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Nasalization in the Mumuye Language

A confusing vowel

For a long time we were puzzled about a vowel that we could not deal with. It was found in the word for basket = sang. At the same time sang could also mean star. What is the difference? We tried to discover some tonal variation, with no result. Then we consulted a linguistic expert. He tended to seek the difference in the vowel quality. Instead of a normal "a" the word for star would use an open-mid back unrounded vowel, a kind of short "a", written as "Λ" in the International Phonetic Alphabet. Tests, however, proofed that this could not be the answer to our problem.

Thomas Bearth, now Professor for linguistics in Zurich, discusses language problems with Peter Krusi

One day Thomas and Ilse Bearth visited us while we stayed for a few days in Zaria. Thomas is linguist with a PhD degree and was working in a language in Ivory Coast. So we presented our dilemma to them. Within seconds Ilse screamed: "This is the same thing we have in our own language!" And it really was!
Tests showed that the vowel in question was not a "Λ", but a nasalized .
The difficulty was, that both, the oral "a" as well as the nasalized "" are found in a CVN pattern (Consonant-Vowel-Nasal). Because of the nasal at the end of the syllable it was hard to distinguish between them.

In order to verify our findings we arranged another test in the phonetic laboratory of David Jackson. We placed a microphone to the throat of our language helper, one in front of him, and a small one into his nose. The diagrams confirmed our previous findings.

sang = star

sng = basket

Back in the village, a young lady asked for a small job in order to earn some money. I employed her as a language helper. I found out that she had a speech impediment. She produced a funny click with her velum when she pronounced a word with a nasalized vowel in the CVN pattern. What a lucky coincidence! In the following weeks I went through all the gathered words with her. As a result we were able to update our dictionary in a very accurate way.

The nasal sound wave (above) and the oral sound wave (below).
Shon tati = three arrows.

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