Máíhɨ̃ki minimum word

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 ‘macaw’ and ‘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.


Venomous Snakes: 0

The end of August approaches, and I find myself recently back in Berkeley after a full field season in Peru. This summer I worked exclusively in the Máíjuna community of Nueva Vida, collaborating with several colleagues (about whom, more in subsequent posts) to document Máíhɨ̃ki, the westernmost of the Tukanoan languages.

This field season was marked by relatively little in the way of physical adventure, which is in general a good thing. In particular: no venomous snakes. Our two preceding  field seasons involved somewhat startling encounters with cascabel snakes (the juvenile form of Bothrops atrox), which we found snuggled up in various places in our tight living quarters. Given that cascabeles are venomous, we followed local custom and dispatched them with machetes, rather than chase them off and run the risk of blundering into them with unfortunate consequences in a less attentive moment.  A human armed with a machete is more than a match for a little cascabel, but it was nevertheless gratifying not to have to confront another one, however unequal the terms. We did have one serpentine visitor this field season, though: a charming little boa that lurked for a couple of days in the thatch of the hut that served as our kitchen and dining area.

The one near-disaster we had involved a situation so mundane that I’m still shaking my head over it. Several of us had gone to the community of Sucusari to attend the annual meeting of FECONAMAI, the Máíjuna federation, and had gone with a group of folks from Nueva Vida. This trip involved going down the Napo from Nueva Vida, past the town of Mazán, and on to Sucusari. On the way back, we needed to leave a little early because we had to make a side-trip to Iquitos, via Mazán, to buy supplies for the community linguist workshop we were holding shortly after the end of the FECONAMAI meeting, and so we headed upriver with several Máíjunas who had their own reasons to make a trip to Mazán.

Anyway, we were heading up the Napo, half-mesmerized by the blazing sun and the coffee-colored waters of the river slipping by the bow, when the boat almost sank. The river was about a kilometer wide at that point, and we were right in the middle of the tranquil-looking river, when we hit a sand bar, which caused the boat to lurch. Crucially, we were cutting across the current at that moment, so that the lurch sent the ‘upriver’ lip of the boat under the level of the water, and the Napo began to rush into our little vessel, threatening to swamp it seconds and sink it. Needless to say, that would have been very bad: the banks were several hundred meters away on either side, and several of our number were weak swimmers — never mind all the recording equipment and computers we had with us.

Fortunately, someone with the right reflexes jumped out instantly onto the sandbar and wrenched the lip of the boat up, so that the boat remained afloat. With some vigorous bailing we were able to continue, somewhat damp and shaken, but otherwise unharmed. Ironically, Chris and I had just been discussing how mild the river conditions seemed to us in comparison to the more turbulent rivers we are accustomed to in southern Peru. It just goes to show how deceiving appearances can be.