How to distinguish between parasol trees and maize dumplings in Baskeet

In the newspaper article that I discussed in an earlier post, the journalist mentioned that Baskeet is a tone language. In today’s post I’d like to get back to this statement and explain a little bit what it means to say that Baskeet is “tonal”.

In Baskeet, tone height (or pitch) is used to distinguish the meaning of words, i.e. if you pronounce a Baskeet word with the wrong tone pattern (e.g. a rising tone rather than a falling tone) you may end up saying something nonsensical that people don’t understand or saying something completely different from what you had intended because there are quite a few words in Baskeet exclusively distinguished by tone. As a learner you have to memorise the tone pattern of a word as you would memorise whether a word starts with a /b/ or a /p/.

To give a practical example: Without observing the tone patterns, you would simply not be able to differentiate between parasol trees and maize dumplings in Baskeet.

This is a parasol tree:

Kalsha: Parasol tree

Kalsha: Parasol tree

The parasol tree (scientific name: Polyscias fulva (Hiern) Harms) is a fairly common tree in the Baskeet area. It is used for lumber and for the production of household items (e.g. combs). The Baskeet translation of ‘parasol tree’ is kalsha. You can hear here (kalsha no. 1) that the word kalsha ‘parasol tree’ is pronounced with a fairly monotonous tone on both syllables. Hardly any rise or fall in pitch can be heard across the word; the tone height on both syllables seems to be fairly equal.

This is a dish with maize dumplings:

Kalsha: maize dumplings with cabbage

Kalsha: maize dumplings with cabbage

Thesmall dumplings are made from maize flour and served with steamed dark and large-leaf cabbage (one of my favourite Baskeet dishes). The Baskeet translation of this dish is also kalsha! But when you listen to this recording (kalsha no. 2) you notice that the word is pronounced with a falling tone. The tone on the first syllable is clearly higher than the tone on the second syllable.

So if you get the pronunciation of the tree and the dish wrong, you might end up felling maize dumplings and eating parasol trees. Listen again to the tonal difference of the two words in contrast in this sound file (kalsha no. 1 vs. kalsha no. 2). If the tone of a word is to be marked in the transcription, one could do this, for instance, by marking relatively high pitch by an acute sign on a vowel, e.g. kálshá ‘parasol tree’, and by leaving low pitch unmarked, e.g. kálsha ‘maize dumplings’.

In cooperation with a colleague from the University of Marburg, Alexander Werth, I’d like to find out more about the Baskeet tone system during my next trip to Ethiopia. I keep you posted on our progress.

© 2011-2 Baskettoethiopia All Rights Reserved

Acknowledgments: Thanks to my friend and adoptive sister Tarikwa for cooking all the Baskeet dishes (among them the kalsha-dish) for me when I am in the field.
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