Floating tone

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Sound change and alternation

A floating tone is a morpheme [1] or element of a morpheme that contains neither consonants nor vowels, but only tone. It cannot be pronounced by itself but affects the tones of neighboring morphemes. [2] [3]

An example occurs in Bambara, a Mande language of Mali that has two phonemic tones, [4] high and low. The definite article is a floating low tone, and with a noun in isolation, it is associated with the preceding vowel and turns a high tone into a falling tone: [bá] river; [bâ] the river. When it occurs between two high tones, it downsteps the following tone:

Also common are floating tones associated with a segmental morpheme such as an affix. [5] For example, in Okphela, an Edoid language of Nigeria, [6] the main negative morpheme is distinguished from the present tense morpheme by tone; the present tense morpheme (á-) carries high tone, whereas the negative past morpheme (´a-) imposes a high tone on the syllable which precedes it:

Floating tones derive historically from morphemes which assimilate [7] or lenite [8] to the point that only their tone remains, [9] much like the smile of the Cheshire Cat.

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  1. Clark, Mary M. 1993. "Representation of downstep in Dschang Bamileke". The Phonology of Tone: The Representation of Tonal Register, ed. by Harry van der Hulst and Keith Snider. Berlin/New York: Mouton de Gruyter. Pp. 29-73
  2. Mary Paster, UC Berkeley, "FLOATING TONES IN GÃ *" http://elanguage.net/journals/index.php/sal/article/view/1366/925
  3. Wentum, Comfort. 1997. A Lexical Tonology of Ga. Legon: University of Ghana, M. Phil thesis.
  4. Clements, G. N. and Kevin C. Ford. 1979. "Kikuyu tone shift and its synchronic consequences." Linguistic Inquiry 10: 179-210.
  5. Kropp-Dakubu, Mary E. 1986. "Downglide, floating tones and non-WH questions in Ga and Dangme." The Phonological Representation of Suprasegmentais, ed. by Koen Bogers, Harry van der Hulst, and Maarten Mous. Dordrecht: Foris Publications. Pp. 153-173.
  6. Zimmerman, 1. 1858. A grammatical sketch and vocabulary of the Akra- or Galanguage with an appendix on the Adanme dialect. Stuttgart, 2 vols. Republished with an Introduction by 1. Berry, Gregg International, 1972.
  7. Goldsmith, John. 1976. Autosegmental Phonology. Cambridge: MIT, PhD. dissertation. Distributed by IULe.
  8. Okunor, Vincent. 1969. Tone in the Ga verb. Legon: Institute of African Studies. Paster, Mary. 2000. "Issues in the tonology of Ga." Columbus: Ohio State University, Undergraduate thesis.
  9. Trutenau, H.M.J. 1972. "A sketch of tone rules required for a generative transformational grammar of Ga (a terraced level tone language)." Linguistics 79: 83-96.