Cherokee Tone Explained in One Minute edit

By default, all Cherokee vowels have a low flat pitch. Three other types of pitch, or tones, each used for different reasons, can change the default tone. They are (1) the lowfall tone, arising from the use of pronouns, which starts at the default low and goes lower (glides to a lower pitch); (2) the superhigh tone, which starts high and rises higher, associated with adjectives and dependent clauses; and (3) the high tone, associated with a word's internal stress, whether arising as a core component of the word or from an attached prefix. Tones, grammar rules, and affixes interact within a word in a largely predictable yet intricate system.

Cherokee Tone in More Detail edit

One cannot comprehend the beauty of Cherokee tone without first understanding its canvas. The basic unit of time in Cherokee is the mora, which is the length of any syllable containing a short vowel. If a syllable contains a long vowel, it is two moras long. Some tones (i.e. types of tones) in Cherokee last for one mora, and others for two moras. Yet others last for the whole syllable, regardless of its mora number. This property—which unit of time a type of tone is associated with—is a tone's "domain." The domain can be one mora, two moras, or one syllable.

One must also think of the Cherokee tonal system as having one default tone, a low tone with a domain of one mora, that is automatically realized on every syllable unless a marked tone is required to be realized there instead.

A marked tone arises in Cherokee speech or is changed (e.g. through pitch alternation or spreading) for one of two possible reasons: (1) the word or word part (morpheme) inherently has a certain tone or tone process that surfaces as a marked tone; or (2) a grammatical or phonological feature requires a tone or tone process resulting in a marked tone. To understand the entirety of Cherokee tonology, one needs to understand the intricacies of each type of tone or tone process, including its causes or uses, realization, conditions for change, and effects on coincident and neighboring tones. Every tone or tone process is unique in behavior, which is one reason learners have historically found Cherokee tone so challenging. However, if you look at this fact as testament to the richness of the language and embrace the intricacies of the tonal system, you will have a much better learning experience.

True Tones edit

The below table identifies the four true tones of Cherokee. They are called true tones because they arise directly from their sources. This is in opposition with surface tones, which represent additional tone contours arising from the interactions between true tones or from other downstream processes, such as spreading.

The pitch numbers indicates the approximate height of pitch in the realization of the tone on its domain. For example, a low tone is given the (somewhat arbitrarily) pitch assignment of 2. For a single mora, "2" is appropriate. For a low tone on two moras (on a long vowel), "22" is written to indicate the length. For the lowfall tone, "21" is written to indicate that the pitch starts at the same level as called for by a low tone but then glides lower.

All notations use the vowel /a/ for demonstration. The first element of the pair indicates the notation for a short (or in the case of lowfall, underlyingly short) syllable with the specified tone, while the second element is for a long syllable.

Cherokee True Tones
Tone Domain Pitch Notation Sources Notes
Low mora 2, 22 a, aa default, glottal element
High mora 3, 33 á, áá glottal element, inherent stress, certain prefixes Each source is associated with a distinct type that can arguably be treated as a separate tone, just with the same realization.
Lowfall syllable 21 à, aà PTL, LA, glottal element, certain prefixes Lengthens syllable if short.
Superhigh syllable 3, 34 â, aâ subordination, adjectives, some nouns Realized 3 on a short syllable (rarely 4 for some OK speakers), 34 on a long syllable.

Surface Tones edit

Below are a list of surface tones in Cherokee. These are results of the application and interaction of true tones and do not arise alone from meaningful sources.

Cherokee Surface Tones
Tone Domain Pitch Notation Sources Notes
Final syllable 43 a default for final syllable in a full (unclipped) word Final syllables are often clipped in casual speech so you will not hear this for every word.
Rising moras (x2) 23 low preceding high (for any reason)
Falling moras (x2) 32 áa high preceding low (for any reason), coincidence of high and lowfall

Inert Tones edit

Some suffixes (and maybe other morphemes) carry high tones that cannot be attributed to one of the three high tone types discussed here. This may also be the case for non-derived nouns. They are “inert” tones because they do not change. H1, H2, and H3 are specific to verbal morphology—so you won’t confuse them with the inert tones—but they are “active” in the sense that they move around or are realized differently in different circumstances. The learner should simply memorize the inert tones as they come up—they are essentially fully lexical.

Tonicity edit

Tonicity is an important concept in Cherokee tonology. It is a property that applies to every inflection of a verb, every noun, and every adjective. Whether a form is tonic or atonic depends on certain factors.

Firstly, why does tonicity matter?

Tonicity governs the realization of two types of tone: lowfall associated with pronominal tonic lowering (PTL), and the major high tone (H1). If an inflection is tonic, then any lowfall resulting from PTL will be realized (i.e. present), and any major high tone H1 not otherwise limited will be realized high. If an inflection is atonic, then any lowfall resulting from PTL will not be realized, and any H1 will be realized low.

Tonicity is determined for an inflection by following this order of questioning:

  1. Is the assertive ("ASR," a.k.a. experienced past) suffix (-vv́qi) used? If so, the inflection is tonic. If not, move on to the next question.
  2. Does the inflection use any of the tonicizing prepronominal prefixes, namely the iterative, special partitive, relative, or combined cislocative? If so, the inflection is tonic. If not, move on to the next question.
  3. Does the inflection use any of the detonicizing prepronominal prefixes, namely the regular partitive, irrealis, translocative, single cislocative, or negative? If so, the inflection is atonic. If not, move on the next question.
  4. Is the inflection indicative? If so, the inflection is tonic. If not (i.e. if it is imperative or infinitive), then the inflection is atonic. (Nouns and adjectives are also lumped in with the non-indicative forms.)

This is to say, at the most basic level, indicative inflections are tonic, as opposed to imperative or infinitive inflections (or nouns and adjectives). However, if any prepronominal prefixes are used in the inflection, the determination of tonicity defers to them. The only higher power in tonicity determination is the presence of the -vv́qi suffix, which automatically makes an inflection tonic, even if it has a detonicizing PPP, for instance.

Also, note that questions 2 and 3 cannot be flipped in order. That is to say, in the presence of both tonicizing and detonicizing PPPs for any particular inflection, tonicizing trumps detonicizing.

A flowchart lays out these rules more clearly.

Cherokee Tonicity Determination
Priority Tonicizing Elements Detonicizing Elements
1: Modality ASR (-vv́qi) none
2: PPPs ITR, PRT-special, REL, CIS-combined PRT-regular, IRR, TRN, CIS-single, NEG
3: Inflection Indicative verb Imperative, infinitive, nominalized verb, noun, adjective

Sources of Tones: An Overview edit

Lowfall from Pronominal Tonic Lowering (PTL) edit

Pronominal prefixes starting with a vowel will see a lowfall on that initial vowel in a tonic environment. If the underlying vowel is short, the lowfall lengthens it. Remember that this, though, is a general property of the lowfall and not unique to this particular source. When PTL occurs concurrently with a high tone, it seems that a falling tone results. This high tone may be H1 or H3. (H2 would not be able to collide with PTL due to location restraints.)

Lowfall from Long-i Prefixes edit

Regardless of tonicity, pronominal prefixes beginning with a long /i/ always see a lowfall on that vowel. "Always" refers to the fact that tonicity does not govern the realization of this lowfall. Note that in tonic environments this lowfall will appear identical to PTL. One could argue that in tonic environments PTL also applies on top of the long-i-derived lowfall, which is intuitively true, but this fact does not affect any surface pitch movement, for supposedly the double application of a lowfall simply results in a lowfall—there is no distinct "double" lowfall realization.

Lowfall from Laryngeal Alternation (LA) edit

The laryngeal grade of most /hC/ clusters, where C represents any nonglottal consonant, is the disappearance of the /h/ and concurrent assignment of a lowfall tone on the preceding vowel. See the Laryngeal Alternation article for more details about this process.

Lowfall or Low from Glottal Element (Atonic Major High) edit

Major High (H1) edit

Minor High (H2) edit

Iambic High (H3) edit

Superhigh on Adjectives edit

All adjectives carry a superhigh tone.

Superhigh for Subordination edit

Superhigh on Miscellaneous Nouns (Diminutive, Locative, Inalienable Possession, Some Roots) edit

Superhigh on Nominalizations (Some Agentive, Action, Objective, Instrumental, Predicative) edit

Tone Behavior edit

Major High edit

Iambic High edit

Superhigh edit