Phonetics and Phonology of Sylheti Tonogenesis

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The physical constraints of articulatory and/or auditory speech mechanism are vital to sound change in human language (Hombert 1977, Ohala 1974, 1993). These constraints often affect the way speech sounds are produced and perceived by listeners. A speaker’s pronunciation may get distorted and may not be perceived as intended, thus creating space for inclusion and/or reduction of the phoneme inventory. Several factors causing sound change over generations are found in all human speakers. One of the striking outcomes of such sound changes such as the loss of voicing contrast, or otherwise the loss of underlying breathiness property among the obstruents often leads to the emergence of (lexical) tone in many of the world languages. In this dissertation, with the help of production experiment(s) we first explored the phoneme inventory of a previously undocumented language, i.e. Sylheti. The phoneme inventory of this language is substantially reduced due to the loss of (underlying) breathiness contrast ([d̪han>d̪an] ‘paddy’, [t̪hala>t̪ala] ‘plate’), spirantization ([por] > [ɸɔr] ‘read’, [phul] > [ɸul] ‘flower’, ([kali] > [xali] ‘ink’, [khal] > [xal] ‘drain/channel’), and deaffrication ([tʃa] > [sa] ‘tea’, [tʃhuti] > [suti] ‘holiday’, [dʒal] > [zal] ‘net’, [dʒhal] > [zal] ‘spicy’). These changes, especially the loss of breathy voice contrast [+spread glottis] among the obstruents (both voiced and voiceless) in Sylheti give birth to a high tone ([d̪án] ‘paddy’ [d̪h>d̪] and [d̪àn] ‘donate’, [bát̪] ‘rice’ ([bh>b]), and [bàt̪] ‘arthritis’). This study explores the tone system of Sylheti and provides a detailed phonetic and phonological account of Sylheti tonogenesis.
Supervisor: Shakuntala Mahanta