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Open Access Publications from the University of California


Himalayan Linguistics is a free peer-reviewed web journal and archive devoted to the study of the languages of the Himalayas. It includes the series Languages and Peoples of the Eastern Himalayan Region, which incorporates the North East Indian Linguistics (NEIL) volumes.

Issues in South Central (Kuki-Chin) linguistics

Issue cover

Introduction to Special Issue 22.1

Introduction to Issues in South Central (Kuki-Chin) linguistics

This piece briefly introduces this special issue devoted to the investigation of languages of the South Central (Kuki-Chin) subgroup of Tibeto-Burman. The motivations for the special issue and the contents of the papers are reviewed. Terminological, transcription, and interlinear gloss conventions followed in the papers are discussed. The subgrouping schema assumed in a number of the papers is presented in detail.


Articles of Special Issue 22.1

Kuki-Chin Phonology: An Overview

The phonology of several Kuki-Chin (South Central Trans-Himalayan) languages have been described well, and there are fragmentary sketches of numerous others. Extensive diachronic work has also been done for the languages of this group. However, there is no comprehensive survey of the synchronic phonologies of Kuki-Chin languages. This chapter attempts to fill that gap so that researchers working on one of these languages, or doing broader typological surveys, can easily grasp the broad sound patterns in, and phonological questions raised by, Kuki-Chin. The chapter covers syllable structure, onsets, rhymes, and morphophonology. Onsets and rhymes are illustrated with complete inventories for Proto-Kuki-Chin and six attested Kuki-Chin languages from various subgroups (Falam, Mara, Thado, Daai, Lemi, Sorbung, and Monsang) and a comparative perspective on each of these inventories. This is followed by a discussion of the broader issues in Kuki-Chin sound inventories and phonotactics. These issues include laryngeal contrasts in obstruents and sonorants, the special status of glottal stop, and vowel length distinctions. A range of morphophonological alternations are then addressed, including the widespread phenomenon of non-final shortening (illustrated with observations from Thado, Daai, Sorbung, Falam, and Zophei) and vowel harmony (attested in at least Lamkang and Hyow). Apophony in stem form alterations and transitivity alternations is also discussed, drawing largely on data from Hakha Lai.

Tone in South Central Tibeto-Burman

South Central Tibeto-Burman (or Kuki-Chin) languages have diverse systems of lexical and grammatical tone. Previous literature on South Central suggests that researchers can expect to encounter broad variation between languages and dialects. The goals of this paper are twofold: (1) to offer an overview of tone research in South Central languages, and (2) to prepare the linguistic field researcher to incorporate tone study into their data collection and analysis.

Orthography Development for Languages of the South Central Branch of Tibeto-Burman: Lessons from Lamkang

Lamkang (ISO 639-3 code: lmk) is a Tibeto-Burman language spoken in Manipur, India with under 10,000 speakers. As a part of revitalization and documentation efforts, members of the community have begun to record oral literature, personal histories, Bible translations, and the like in written form. The spelling conventions followed by these writers are mostly consistent with those used in current translations of the Bible. However, there continues to be variation across different writers. The different variants will need to be reconciled as the Lamkang move towards a single orthographic standard. In this paper, we present findings from samples of writing collected over the course of the first author’s 12 years of work with community writers and aim to characterize variations in the orthography in linguistic terms. We then compare these variations to orthographic variations in related South Central languages. Our goal is to provide an analysis of orthographic variation focusing on phonological and morphological structure. Existing literature on literacy shows that metalinguistic awareness can impact processing the written word, suggesting that this awareness, or lack thereof, could also impact orthographic choice. These linguistic factors, along with aesthetics and identity, may be used to explain and contribute to resolving orthographic variation in languages with similar structures.

Issues of Lexicon in South-Central Tibeto-Burman (Kuki-Chin)

This paper examines how the lexicon is organized in a typical South Central language. Items like nouns, verbs, and adverbial expressions belong to open classes; pronominals, demonstratives, numerals, quantifiers, interjections, onomatopoetic words, and case markers form closed classes. Directionals, tense/aspect markers, valence-changing elements, verbal classifiers, elaborate expressions, and reduplicative patterns are treated as bound elements.

Core case-marking and related phenomena in South Central Tibeto-Burman (Kuki-Chin)

This paper examines what we currently know about the distribution and characteristics of core case marking and related phenomena in South Central Tibeto-Burman (Kuki-Chin) languages. Markers and their functions are surveyed according to subgroup, and an assessment of their diachrony is formulated. The paper also considers two analytical challenges–potential tonal marking of grammatical information in case marking systems, and the simultaneous presence of other elements which may be confused with case marking.

Multi-functional deictics in South Central Tibeto-Burman

This paper describes a phenomenon prevalent in South Central Tibeto-Burman languages, which we call multi-functional deictics (MFDs). Descriptively, MFDs are demonstratives that appear in multiple positions in the noun phrase, typically at the left edge and the right edge. They often co-occur and match in form, resulting in an apparent circumfix. MFDs are distinct from double definiteness or the reinforcer construction in Romance and Germanic languages, where a demonstrative co-occurs with a determiner or emphatic. In the case of MFDs, the two forms are both demonstratives, often identical. We find that MFDs are prevalent in South Central Tibeto-Burman. However, even the most basic questions about MFDs remain to be answered, such as whether their core meaning derives from distance in space, evidentiality, or something else; and what syntactic structures result in the two distinct positions. We provide a range of hypotheses for these questions and outline what kind of data is needed to test those hypotheses. Additionally, we find significant variation within South Central Tibeto-Burman in the specific properties of MFD. More broadly, MFDs provide an important test case for noun phrase syntax that has complex interactions with other grammatical phenomena like case marking.

The morphosyntax of verb stem alternation

South Central (Kuki-Chin) languages often exhibit an alternation in the form of verbal stems based on their morphological or syntactic distribution. This paper surveys characteristics of this phenomenon in three languages (Lai, K’Cho, and Vaiphei) representing distinct branches of the South Central group in order to identify similarities and differences in the factors leading to use of one or another stem form. The study is meant to serve as an introduction to the phenomenon in South Central and hopes to provide a foundation for future investigations treating additional languages of the subgroup and in the surrounding Tibeto-Burman speaking area.

Argument Indexation (Verb Agreement) in South Central (Kuki-Chin)

The South Central languages show two distinct indexation paradigms: a set of postverbal agreement words, incorporating person-number indexation and tense/aspect/polarity marking, inherited from a pre-SC ancestor, and a set of proclitic pronouns, otherwise used as possessive clitics on nouns. The interaction of the two series differs across the branch. Some Northern Peripheral have full competing paradigms, with the choice of one or the other marking register. At the other extreme, languages in the Central group use only the innovative proclitic paradigm, though it may incorporate pieces from the archaic postverbal paradigm. In most Northwestern and some Southern Peripheral languages the paradigms are associated with transitivity and/or polarity, with the proclitic paradigm found in affirmative transitive and the postverbal in negative intransitive clauses. We find great variation across the branch in the interaction of indexation with transitivity. Many languages have innovated object-indexation, a few have developed inverse markers and/or hierarchical indexation patterns.

Valence-changing prefixes in South Central Tibeto-Burman (Kuki-Chin)

Many South Central languages have relatively unproductive sets of transitivizing (causative) and detransitivizing (middle) prefixal markers. This paper first surveys what we know so far about what markers are attested where in the group. Thereafter we suggest some possibilities as to the diachronic developments behind the distribution of markers which will form initial hypotheses for future research.