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ToPIQQ: Tonal Placement – the Interaction of Qualitative and Quantitative Factors


  • Martine Grice
  • Anne Hermes

Principal investigators:

  • Louis Goldstein
  • Martine Grice
  • Carlos Gussenhoven
  • Anne Hermes
  • Joyce McDonough
  • Bert Remijsen
  • Rachid Ridouane

Funded by the Volkswagenstiftung

Find more information on our project website.


This project has been conceived in the belief that language description, linguistic theory and language typology constitute different ways of looking at the same pursuit, rather than constituting different pursuits: Language descriptions ideally contain the generalizations that fit mainstream linguistic theory and will, as a result, be directly usable to test specific variants of linguistic theory, in addition to being comparable. Likewise, we feel that linguistic theorists should take generalizations to be valid reflexes of cognitive realities rather than as discardable interpretations of the data that can be replaced with other generalizations, an attitude that typically leads to theories that take no account of behavioural research. And finally, language typology ideally concerns the inventorisation of linguistic features and phenomena that should be readily identifiable in the descriptions. In this multidisciplinary project, we will follow this integrative spirit. The concrete aim of this project is to identify factors determining the placement and distribution of tonal events in a range of unrelated languages that represent typologically different prosodic and segmental systems: Tashlhiyt and Zuara Berber, Dinka and Shilluk (both Western Nilotic), and a selection of Dene languages and Cherokee (Iroquoian).

In terms of intonation and tone, these languages are under-documented, and so one aspect of this project will be the description and documentation of this part of the linguistic structure. We will use a combination of fieldwork and laboratory approaches to gather speech data appropriate for testing hypotheses. To obtain relevant generalizations we need to use elicitation practices that go beyond what can be gathered from natural language production. However, since language is a biological phenomenon that is observed through human interaction and behaviour, we also need to investigate it in contexts representing real-life situations. Balancing the necessary control over the data to be recorded with the need to achieve ecological validity will be of utmost importance. All of these languages present challenges to current theories of tone and intonation. That is, what we know about them so far has led to a blurring of the boundaries between phonetics and phonology, and calls for a new way of expressing the regularities of tonal placement, so as to account for the variation we have observed, both within and across varieties and related languages.