Dissertation/Thesis Abstract

The Tonal Comparative Method: Tai Tone in Historical Perspective
by Dockum, Rikker, Ph.D., Yale University, 2019, 197; 27542445
Abstract (Summary)

To date, the majority of attention given to sound change in lexical tone has focused on how an atonal language becomes tonal and on early stage tone development, a process known as tonogenesis. Lexical tone here refers to the systematic and obligatory variation of prosodic acoustic cues, primarily pitch height and contour, to encode contrastive lexical meaning. Perhaps the most crucial insight in accounting for tonogenesis is that lexically contrastive tone, a suprasegmental feature, is born from segmental origins. What remains less studied and more poorly understood is how tone changes after it is well established in a language or language family. In the centuries following tonogenesis, we know that tones continue to undergo splits, mergers, and random drift, both in their phonetic realization and in the phonemic categories that underlie those surface tones. How to incorporate this knowledge into such historical linguistic tasks as reconstruction, subgrouping, and language classification has remained elusive.

This dissertation presents a new methodological approach to sound change in lexical tone for languages where tone is already firmly established, using data from the Tai languages, a branch of the Kra-Dai language family. This approach I call the Tonal Comparative Method. The Tonal Comparative Method is an extension of the logic of the traditional Comparative Method. It is a method for incorporating tonal evidence into historical analyses in a way that is consistent with the first principles of the longstanding method. The idea of reconstructing tone, and the use of tonal evidence for language classification, is not new. However, the predominant conventional wisdom has long been that tone is impenetrable by the traditional Comparative Method.

The Tai languages make an ideal testing ground for advancing the theory of sound change in tone systems because they are robustly tonal, relatively young and well documented, and the segmental origins of the tones are extremely regular and well understood. This allowed for the creation of the Tai ‘tone box’ by Gedney (1972), a compact visualization of the mapping between the modern tones of any Tai language and the phonetic environments that conditioned tone splits and mergers in that language. The tone box has been in wide use for historical analysis, language documentation, and dialectology in Tai languages for half of a century.

This dissertation advances theory and practice in historical linguistics, while demonstrating concrete advances in Tai historical linguistics. The Tai languages thus serve as a model for (1) a more generalized reasoning of why tonal evidence is not only possible to incorporate into a historical analysis, but will be a crucial element of the best historical analyses going into the future, and (2) how tonal evidence can resolve outstanding issues where predominantly segmental evidence has may have failed to do so. Using the insights of Tonal Comparative Method, we can expect the diachronic explanatory power of tone to extend well beyond the level achieved to date.

Indexing (document details)
Advisor: Bowern, Claire
Commitee: Bennett, Ryan, Pittayaporn, Pittayawat, Weber, Natalie
School: Yale University
Department: Linguistics
School Location: United States -- Connecticut
Source: DAI-A 81/10(E), Dissertation Abstracts International
Subjects: Linguistics, Asian Studies
Keywords: Historical linguistics, Phonology, Tai Khamti, Tai languages, Thai, Tone
Publication Number: 27542445
ISBN: 9798607320348
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