One of the most gratifying aspects of scientific research for me is that satisfying click that results when a set of loosely related facts unexpectedly fit together to yield a deeper insight. The scale of such insights vary tremendously, of course, from ones that are the result of months or years of careful data collection and analysis, and which lead to an understanding of some major component of a language’s grammar, to more modest empirical generalizations that leap out unbidden from a dataset.
We made one very simple but gratifying discovery of the latter type just a couple of weeks ago during the waning weeks of fieldwork on Máíhɨ̃ki, which reminded me how a language can continue to yield surprises, even in areas which you think you already understand well. Briefly, we realized that Máíhɨ̃ki exhibits a minimum word requirement — and like an image that emerges from an autostereogram, now that we have noticed it, it seems so obvious that we can’t quite understand why it took us so long to become aware of it. But there’s actually an interesting story in how we got there.
Máíhɨ̃ki, a Western Tukanoan language closely related to Siona and Sekoya, is tonal, and for the first several years that we worked with speakers of the language (beginning in 2010), we were particularly preoccupied with understanding its subtle tonal system. Stephanie Farmer carried out the bulk of the early work on Máíhɨ̃ki tone, and we now have a satisfying analysis of the system [pdf]. Crucially, it was during this most recent field season that I really felt confident that I could hear Máíhɨ̃ki tone reliably, and it was clearing this tonal hurdle that I think allowed us to pay proper attention to the segmental issues at play in the minimum word requirement.
Perhaps the first significant step towards the discovery of the minimal bimoraicity of Máíhɨ̃ki words took place last summer, when we realized that verb roots are bimoraic in regular finite forms. Crucially one can find tonal minimal pairs like the following, whose roots exhibit only a single vowel quality, and where the tonal contrast depends on the bimoraicity of the root.
(1a) sáá-yí ‘I am leaping’
(1b) sáà-yì ‘I am taking’
(2a) dáá-yí ‘I am bringing’
(2b) dáà-yì ‘I am intoxicated’
(Surface high tones are indicated by an acute accent, surface low tones by grave accent; high tones spread from roots to inflectional suffixes, and -yi is a first person present tense suffix.)
Before finding the HH vs. HL contrast in roots like these, we had mistakenly thought that bimoraic HH roots, like those in (1a) and (2a), were monomoraic H roots, but once we found bimoraic HL roots with only a single vowel quality, like those in (1b) and (2b), it became clear that their HH counterparts were also bimoraic.
So far so good. Then this most recent summer we began to make some surprising discoveries. For example, in an elicitation session involving plantains (which we thought was the following: ó ‘plantain’), I very clearly heard a consultant say óò. It turns out that óò means something like ‘unit of plantain’ (e.g. a plantain stalk) and probably bears an old phonologically assimilated classifier, but upon comparison, it was also clear that species name was bimoraic, thus: óó ‘plantain’.
The floodgates opened after this: the classic minimal pair, which we formerly thought was má ‘macaw’ and mà ‘path’, turned out to be máá ‘macaw’ and màà ‘path’, and so on and so forth. Significantly — and this was no doubt one factor that contributed to our late realization of the bimoraic nature of these forms — these words surface as bimoraic only when they are the only morphemes in a given phonological word. Thus, we have óó ‘plantain’, but óhù ‘bunch of plantains’ (bearing the bunch classifier -hu) and macaw máá, but mánà (bearing plural suffix -na). In other words, these forms behave like underlying monomoraic forms that experience moraic augmentation to satisfy a presumable bimoraic minimum word requirement.
I will write next about two other interesting matters related to this discovery, but suffice it to say that we were both delighted to make this important discovery, but also somewhat alarmed by how it managed to elude our attention until now. And in one of those strange quirks of perception, now that we have noticed the bimoraicity of the forms in question, it’s so obvious that it’s hard to understand how we could have ever missed it.