John has no aspirations.

All speakers, both male and female, agreed upon the interpretations I have just given for (5)-(8). When further asked why these facts should be so, they explained that women are hopeful, always expecting the future to be bright, while men, on the other hand, normally realize just after their coming of age ceremony (93 days after their 25th birthday) that they have already achieved more in life than they can possibly hope to achieve in the future. All men fall more or less immediately into a state of chronic depression and hopeless ennui that lasts until their dying day. In fact, Kamgala adult men are renowned “couch potatoes,” with no higher ambition then to search for a less depressing television program.

Upon discovering this interesting sociocultural fact, we quickly developed the hypothesis that women’s rising tones are iconic indicators of their hopeful, forward-looking mindset, while men’s falling tones are iconic indicators of their pessimism and lack of initiative. Of course, we checked this hypothesis with a number of speakers, both female and male, but unfortunately the unanimous opinion was essentially “I suppose that could be right.”

Although speakers’ linguistic awareness does not apparently extend to the interpretive level on this point, we are nonetheless convinced that our explanation is the correct one. Kamgala men are on an emotional downward spiral in life, and their linguistic tones instantiate that downward trajectory prosodically; Kamgala women, on the other hand, are eternal optimists, and their tone system gives prosodic life to their belief that the best is yet to come.

As I have already suggested, this fieldwork experience was not altogether unenjoyable. Nonetheless, having established a reputation as one purely devoted to linguistics in its most sedentary, reflective, and indeed, introspective form, I intend to avoid any future excursions, and allow my pen to continue its intimacy with the desk with which it has always been on productively familiar terms.

Unabating Things You Didn’t Know You Didn’t KnowMadalena Cruz-Ferreira
Rizzoto BellettiMaraci Rubin
SpecGram Vol CLXVIII, No 2 Contents