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Phonological Asymmetries of Bantu Nasal Prefixes
Jonathan Choti
37-51 (complete paper or proceedings contents)

Abstract

This paper examines some of the phonological asymmetries related to the placeless nasal prefixes /N/ in Bantu that occur as markers for class 9/10, 1SG subject, 1SG object, focus, and negation. While most studies of these prefixes have focused on their syllabic affiliation, this study explores the variations that these prefixes trigger in their interaction with stem-initial consonants. The author argues that the asymmetries observed in the segmental alternations conditioned by Bantu /N/ depend on language-specific phonology. The author shows this by examining cross- and intra-linguistic variations in the phonological processes triggered by Bantu /N/ such as prenasal vowel epenthesis, prenasal vowel lengthening, prenasal vowel shortening, postnasal nasalization, postnasal (de)voicing, and postnasal nasal deletion. The specific factors that condition these asymmetries include the moraic status of /N/ in a language, whether or not vowel length is contrastive in a language, location of /N/ in a word, size and grammatical category of the stem hosting /N/, the phonological status of a stem-initial consonant (sonorant vs. obstruent), and consonant cluster licensing in a language. Bantu /N/ causes prenasal vowel epenthesis, prenasal vowel lengthening, and initial prenasal vowel shortening in languages with contrastive vowel length and moraic /N/ such as Gusii, Ganda, Bemba, Lamba, Zulu, Jita, Yao, and Nyamwezi. These processes are not attested in languages in which /N/ is not moraic and vowel length is not contrastive, e.g., Swahili, Konde/Nyakyusa, and Kongo. Bantu /N/ triggers postnasal nasalization in voiced consonants treated as sonorants but postnasal voicing in similar consonants treated as obstruents. Nasal substitution targets voiceless plosives while the choice between postnasal voicing vs. devoicing is dictated by language-specific preference. The deletion of Bantu /N/ before other nasals, voiceless obstruents, and fricatives is conditioned by consonant cluster licensing in specific languages. This study validates a moraic theory prediction that maintains that compensatory lengthening arises from the demorification of a moraic segment in languages with contrastive vowel length. This work also supports some claims in Element-based Dependency theory: that nasals have a hybrid nature consisting of sonorant and stop properties and that the basic changes nasals cause of oral consonants are nasalization in sonorants but voicing in obstruents.

Published in

Selected Proceedings of the 44th Annual Conference on African Linguistics
edited by Ruth Kramer, Elizabeth C. Zsiga, and One Tlale Boyer
Table of contents
Printed edition: $320.00