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Nilotic Prosody - Project Summary

The Western Nilotic languages are spoken in East Africa, primarily in Southern Sudan and in Uganda. Several of these languages have unusually rich prosodic systems. That is, they distinguish words and word forms from one another by means of vowel length, lexical tone, and voice quality. The researchers within our group study Dinka, Thok Reel, and Shilluk, three Western Nilotic languages that present this characteristic. We are studying the structure (phonology), function (morphosyntax) and realisation (phonetics) of prosodic distinctions in the above-mentioned Western Nilotic languages, in the context of the overall language system. We also consider the implications of our findings for other fields, such as cognitive linguistics, sociolinguistics, music, and literacy.

Why study Western Nilotic languages?

  • Typology - the study of the prosodic systems of these languages has implications for prosodic typology, the study of what types of prosodic systems can be found in human language. There are several areas of controversy in the study of prosodic systems of Western Nilotic languages that are of general interest. For example, Dinka presents a compelling case for three-level vowel length (Odden, to appear).
  • Linguistic theory - The study of the prosodic distinctions of these Western Nilotic languages is of great interest to theories about language. In Evolutionary Phonology, for example, it is hypothesised that exceptional sound changes may take place and be maintained over time only if they mark inflectional distinctions in the sound system of a language (Blevins 2004, Blevins & Wedel 2009). The three-level vowel length distinctions of Dinka, Shilluk and Thok Reel are a case in point.
  • Language description and documentation - some Western Nilotic languages, such as Thok Reel, have not been documented at all. In other cases, the description that is available is inadequate (e.g. Nuer). In the case of Dinka, little is known about between-dialect variation.

Our current research activities include:

  • Study of prosodic distinctions in several dialects of Dinka, with special emphasis on tone (Bert Remijsen);
  • Documenation of Thok Reel (Tatiana Reid);
  • Study of Dinka songs (Angela Impey, SOAS);
  • Dinka prosody in speech vs. songs (Bob Ladd)

This page is maintained by Bert Remijsen. Last change: Wednesday, 26-May-2010 12:02:40 BST