Sheli Tone

Sheli is a tone language. That means you can have different words that are distinguished not by letters but by a particular intonational pattern. The classic example of a tone language is a language like Chinese, but there are lots of languages that have lexical tone. This page is devoted to explaining how the current tone system works. For an explanation of how it came to be, go to the historical section. Before I explain how the system works, first let me introduce you to the tones, and then how they will be written.


The Tones

Sheli has 6 tones. 6 tones has Sheli. Has Sheli 6 tones? 6 tones, Sheli has. I'd like to name them, but I haven't yet. I will one day. When I do, I will make their names known to the world. Until then, I'll simply list them. In the table below, I'll give a verbal description of the tone, a narrow transcription of an example of that tone, and then a Pinyin-style description of the shape of the tone. Then, just to the right of that, there'll be a little box you can click on so you can hear what the tone sounds like. (The future is now!) Here's the table:

  1. Super High Tone: [˝ba] or /ba55/.
  2. High Tone: [´ba] or /ba44/.
  3. Mid Tone: [ba] or /ba33/.
  4. Low Tone: [`ba] or /ba11/.
  5. Falling Tone: [ˆba] or /ba41/.
  6. Rising Tone: [ˇba] or /ba14/.

You might notice that the low tone is actually more of a low falling tone accompanied by creaky voice (or glottalized, if you prefer).

Every word in Sheli has one of those six tones associated with it. The tone each word has is a lexical property of that word and can't be determined by any other means. There are only two semi-exceptions: (a) Words that are of the shape CV whose vowel is a normal vowel always have a low tone; and (b) if a word has a lax vowel, it can only have a super high, high or mid tone.


Romanization for Tones

This romanization system has been quite a difficult pill to swallow. The tone markers listed directly before the narrow transcriptions in the table above would be ideal diacritics. However, given the large vowel inventory of Sheli, there aren't enough Unicode characters to create a romanization system using the tone markers listed above as diacritics. Therefore, I've been forced into doing something I'd rather not: Using superscript numbers (a.ka., exponents).

  1. Super High Tone: ba1.
  2. High Tone: ba2.
  3. Mid Tone: ba3.
  4. Low Tone: ba4.
  5. Falling Tone: ba5.
  6. Rising Tone: ba6.

I elected to represent tone this way because it allows me to classify each word by tone. Thus, the number used to specify the tone is going to be the type of that word. For example, ba1 will be a Type 1 word, ba2 a Type 2 word, etc. This will prove beneficial later on.

Before moving on, one last question is how compounds will work. There are two schools of the thought on the issue: Either combine the phonological forms and add the tones at the end, or add words with the tones attached. I've decided on the latter, as it would avoid a large string of tones at the end of some long compound words. Here's a possible example: tam1bos3ka4.

Oh, and just so's we all know, the name of this language should actually be written Šé53. That's a shortening of the official name of the language, which is Šé53 Gàm2, which means "Ocean Language", so called because the place where it's spoken is supposed to be a coastal place. But, as with the rest of my languages, this half-imagined place isn't even supposed to pretend to exist. This would probably give formal semanticists fits. Of course, not as much as the fact that formal semantics isn't actually theoretically interesting anymore. They haven't figured that one out yet, though. Some day.


Tone Sandhi

Tone sandhi never made much sense to me. Still doesn't. That's why I'm where I am today. The tone sandhi of Sheli is multi-faceted. One of its facets has to do with phraseology. Another has to do with compounding. Yet another has to do with the "genitive" (I'll explain the quote marks later). I'll deal with each of these issues separately.


Phrase Level Tone Sandhi

Even tone languages have phrase level intonation—its effects simply aren't as noticeable. Here's a list of I'd guess you'd call them "rules". I'd prefer to think of them as observations.

  • The high part of the first high tone, rising tone or falling tone (the level 4 part) in a non-question utterance is realized as a super high tone (level 5), provided that it is not preceded by an actual super high tone.

  • If the second to last tone level in a question is higher than the last tone, it is realized as a super high tone, no matter the initial level.

  • Though the speaker's tone levels will all fall over the course of an utterance, there is a sharp rise at the end of a relative clause. So, in a sentence like, "The guy I saw at the store the other day is sitting on the lawn", the base tone level would rise before the word "is".

Tone Sandhi of Compounds

Just like the phonological change involved in compounds, tonological change is also involved in compounds. In the States, they call it sandhi. Here's a rundown of those rules (numbered for my convenience):

  1. When two words of the same level tone are combined, either the first tone rises or the second tone falls, leaving the first syllable of the compound with the higher tone. Examples:
    1. ba1 + ke1 = ba1ke2
    2. ba2 + ke2 = ba1ke2
    3. ba3 + ke3 = ba2ke3

  2. When two words of the same contour tone are combined, the second tone becomes a level tone identical in level to the end of the intial contour. Examples:
    1. ba5 + ke5 = ba5ke4
    2. ba6 + ke6 = ba6ke2

  3. When a Type 6 word is added after a Type 5 word, the Type 5 word's tone doesn't change, but the Type 6 tone goes from being a 6 tone to being a 3 tone. Example: ba5 + ke6 = ba5ke3.

  4. When a Type 5 word is added after a Type 6 word, the Type 6 word's tone doesn't change, but the Type 5 tone goes from being a 5 tone to being a 4 tone. Example: ba6 + ke5 = ba6ke4.

  5. After a contour or mid tone, a 1 tone is realized as a 2 tone. Examples:
    1. ba5 + ke1 = ba5ke2
    2. ba6 + ke1 = ba6ke2
    3. ba3 + ke1 = ba3ke2

  6. A level tone is neutralized before a contour tone in compounding. Specifically, all level tones become a 2 tone before a 5 tone, and a 4 tone before a 6 tone, respectively. Here're a couple examples:
    1. ba3 + ke5 = ba2ke5
    2. ba2 + ke6 = ba4ke6

All these rules save the first are recyclable when it comes to words of more than two syllables.


The Old Genitive Construction

In the oldest form of Sheli, there were two cases: Possessive and non-possessive, or nominative and genitive, to use familiar terms. The nominative was unmarked, and the genitive was marked either by a final -a or a final -s, depending on the shape of the word. Come the present, now each word (save a few function words) have two different forms: A nominative and a genitive. The difference for most is simply a change in tone, though the old -s ending does show up in a few forms. Here's a list of forms:

  1. Type 1 words change their tone from a 1 tone to a 3 tone in the genitive.
  2. Type 2 words change their tone from a 2 tone to a 1 tone in the genitive.
  3. Type 3 words have no unique genitive form (i.e., there's no change).
  4. Type 4 words add an -s to form the genitive.
  5. Type 5 words change their tone from a 5 tone to a 6 tone and add an -s to form the genitive.
  6. Type 6 words add an -s to form the genitive when they end in a vowel; otherwise, there's no change.

An appropriate question to ask at this point in time would be what purpose the genitive forms serve. Well, they serve a number of purposes. Here's a summary of the purposes they serve:

  1. Most types of possessions are handled by putting a noun into the genitive. This is done by first listing the possessor NP in the genitive and then listing the possessed NP in the nominative.

  2. When a word is preceded by a classifier, that word must be put into the genitive.

  3. In certain types of compounds, one of the nouns is put into the genitive.

  4. One of the arguments of certain types of verbs are required to be in the genitive.

Mainly on account of item number 2 up there, the genitive pops up a lot in discourse. For that reason, it's always good to remember what the genitive form of each type of word is.


Concluding Remarks

I have nothing further to say about tone in Sheli. Perhaps that will change in time, but for now, I must say that it's a rather good feeling.

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This page was last modified on Tuesday, March 3, 2009.
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