On marking surface tone in Sesotho

I may very often write posts about Sesotho with special emphasis on its tonology, or some other aspect which touches upon it.

It will thus be necessary to mark tone on Sesotho words, and this will require a system of marking tone which is precise without being burdensome.

It just so happens that Sesotho — and most Bantu languages in general — readily lends itself to a rather simple system of tonal marking and categorisation.

The surface tones of Sesotho

In Marlo’s Verb tone in Bantu languages[1] he shows how the tonal systems of the Bantu languages fall into 3 broad categories when one considers surface tonemes (that is, between underlying tonemes[2] — how the words “look” in the speakers’ lexicon, and the spoken allotones — how the relative pitch of tone-bearing-units varies):

  1. The stereotypical languages, which distinguish between H(igh) and (L)ow or toneless (∅) tones, with L/∅ being the default tone
  2. The reversive languages, which have essentially reversed the original Bantu tones, and have H as the default tone, and
  3. The predictable languages, where tone is reflected in the spoken language but the lexicon makes no tonal distinctions (speakers use pitch, but the pitch depends on the grammar and not on the words themselves).

We could also include those few rare languages which have lost tone, such as Kiswahili, as a final category.

Sesotho is stereotypical. It pretty much preserves the proto-Bantu system (modulo phonological changes including the loss of long vowels) and in those many instances where reconstructed proto-Bantu words have survived into the modern language, the reflexes almost always have essentially the same tones (underlyingly) as proto-Bantu.

Transcribing tone in Sesotho

For a stereotypical language, if we need to transcribe tone, we essentially need only mark high tones on tone-bearing-units.

Moreover, to distinguish between a word which has not been marked for tone, and one which has no high tones, we will mark the first syllable of the stem of a word with only low tones.

Behold[3]:

  • Mohópólo — a thought, idea; tonal pattern [_ ¯ ¯ _]
  • Monákaládi — the plant cyperus usitatus; tonal pattern [_ ¯ _ ¯ _]
  • Mochòchonono — a long tail, a comet; tonal pattern [_ _ _ _ _]
  • -thúńthetsa — to stander, vilify; tonal pattern [¯ ¯ _ _]

Note in particular that I have marked the individual syllables of the verb in the fourth example. This is near-nonsensical, and a more appropriate system of marking tone for verbs (underlyingly) will be introduced later.


[1] Marlo, Michael R. 2013. Verb tone in Bantu languages: micro-typological patterns and research methods. Africana Linguistica XIX. 137-234.

[2] Take a look at autosegmental phonology for a more exact phrasing of this word “underlying.”

[3] Note the glaring lack of narrow vowel marking. This will be dealt with in a later post.

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