Are there any language that have both of these characteristics? I am not sure but I assume that contour tone is unnecessary and uneconomical to be used in every syllable of a language with complex consonant clusters, neither for vowels nor for sonorants as independent syllable. It is widely assumed that the emergence of Chinese tones is caused by the pre-existing consonant clusters, that is, different consonant clusters trigger different tones, and then they are not crucial any more to distinguish the meaning and then dropped.

  • 1
    WALS list the following languages as having both complex tone systems, and complex syllable structure: Kpan, Amuzgo, Angas, Dizi, Gwari, Noni, Nambikuára (Southern), Doyayo. If you loosen the criteria to "moderatey complex" syllable structure (which include some CCV languages) you can find some more, like Mazatec or Kayah Li. In general I find the assumption that languages will eliminate things because they are "unnecessary" or "uneconomical" to be unwarranted & contrary to the evidence (cf). – melissa_boiko Aug 22 '18 at 23:00
  • Are you only talking about languages in which tone is a feature of each syllable? There are languages wherein the tone is a feature of the whole word (many such in New Guinea, some in Africa). Isn't the claim about tonogenesis in Chinese that it was primarily the loss of final consonants that triggered the use of tone as the contrastive device? – Gaston Ümlaut Aug 23 '18 at 3:08

It depends largely on what you mean by "complex syllable structure". I would take English to have "complex syllable structure", having onset and coda clusters of many kinds. Many African languages have (N)C(G) onsets, which is probably why Angas is put in the list of languages with "complex syllable structure" (incidentally, it does not have lexical contour tones, though it has phrasally-created contours arising from grammatical floating tones). If you take "has obstruent clusters in the onset / coda" as the minimum criterion for complex syllable structure, some of the WALS "complex tone/ syllable" languages will drop from the list. Amuzgo would probably survive, see Bauerschmidt 1965; Zapotec languages would be on the list (they aren't in the WALS sample). Dizi may qualify, since it has coda obstruent clusters though no onset clusters.

It is hard to come up with clear examples of languages with contour tones and complex syllables, using a reasonably restrictive characterization of "complex syllable" – and I suspect that one faces the same problem looking for the combination of tone (dropping the contour requirement) plus complex clusters.

  • 1
    Wutung (Sko family, New Guinea) has complex onsets of up to four Cs, and contour tones (H, L, HL, LHL). But the tone is a feature of the whole word, not the syllable. – Gaston Ümlaut Aug 23 '18 at 3:12

Your Answer

By clicking “Post Your Answer”, you agree to our terms of service, privacy policy and cookie policy

Not the answer you're looking for? Browse other questions tagged or ask your own question.