query: syntax and tone in W Africa

David Gil gil at EVA.MPG.DE
Sat Sep 3 19:43:11 UTC 2005

This query is about isolating SVO West African languages such as Twi, 
Ewe, Yoruba, Igbo and their like.  (I have tried unsuccessfully to 
figure things out from reference grammars:  either they're not written 
clearly or I'm not good at reading them.  Or maybe the facts are messy.)

In the prototypical SVO isolating language, thematic roles such as agent 
and patient are distinguished by word order, as shown diagrammatically 
in (1) and (2) below (using upper-case English words to represent the 
corresponding words in West African languages):

(1) DOG BITE CAT  [dog is agent, cat is patient]
(2) CAT BITE DOG [cat is agent, dog is patient]

What I am trying to ascertain is to what extent this holds true in 
isolating West African languages.  In particular, I am interested in the 
possible role of tonal variations in reflecting syntactic structures.  
Many of the grammars I consulted contain long sections on tonal 
variations which seem to suggest that they may be involved in 
distinguishing thematic roles such as agent and patient, grammatical 
relations such as subject and object, or linear positions such as 
preverbal and postverbal.  But I haven't been able to figure out how 
this works, if indeed this is the case at all.

My questions are as follows:

(A) a very specific question for linguists/speakers familiar with one or 
more isolating West African languages:  In the language(s) you are 
familiar with, are there any tonal differences between (1) and (2) 
above?  For example:  (a) does the tonal marking on DOG (or on CAT) 
differ between (1) and (2)?  or (a) does the tonal marking on BITE 
differ between (1) and (2) in accordance with the tonal properties of 
CAT and DOG.  Note: I would be equally appreciative of negative 
responses ("none of this happens in language X") as I would of positive 

(B) can anybody recommend references to such phenomena?

(C) can anybody contribute general insights into the phenomena in question?

(D) are there any native speakers of West African languages on the 
LINGTYP list who would be willing to answer some more specific questions 
about their language?

Some responses would perhaps be more appropriately sent to me 
individually than to the list as a whole.  However will post a summary 
if the responses warrant it.


David Gil

Department of Linguistics
Max Planck Institute for Evolutionary Anthropology
Deutscher Platz 6, D-04103 Leipzig, Germany

Telephone: 49-341-3550321 
Fax: 49-341-3550119
Email: gil at eva.mpg.de
Webpage:  http://www.eva.mpg.de/~gil/

More information about the Lingtyp mailing list