Knut J. Olawsky, DGfS-Tagung in Düsseldorf, Febr. 1997:

Interaction of tone and morphology in Dagbani

Dagbani is a Gur language (Western Oti-Volta) spoken in Northern Ghana (500,000 speakers).


- Nominal class morphology: 761 simplex nouns

- Tone: 682 (Not all the material could be used for the whole analysis. Regarding the nominal class morphology, for instance, loans which have adopted the typical class features of Dagbani were included in the statistics. For tonal behaviour, a number of these words showed an irregular structure and were therefore excluded.)

The tonal system of Dagbani has two distinctive tones, High (H) and Low (L). This can be shown by a number of minimal pairs which differ from each other only by pitch level.

(1)     <gballi>        [gballI]        (grave)        H-H

c.f.    <gballi>        [gballI]        (zana mat)   L-H

         <palli>           [pallI]          (road)          H-H

c.f.    <palli>           [pallI]          (new)          H-L

- Distinctive tone occurs on vowels and nasals.

- CV and N syllables bear exactly one tone H or L (no contour tones).

- CVN or CVV syllables may bear two tones at the right word boundary.

- In word-internal position, N in CVN and V2 in CVV bear the same tone as the preceding vowel.

- CVC syllables do not occur in word-final position (except CVN)




TBUs      Pattern         Number     %         Example           Engl.               

2 TBUs    H H             285        42 %      paGa              woman               

          L H             156        23 %      kOlgu             bag                 

          H L             41          6 %      nooNa             bird                

          L L             --         --        ---                                   

3 TBUs    H H H           88         13 %      tItalI            big                 

          L L H           55          8 %      bihilI            breast              

          L H H           22          3 %      sIturlI           clothing            

          H H L           14          2 %      mahIlI            wet                 

          L H L            4          1 %      gurINga           person from Upper   

          H L H            1         --        dIfElI            pillow              

          H L L            1         --        kuNkON            tin                 

          L L L           --         --        ---                                   

          Others:         15          2 %                                            

Total:                    = 682      = 100 %                                         

1. Out of 14 possible patterns for nouns with 2 or3 TBUs, only 5 are prominent:

2. All of these patterns include at least 1 H per word.

3. Within a word, only one change from H to L or from L to H is observed.

A simplification of these five patterns is achieved by assuming three tonal melodies H, H-L, L-H, spreading leftward from the right word boundary.

(4)       L-H melody:

A look at the morphological structure of Dagbani nouns shows that the underlying structure is even simpler than the 3-melody-approach.

- Dagbani has six arbitrary nominal classes. Every (native) noun has a root and a pair consisting of a singular and a plural suffix belonging to a particular class. A noun without a class suffix cannot stand in isolation.


Ncl. Example (sg.)     Example (pl.)    Sg.Sx.  Pl.Sx.     Engl.          Add.    

1.   tIb-li            tIb-a            -li     -a         ear            + 8     

2.   paG-a             paG-ba           -a      -ba        woman          + 4     

3.   gab-ga            gab-si           -ga     -si        rope           + 7     

4.   wab-gu            wab-ri           -gu     -ri        elephant       + 11    

5.   kur-gu            kur-a            -gu     -a         old            + 1     

6.   ko-m / kom-       ko-ma / kom-a    -m /    -ma / -a   water          + 2     

The column "Add." shows the minimal number of allomorphic and/or allophonic variants for each class. Including all subclasses, one comes to a total number of 33 "classes", or better, variations within the nominal class morphology.

The suffix is elided when a compound is formed, e.g.

(6)      gab-ga (rope, sg.)    +    tita-li (big-sg.)    -->    gab-tita-li (rope-big-sg.)

Representation (M = morpheme):

(7)     L-H nouns:

(8)  Type of morpheme           Entries    in %      
(of 682)             

Roots bearing H tone:           428        63 %      

     Roots bearing L tone       211        31 %      

     Other roots                 43*        6 %      

* includes nouns with different sg./pl.

Problems / Discussion

1. Suffix tokens vs. types: One and the same suffix (type) can have either H or L tone, depending on the root. Example:

(9) dab-li L-H (slave)                      L root, H suffix /-li/

      sIm-li H-H (groundnut)           H root, H suffix /-li/

      gal-li H-L (egg)                         H root, L suffix /-li/.

So if a suffix is generally H, which are the processes that cause it to be L? The answer has to be found in the underlying structure of the root.

2. Floating tones: Certain nouns, such as /sana/ ("stranger") seem to have a "hidden" tone which comes into action only in certain contexts, as here in N+A compounds (/biEGu/ = "bad"):

(10) Noun + adj.          + HH adj.      Surface        UR              Result         

     sana + biEGu   -->   saan' !biEGu   H H + H H      H [HL] + H H    --> H !H H     

     nooNa + biEGu  -->   nooN' !biEGu   H L + H H      H [L] + H H     --> H !H H     

3. Toneless morphemes. Certain H-H nouns lose their H on the root when combined with an adjective:

(11) Noun + adj.                         Surface        UR              Result         

     paGa + biEGu   -->   paG' biEGu     H H + H H      [__] + H H      L H H          

4. Class six nouns. The singular form of these group contains a nasal consonant /m/ or /N/ which is normally not separable from the root, but which can bear a tone different from the root:

(12)     kunduN (hyena-sg.)       L-L-H

            kunduNa (hyena-pl.)       L-L-H.

This phenomenon is to be explained diachronically, as most class 6 nouns apparently belonged to a different class in earlier stages of the language. Due to the loss of segmental material, the remaining tone settled on the final nasal consonant. Now this nasal is not strictly a suffix, but it is treated like a suffix regarding its tonal behaviour.

             M     M             M    M           M (M)


The observation "One tone per morpheme" is a surface decription only true for nouns in isolation and has to be extended. The morpheme can still be regarded the relevant unit for tonal structure, but four different types of nominal roots have to be identified with respect to their underlying structure: H, L, HL, toneless.

1. Toneless roots: Hyman (1993) suggests that these nouns are underlyingly toneless and receive their H by High Tone Anticipation, when standing in isolation. In N+A compounds, this rule does not apply (because the suffix is elided) and a default L is assigned to the toneless TBU:


Note: Remember that H-H is the most frequent pattern. This would mean that most Dagbani nouns are underlyingly toneless.

2. Floating tones come to the surface in N+A constructions, causing downstep on the following H adjective. L suffixes must be due to the tonal structure of the root as well. According to Hyman (1993), /yaaNa/ is underlyingly HL: H is realized on the stem, L causes downstep on following adjectives, on suffix with final lowering.


3. Downstep after words like /sana/ (H-H). Hyman: /san-a/ is underlyingly H on both root and suffix. The H on the suffix is converted into L by Meeussen's Rule. Then a postlexical H spreading rule spreads the H from the root to the suffix , leaving the converted L unlinked. This tone is supposed to cause the downstep on the word which follows.

Problem: /sana/ is H-H in the singular and H-!H in the plural: /saamba/ (H-!H).

The difference between /sana/ (H-H / "H") and /yaaNa/ (H-L / "HL") is not straightforward.



Anttila, A. / Bodomo, A.: Stress and tone in Dagaare. Rutgers, 1997.

Hyman, L.: Structure preservation and postlexical tonology in Dagbani. In: Phonetics and Phonology 4, pp. 235-254; Berkeley 1993.

Olawsky, K.J.: An introduction to Dagbani phonology. Arbeiten des SFB 282, Nr. 76. Heinrich-Heine-Universität Düsseldorf 1996.

Olawsky, K.J.: Dagbani as a tonal language. Proceedings of the 8th Italian Meeting of Afroasiatic Linguistics, Naples, 25.-26.1.1996. Forthcoming.

Wilson, W.A.A.: An introductory course to Dagbani. Unpublished manuscript, Tamale, 1972.



*The notation used for transcriptions here is not in correct IPA format, due to technical matters.

The following signs were used:

E     to stand for open /e/.

O     to stand for open /o/.

I      to stand for schwa and similar sounds.

G     to stand for velar voiced fricative.

N     to stand for velar nasal.

Other signs:

M = Morpheme.

T = TBU (tone-bearing unit).

H = High tone.

L = Low tone.

!H = Downstepped High tone.

[H] = Derived H tone.

H = Lexical H tone.

UR = Underlying representation.