Sonority and syllable structure: The case of Burmese tone

Kate Mooney, Chiara Repetti-Ludlow


The relationship between tone and sonority has been a recurrent theme in the literature over recent years, raising questions of how supraseg- mental features like tone interact with segmental or prosodic qualities, such as vowel quality, sonority, and duration (de Lacy 2006; Gordon 2001). In this paper, we present an original phonetic study that investigates the relationship between tone, vowel quality, and sonority in Burmese. These are not simple to disentangle in Burmese, since the language has a unique vowel alternation system where certain vowels can only combine with certain tones or codas. While some researchers have analyzed these alternations as directly stemming from tone itself (Kelly 2012), we argue that the vowel alternations are tone-independent. We propose that the Burmese vowel alternations follow from general preferences on sonority sequencing (cf. Clements 1990), and so there is no need for tone and segmental quality to interact directly. Not only does this explain the complex vowel system of Burmese, but this proposal casts a new view on recurrent issues in Burmese phonology, such as the representation of underlying tonal contrasts and minor syllables.


tone; sonority; Burmese; centralization; diphthongization; minor syllables

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Copyright (c) 2021 Kate Mooney, Chiara Repetti-Ludlow

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