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African language structures


One of our long-standing research goals has been to bring to light the contributions of African languages to our understanding of the human language faculty.  African languages have proven to be sources of unsuspectedly rich grammatical and phonological forms which have enlarged our traditional views of language structure.  Our recent work, as in the past, has involved the detailed examination of particular languages. 

One project, carried out in collaboration with Yetunde Laniran, has brought out the interaction of two competing forces, high tone raising and downstep, in Yoruba tone realizations. In this language, later downsteps in the utterance are often anticipated by raising the tone of a vowel several syllables earlier.  This fact gives evidence that speakers "plan ahead" as they construct an utterarnce.

Another ongoing project, in collaboration with Sylvester Osu, has concerned a previously undescribed languages, Ikwere, spoken in southern Nigeria. Our phonetic examination of this language has brought to light a novel type of speech sound which we term nonexplosive stops.  These sounds are unlike more familiar stops such as the p or t of English or French in that there is no explosive burst at their release.  In addition, Ikwere proves to be one of the rare languages with no phonemically distinctive nasal consonants.  A study of its phono­logy shows that nasality forms a system of harmony in which nasality spreads from a nasal vowel to neighboring nonobstruents, creating nondistinctive surface nasal consonants.

A further project, undertaken in collaboration with Annie Rialland, has mapped the occurrence of a number of African phonological sound features across the map of Africa (see the project Phonological geography).


Selected readings

2005      G. N. Clements & Sylvester Osu, "Nasal harmony in Ikwere, a language with no phonemic nasal consonants," Journal of African Languages and Linguistics 26.2,  165-200.

2003     Yetunde Laniran & G. N. Clements, "Downstep and high tone raising: interacting factors in Yoruba tone production," Journal of Phonetics 31.2, 203-250.

2002      G. N. Clements & Sylvester Osu, "Explosives, implosives, and nonexplosives: the linguistic function of air pressure differences in stops."  In Carlos Gussenhoven & Natasha Warner (eds.), Laboratory Phonology 7, 299-350.  Berlin: Mouton de Gruyter.