Half-way through

I found a really good minimal pair of sentences today: (Examples are in Venda orthography, except I’ve added tones. ` indicates low tone; ´ indicates high.)

  1. ndì rì ù vhàlà búgù – “I say to read book.”
  2. ndì rì ú vhálá búgù – “I say that she reads book.”

This is a great example for me for a bunch of reasons. For one, it just so clearly illustrates that Tshivenda is a tonal language — even speakers who aren’t very good at identifying what the tones are on a particular word will quite clearly both produce and apprehend the difference in pitch contour between these sentences. In my experience so far, that hasn’t necessarily been true with individual words in isolation.

But for another, this clearly shows how Tshivenda tone is not a local, lexical phenomenon. The only difference in lexical items between these two sentences is the verbal prefix: In the first sentence it’s the infinitive marker /ù/; in the second, it’s the 3rd person singular, present tense subject agreement /ú/. But that single lexical item isn’t the only tonal difference between the sentences: The verb /vhala/ is low toned in the first sentence, but high in the second.

What’s happening here (I think!) is a process of what’s termed ‘unbounded’ spreading: The high tone originating on the subject agreement /ú/ just keeps spreading right as far as it can. In this case, that means all the way through the verb. I’ve tried this with quite long verbs, and the tone nearly always spreads all the way.

I was talking with one of the professors here today and he asked me to give him an interim report on what I’ve been finding. I gave him a very high-level answer, but honestly I think it’s going to be a few months before I know for sure! For the first two weeks I tried to be really good about staying on top of processing my recordings, putting most of my free time just into taking notes and TextGridding. But it’s an impossible task: I found that, even at my fastest, every hour of recording took about four hours to annotate. Given that I’m recording about 10 hours of new material every week… Well, there aren’t enough hours in the (short, wintery) days to keep up. So I have a high level intuitive sense of what my data shows — namely evidence for at least three different prosodically-sensitive processes, which don’t always target the same kinds of prosodic units — but I can’t really say with much more detail than that.

Of course, I can’t spend absolutely every waking moment working: I want to actually see this area, too! The hotel where I’m staying is at the top of a rather large hill, so every day I walk outside to find this stunning few down to the plains to the south and the mountains to the west. It really is very beautiful.

Thohoyandou proper is on the southern slopes of the Soutpansberg mountains; quite a lot of the Vhavenda live in a large valley just over the hill from here. That valley is quite fertile and grows much of the food for the region. In addition, it also grows quite a lot of tea! I was so excited when I learned this — I’ve never been to a tea producing region before, and this is one of the biggest in South Africa. So the other weekend I prevailed on a friend of mine to take me out to one of the big estates, called the Tshivhase estate. (Tshivhase is the name of the local chief’s family; quite a lot of the valley, including the tea estate, is owned by the Tshivhase. Incidentally, one of my consultants is named Tshivhase; I haven’t managed to determine where he is in the family.) The tea estate is gorgeous. Actually, on the way up through it we weren’t hte only ones stopping to take pictures — there were a couple of newlyweds there taking their wedding photos with the whole of the valley spread out below them.

This is my third week of work, four week here in Thohoyandou, and I’ve decided to take a little time off. Tomorrow I’ll be headed out to Kruger National Park! I’ll be hiking some in in the Punda Maria section, the most northern part of the park, which is still in the Soutpansberg and is supposed to be spectacular. I’m told that there’s a better-than-average chance I’ll get to see some of the larger fauna, but honestly I’m mostly excited about the landscape — it’s supposed to be one of the most rugged parts of the Soutpansberg. I’ll be there for the rest of the week. After that, I’ve got two more weeks here in Thohoyandou, and a lot to do in that time!

I have to admit something slightly embarressing: When I designed this theme for the blog, I apparently didn’t manage to make it style images correctly. The result is that when I try to embed images in posts they get sized so big you can’t see them. So, while this post really should have had some images scattered throughout, I’ve instead put together a little photo album. Enjoy!