Láadan problem…

I have a linguistics problem — a phonology [sound system] problem — that I’d like your input on if it interests you. It’s a problem with the analysis of the sound system of LAadan, the language I constructed when I wrote the Native Tongue trilogy. I’m going to do my best to explain this without a lot of linguistics jargon; I think that’s possible. I need to start with two preliminary notes.

1. Wherever I have a capital/uppercase “A” in this post, it’s intended to represent a small/lowercase “a” with an acute accent above it. I have to do it this way because none of my antique Macintosh software for characters-plus-squiggles is compatible with LiveJournal’s software for putting them on the screen. I just get hash and gibberish, and that’s not helpful. Since it’s just one substitution, it should be manageable.

2. This problem involves “double” phonemes — what linguists call “long” phonemes. [A phoneme is a sound in a language that can make a difference in meaning; we know that both /b/ and /s/ are phonemes in English because “bad” and “sad” are two different words, each with its own meaning.] Suppose a language has one word written as “ma” that means “grandmother,” and it has another word, written as “maa,” that means “butterfly.” The “aa” would take longer to pronounce than the “a,” and the two words would sound quite different to a native speaker of the language. Linguists would describe that situation by saying that “ma” has a short vowel and “maa” has a long vowel. [This is not the same thing as the “long vowels” and “short vowels” taught in traditional English classes.]

Yesterday I discovered on the Internet — in two places — descriptions of the LAadan language saying that it has four separate tones. One description is at http://www.zompist.com/board/messages/384.html ; the other is the Wikipedia article on the language, at http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/L%C3%A1adan_language .

The claim made in these two description is that LAadan has the following tones:

1. a low tone, represented by just one vowel with no squiggles added — “a”

2. a high tone, represented by a single vowel with an acute accent over it — “A”

3. a long tone that starts low and then rises, represented by a long vowel with an acute accent over the second vowel of the two — “aA”

4. a long tone that starts high and then falls, represented by a long vowel with an acute accent over the first vowel of the two — “Aa”

I don’t know how this analysis got started, since everything I’ve ever published on LAadan’s sound system, including the grammar and dictionary, says that the language has only one tone, but there it is.

My own analysis goes like this:

1. LAadan does not allow any long phonemes — period. It has no “double” vowel sounds or “double” consonant sounds in its set of phonemes.

2. There are several rules in the sound system that function to prevent long phonemes from ever occurring. One of those rules says: “Whenever two identical short vowels appear side by side, one of the two must have high tone.” So, a word that would be spelled out as “maa” [and written phonemically as /maa/] is forbidden, just as a word spelled out as “bka” [and written phonemically as /bka/] would be forbidden in English. In LAadan you can have either “maA” or “mAa,” but never just “maa.”

3. “MaA” in LAadan is the phoneme /m/, followed by the phoneme /a/, followed by the phoneme /a/ plus high tone; “mAa” in LAadan is the phoneme /m/, followed by the phoneme /a/ plus high tone, followed by the phoneme /a/.

Now…. the analysis of LAadan as having four tones is linguistically respectable; I understand what it’s intended to mean. There can be languages where that sort of analysis is obligatory. For example, suppose a language has two tones that start on a pitch lower than the baseline pitch for that language and then rise, but one rises higher than the other. You would then have a reason for describing those tones as two different tones.

But I see no advantage to saying LAadan has four tones; the simpler analysis, with just one tone, seems to me to be all that’s needed. Claiming that to speak LAadan you have to learn to produce four tones creates a psychological barrier; it sounds intimidating. I don’t see what useful purpose it could serve. There are no absolute pitches involved — like the system for stressing words or parts of words in English, all that’s required is that the vowel carrying tone be higher in relative pitch than the vowel that has no tone. My intention was to make the language as easy to learn as possible, no matter what the learner’s native language might be.

I don’t “rule” the LAadan language, or issue imperial decrees about it; that doesn’t interest me. [I long ago gave up trying to correct the various political things I’m quoted as having said about the language; that doesn’t interest me either.] On the other hand, I have a responsibility to the language as a linguist, and should not withhold useful information if I have some to share.

If any of you perceive some valid reason or reasons for the more complicated analysis, I’d be interested in knowing that, and am willing to be persuaded. Otherwise, much as I don’t want to , I suppose I will have to find a way to add my own analysis to the one at Wikipedia so that readers will have the opportunity to choose between the two.

Thanks for your help.

Response to pgdudda….

In the formalisms I work with, calling absence of tone “low tone” is an unnecessary complication; just “absence of tone” is enough. The phoneme that carries no high tone represents the neutral, baseline pitch for the language; calling it a tone seems to me to be superfluous. I may of course be wrong, but that’s my perception of the situation.

Re: Response to pgdudda…. something I forgot…

There are no glottal stops separating the vowels. Glottal stop isn’t a phoneme of the language. That doesn’t mean that a native speaker of a language in which vowels of identical length are always separated by glottal stops wouldn’t insert them, but they’re not part of the language.

Response to Doug….

“LAadan” has three syllables — “LA-” and “-a-” and “-dan.” There’s no way it could be analyzed as having only two.

Láadan problem; afternote….

Many thanks for all your comments and suggestions about how to deal with the various analyses of the LAadan tone(s). Thanks also, to all of you and to Laura Quilter, for advice on how to handle the Wikipedia posting.

I’ve managed this morning to set up an account at Wikipedia, and to add my “Lesson One” in the language to the external links. (I’ve managed to do it incorrectly, as could have been predicted, but at least the link works, and I assume someone will find my error irritating enough to be motivated to fix it for me.)

Once I’ve had time to study the “editing help” section at Wikipedia, and have worked out a wording for my post about the tone(s) that I’m reasonably confident won’t just create confusion, I’ll try to get this taken care of.


http://ozarque.livejournal.com/253528.html (5/7/2006)