Saturday, July 09, 2005

Moraic Writing Systems

Dirk Elzinga, Con Lang List 5 Oct 2000

"Okay, here's the poop from a phonologist working within the Generative tradition (that would be me). A mora is a unit of syllable weight. Long vowels have two moras, short vowels have one. This difference shows up in stress systems: in many languages there is a principle whereby heavy (i.e., bimoraic) syllables attract stress; this is known as the Weight-to-Stress Principle (WtS).

Languages which have been cited as examples of the operation of WtS are Latin, Hindi, Yupik, and (various varieties of) Arabic, among others. In many languages where WtS is operative, syllables which are closed by a consonant also count as heavy; in these cases, one speaks of a consonant being moraic "by position" (i.e., as the coda of a syllable). Again, Latin has been cited as an example of such a language, as has Arabic.

There are also languages which show effects of WtS, but which do not count closed syllables as heavy; Shoshoni is such a language. That's why linguists distinguish consonants which are moraic "by position" from those which are not.

(In an interesting twist, Yupik shows both kinds of patterns. If a consonant closes one of the first two syllables of a word, that syllable counts as heavy and attracts stress. Closed syllables following the second syllable are out of luck and are always light, unless they contain a long (bimoraic)vowel.

Pitch accent systems, such as found in Japanese and (presumably) Ancient Greek, may follow different rules. Using the term 'mora' to describe such systems may therefore be confusing to linguists such as myself who know the term as applied to stress systems, regardless of the weight of tradition supporting such usage. It's just our poor luck that we didn't get a good Classical
education.

For me, the debate over whether Japanese is "moraic" or "syllabic" is a non-issue; Japanese is clearly divided into syllables, and is just as clearly sensitive to the weight of those syllables. The issue for me in Japanese is a representational one: is the onset of a Japanese syllable adjoined to the first mora, or is it adjoined to the syllable directly? Thus for the final syllable of the word _hatten_ the debate is over the following representations (best viewed in a monowidthfont): s s syllable \ /\ m m / m m mora / t e n t e n segment I agree with linguists who argue for the former, the representation in which the syllable onset is adjoined to the first mora. Evidence for this representation comes from a language game in which the final mora of a word uttered by the first player must serve as the initial mora uttered by the second. Players exchange words following this pattern for as long as possible. If a player uses a word ending in the moraic nasal she loses, since the moraic nasal may not begin any syllable inJapanese. As Nik has already noted, the pitch accent system is sensitive to syllable boundaries; hence syllables must also be recognized as prosodic units in Japanese.Comments/corrections welcome. "

Dirk Elzinga

1 Comments:

Blogger Suzanne E. McCarthy said...

A long discussion on morae has taken place in the comment section of the Lepcha post at Language Hat.

Thanks, LH.

4:02 PM  

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