Documenting Prosodic Systems on the Fly: A case study with Usarufa

Research output: Working paper


Published linguistic descriptions may include a section that covers the prosodic system of a language. Although the notation and level of detail may vary, such discussions usually contain statements like: this language has three tones, high, low, and falling; falling tones only appear phrase finally; prefixes are toneless;
tonal contrasts only appear on accented syllables; etc. Some of these statements are clearly phonological, while others are more phonetic in nature, and others are ambiguous: e.g. is falling tone just the reflex of high tone in phrase final position? The same ambiguity sometimes carries over into the transcriptions that are provided with a description: e.g. does something transcribed LLHLL have a hat or a hill contour? Viewed from the standpoint of a later analysis work, most such descriptions are simply incomplete, and a theoretical decision may hinge on a piece of information that was not answered in the description.

One option is to start over and produce a new and more detailed description of the language. However, suppose we don’t have this luxury, and that instead we just have a few hours of access to a couple of speakers. What should we elicit? How should we prepare? In what form might we disseminate any new (still incomplete) materials? What should be archived?

I report on such an experience for the language Usarufa [usa], a Papuan language spoken by about 1200 people in the Eastern Highlands Province of Papua New Guinea. I discuss the issues with the existing description, describe the new documentation that was collected, and evaluate its utility in supporting ongoing analytical work.

Many of the materials presented here, including the original out-of-print publications and the audio recordings, are available online at
Original languageEnglish
Number of pages7
Publication statusPublished - 2011
Externally publishedYes


Dive into the research topics of 'Documenting Prosodic Systems on the Fly: A case study with Usarufa'. Together they form a unique fingerprint.

Cite this