The Limits of Perception in the Tonal Orthographies of three-tone Systems

Kolawole Adeniyi


This article discusses the representation of downstep in the tonal orthographies of some three-tone languages of West Benue-Congo, in the light of the phonological properties of tone in the languages. Ebira has total downstep, which makes both downstepped high and down-stepped mid to be perceived at a level close to outright low tone, and written so; downstepped high in Igala is realised around the level of the mid tone and is often written as mid in the or-thography. In Gwari, the docking of floating high tonal morpheme and contour simplification interact with downstep in such a way that downstepped high tones are frequently written as mid. It is shown that these situations arise because surface tone perception is taken as the sole parameter for tone categorisation, ignoring the underlying tones of lexical items in the lan-guages as well as the number of tones and possible terracing-triggered intersections between the tones. It is argued that the orthographies of the languages will be far more accurate if these obvious facts of downstep are incorporated.