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International Conference on Historical Linguistics

Do Tones Change Faster than Segments? Perspectives from Recent Documentation of the Chatino Languages (Zapotecan, Mexico)



Eric Campbell


Linguists have noted that tones are the “first” (Josserand 1983:243) or “most salient” (Morey 2005:146) features to vary across related languages, and they “tend to change rapidly and in unexpected ways” (Ratliff 2015:249). Does this mean that tones change faster than segments? If so, why? This paper explores these questions by comparing four recently documented endangered or understudied Chatino varieties: Zenzontepec (Campbell 2014), Tataltepec (Sullivant 2015), Zacatepec (Villard 2015), and Quiahije (Cruz 2011). 

Monosyllabification has precipitated recent consonantal changes in Quiahije and Tataltepec, but otherwise a relative paucity of segmental changes across Chatino varieties suggests shallow diversification (Campbell 2013). Segmental correspondences are phonetically close (Table 1, shaded), but tonal correspondences less so.

Table 1. Chatino cognates and reconstructions gloss
Zenzontepec Tataltepec Zacatepec Quiahije proto–Chatino
‘salt’ teheʔ Ø theʔ Ø tiheʔ Ø theʔ Ø *teheʔ Ø 
‘copal incense’ jánā HM janá H jānã́ MH jna H *janá *H
‘jaguar’ kʷītʃí MH kʷtʃí H kʷitʃǐ L͡H ktʃi M͡H *kʷìtsí *LH 
‘ant’ kʷitʲeeʔ Ø kʷtʲeèʔ L kʷitʲēēʔ MM kʷtʲeʔ L͡H *kʷi-tèèʔ *LL 
‘arm of’ ʃikȭ M skõ̀ L sikȭ MH skõ MH *sikõ̀ *L 
‘six’ súkʷa HØ skʷa Ø sukʷa Ø skʷa M͡L *súkʷa *HL 
‘night’ telā M H̋talʲà H̋L tilàLH̋ LLH̋ tla H͡LH̋ (*Htelà) *HL? 
‘raw’ jéʔē HM jeʔe H͡L jaʔa Ø jʔa Ø (*jaʔa) ? 

Proto-Chatino (based on Campbell & Woodbury 2010) contrasted *H vs. *L vs. Ø. Most words were bimoraic, and tones linked to morae one-to-one from the end of the word. *H was culminative (max. one H per word). Thus there were six tonal melodies on simplex bimoraic words (rightmost column of Table 1) that display regular correspondences in their reflexes. However, there are many irregular correspondences as well (last two rows of the table), for which tone cannot yet be confidently reconstructed (pCh words in parentheses). 

While the modern varieties maintain privativity (Ø) and H culminativity, their tone systems have diverged significantly in terms of inventory, distribution, and processes, as shown in Table 2 (H̋ = extra-high). 


Table 2. Some features of some Chatino tone systems
Zenzontepec Tataltepec Zacatepec Quiahije
Inventory of tonal contrasts on the mora H, M, Ø H, L, Ø, H̋, H͡L H, M, L, Ø, L͡H, L͡H̋ H, M, L, H̋, Ø, M͡H̋, M͡H, L͡M, L͡H, H͡L, M͡L 
# of tonal melodies on the word 7 8 15 15 
Floating tones H, L, L͡H̋ H, H̋, M͡H 
Tones that spread H H, L H, H̋ ― 

Some mechanisms that have propelled such diversification are illustrated in Table 3. The perfective form of ‘cry’ (a) displays regular reflexes of pCh *LH. The potential mood prefix (b) carried a H tone that perturbed the stem tone and yielded various types of floating tones. Such derived melodies then associated with words of other classes in Zacatepec (c) and Quiahije (d), resulting in new lexical tone melodies and three additional tone correspondence sets from pCh *LH. No two varieties group the four forms in a fully corresponding way. 

Table 3. Tone change and new tonal correspondence sets
gloss Zenzontepec Tataltepec Zacatepec Quiahije proto–Chatino 
a. PFV-cry nkaj-ūná MH ntj-uná H nkaj-unǎ L͡H j-na M͡H *nkaj-ùná *LH 
b. POT-cry k-unā M H̋kunà H̋L kunàL LL kna H͡LH̋ (*kH-una) 
c. ‘twenty’ kālá MH kalá H kalà LL kla M͡LM͡H *kàlá *LH 
d. ‘tomato’ nkʷīʃí MH nkʷʃi̋ H̋ nkʷi̋ʃì` L͡H̋LL wʃi H͡LH̋ (*nkʷisi) 

While tone change has been attributed to loss of laryngeal contrasts (Haudricourt 1954) or reanalysis of secondary parts of a tone’s complex composition as its primary one (Ratliff 2015:254), this paper argues that tone’s autosegmental nature, tonal perturbations via morphology (Donohue 1997:379), and analogy may contribute to tone’s predilection to change. Experimental work on Chinese languages (Cutler & Chen 1997; Sereno & Lee 2015; Weiner & Turnbull 2016) has shown that tones are less crucial for lexical processing than segments, which could open the door for tone to change more rapidly than segments. “Tone can do everything [and more] that segmental and metrical phonology can do” (Hyman 2011: 236), and since tone is not well represented among well-studied and major world languages — at least outside of Asia — tone is a good example of how the study of endangered (and lesser-studied) languages might inform our broader understanding of language change. 


Campbell, Eric. 2013. The internal diversification and subgrouping of Chatino. International Journal of American Linguistics 79(3): 395–420.

Campbell, Eric William. 2014. Aspects of the phonology and morphology of Zenzontepec Chatino, a Zapotecan language of Oaxaca, Mexico. Ph.D. dissertation, University of Texas at Austin.

Campbell, Eric, & Anthony C. Woodbury. 2010. The comparative tonology of Chatino: A prolegomenon. Paper presented at the Society for the Study of the Indigenous Languages of the Americas, Annual Meeting, Baltimore, MD.

Cruz, Emiliana. 2011. Phonology, tone and the functions of tone in San Juan Quiahije Chatino. Ph.D. dissertation, University of Texas at Austin.

Cutler, Anne & Hsuan-Chih Chen. 1997. Lexical tone in Cantonese spoken-word processing. Perception & Psychophysics 59(2): 165–179.

Donohue, Mark. 1997. Tone systems in New Guinea. Linguistic Typology 1: 347–386.

Haudricourt, André-Georges. 1954. De l’origine des tons du vietnamien. Journal asiatique 242: 69–82.

Hyman, Larry M. 2011. Tone: is it different? In: John Goldsmith; Jason Riggle & Alan C. Yu (eds.), The Handbook of Phonological Theory, 197–239. Chichester: Wiley-Blackwell.

Josserand, Judy Kathryn. 1983. Mixtec dialect history. PhD dissertation, Tulane University.

Morey, Stephen. 2005. Tonal change in the Tai languages of northeast India. Linguistics of the Tibeto-Burman Area 28(2): 145–212.

Ratliff, Martha. 2015. Tonoexodus, tonogenesis, and tone change. In Patrick Honeybone & Joseph Salmons (eds.), The Oxford Handbook of Historical Phonology, 245–261. Oxford: Oxford University Press.

Sereno, Joan A. & Hyunjung Lee. 2015. The contribution of segmental and tonal information in Mandarin spoken word processing. Language and Speech 58(2): 131–151.

Sullivant, John Ryan. 2015. The phonology and inflectional morphology of Cháʔknyá, Tataltepec de Valdés Chatino, a Zapotecan language. Ph.D. dissertation, University of Texas at Austin.

Villard, Stéphanie. 2015. The phonology and morphology of Zacatepec Eastern Chatino. Ph.D. dissertation, University of Texas at Austin.

Wiener, Seth & Rory Turnbull. 2016. Constraints of tones, vowels and consonants on lexical selection in Mandarin Chinese. Language and Speech 59(1): 59–82.

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