TODAY -

Is Manipuri a Tonal Language ?

James Oinam *



By instinct many Manipuris and those who know Manipuri language (by that I mean Meetei/Meitei lon throughout the article) feel that just by changing the tone of a word you can mean very different things in Manipuri language. This is the basic quality of a tonal language.

But the question that naturally comes to mind is "how many tones are there in the Manipuri language?"

While flipping a few pages of the book "Manipuri Grammar: A Supplement" authored by Nand Lal Sharma, I came upon tonal classification of Manipuri language by the author. The author identifies two tones in the language:
(1) Falling Tone and
(2) High Tone.

Tone has been defined as "a psychological impression obtained from the physical frequency of sounds" (refer website link in References).

Some authors have identified three tones in Manipuri language:
(1) Rising Tone,
(2) Falling Tone, and
(3) Level Tone (Tomchau Singh uses the terms Light, Heavy, and Middle, respectively).

Although tones are said to be "psychological impression", I have done recording of various Manipuri words of interest on the Audacity software and taken "screenshots" so that we can "see" how they look.

Figure 1. Two Tones of Nand Lal Sharma
Figure 1. Two Tones of Nand Lal Sharma



Let us begin with the two tones of Nand Lal Sharma (Figure 1). I have recorded a Falling Tone and a High Tone words alternatively. The words La (banana leaf), Mee (person), and Hu (poison) are Falling Tones.

The words Ta (spear), Hee (boat), and Yu (liquor) are High Tones.
(Please note I have not used diacritics anywhere. Nand Lal proposes using "grave" accent mark for falling tone and no accent mark for High Tone. Other authors recommend "grave", "bar", and "acute" accent marks.)

A general observation that can be made from the figure is that Falling Tones have sharp beginning.

Figure 2. Rising Tone - Khong
Figure 2. Rising Tone - Khong



Now we go to Figure 2 for the third, Rising Tone, as proposed by others. In Figure 2, the words spoken alternatively are "leg" and "canal" in Manipuri.

According to author like Inder Singh, the Manipuri word for "leg" has Falling Tone and the word for "canal" has a Rising Tone. Notice the sharp beginning in one corresponding to Falling Tone of Nand Lal Sharma.

The question is do you think the other word "looks" like the High Tone of Nand Lal Sharma.

With inputs from friends on social media, I have recorded few more words. These will highlight the lengthened nature of some High Tones (as per Nand Lal's classification).

Some authors (P.C. Thoudam) claim that the different in length is due to the "environment" (website link). I have done recordings of one-syllable words to "minimize environmental influence".

 Figure 3. Third Tone
Figure 3. Third Tone



Please refer Figure 3. The words for "rotate", "flower", and "tongue" are spoken alternatively.

I feel the difference between "flower" and "tongue" in Manipur is very slight, if at all. Perhaps, they will not qualify as different tones.

But if we look at words for "person" and "spider", the difference in length is quite perceptible.

Whether there are two tones or more, I believe the question is where you want to set the boundary.

Finally, we come to the question asked at the beginning, "Is Manipuri a tonal language?"

When we look at the list of High Tones and Falling Tones and Rising Tones, we find many words which depend on the tones instead of its consonants and vowel.

So I think, if it is not a tonal language, Manipuri definitely has strong tendency towards being a tonal language.

Also, it is possible that the language had more "tonal words" in the past than it has now.

References

Sharma, Nand Lal (1988). Manipuri Grammar: A Supplement.
Published by Hidangmayum Bihari Sharma Sangaiprou Airport Road, Imphal.
https://shodhganga.inflibnet.ac.in/bitstream/10603/16844/7/07_chapter%202.pdf


* James Oinam wrote this article for e-pao.net
The writer can be contacted at jamesoinam(AT)gmail(DOT)com
This article was posted on August 26, 2020 .


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