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Tonal Merger in Medumba (Bamileke) Nouns
Kathryn Franich, Catherine O'Connor, and Jonathan Barnes
32-46 (complete paper or proceedings contents)


The system of floating tones in Medumba (Bamileke), a Grassfields Bantoid language of Cameroon, was proposed by Voorhoeve (1965; 1971) to explain unusual surface tone patterns in the language. Originating from tones historically realized on segments now lost or reduced, these unassociated tones can spread to other toneless segments and can cause downstep when realized in a sequence of H(L)H ('high, floating low, high'). This study presents data collected in Cameroon in 2009 from 18 speakers of Medumba ages 18-72 evidencing change in the tonal system since Voorhoeve's fieldwork 40 years ago. Findings indicate that a new form of Medumba is emerging among speakers typically aged under 30 years wherein downstep is applied uniformly after nouns that historically represented two distinct underlying tone melodies, where only one melody could trigger downstep on a subsequent high tone. This suggests a merger of the two underlying H tone melodies into one. This type of tone change has been described diachronically in the literature on African languages, but few studies have looked in-depth at change in progress. This study examines historical evidence from Medumba and other Mbam-Nkam languages, internal factors like prosodic status or relevant particles, and external factors such as the age of the participant, to explain patterns of variation. Variation in tone will also be discussed in relation to parallel processes of noun class leveling and the loss of alienability distinctions in the language.

Published in

Selected Proceedings of the 42nd Annual Conference on African Linguistics: African Languages in Context
edited by Michael R. Marlo, Nikki B. Adams, Christopher R. Green, Michelle Morrison, and Tristan M. Purvis
Table of contents
Printed edition: $320.00