The four tones of Burmese (low, high, creaky, killed) are of special interest to phonologists and phoneticians because they can be explained only with reference to several aspects of the language’s phonological structure, both segmental and suprasegmental, including the features of pitch level, pitch contour, phonation type, vowel quality and duration. This study explores the multi-tiered structure of the tones by focusing on two tones, creaky and killed.
A glance at the survey of some of the published descriptions of Burmese tone in Table 1 suggests that one of their most striking features is the lack any real consensus on major issues such as the pitch characteristics of the low and high tones, whether or not killed can properly be counted as a tone, whether or not breathy phonation is a consistent feature of high tone, and so on. Some of the anomalies in the descriptive schemata summarised in Table 1 are discussed below, although the formulation of a comprehensive account of tonal phenomena in Burmese remains far
beyond the scope of this paper. Regarding the number of tones, Allott (1967) writes: “In different descriptions of Burmese one finds the apparently conflicting statements that Burmese has variously 5 tones, 4 tones and 3 tones. In fact none of the authors is in any doubt about how to describe Burmese; they simply do not agree in their use of the word ‘tone’.”
Whichever syllable types one chooses to recognise as tones, the varied descriptions of each tone arise chiefly for two reasons. The first is a complex array of tonal sandhi phenomena, which have yet to be fully described. It is clear, however, that Burmese tones cannot be described fully with reference only to the differences between syllables pronounced in any one context. The pronunciation of a tone may
be determined in part by the segmental or intonational context, or even by the syntactic features of the syllable by which it is borne and the syntactic structure of the environment in which it is found. In addition to these systematic influences, intonation wreaks further complex changes on the surface phonetic rendering of the tones. Preliminary descriptions (Sprigg 1977, Watkins 2000) of some of these effects have been assembled, but much work remains to be done.
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