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  • Some Remarks on Stress, Syncope, and Gemination in Mussau1
  • Robert Blust

Contrary to theoretical expectation, Mussau, a language spoken in the St. Matthias archipelago in northwest Melanesia, has developed some geminate consonants through the loss of stressed vowels. It is argued that other considerations have overridden considerations of stress in geminate formation, not only in Mussau, but in many other Oceanic languages. Specifically, vowels tend to delete between identical consonants in partial reduplications, a tendency that accords closely with Odden's (1988) arguments against the Obligatory Contour Principle, particularly as it applies to antigemination.

On the basis of fieldwork conducted in 1975, Blust (1984:174ff) reported the presence of geminate consonants in Mussau, spoken in the St. Matthias archipelago immediately to the northwest of the island of New Ireland in western Melanesia. These segments occur in both initial and intervocalic positions and, according to my earlier publication "can … be attributed to a synchronic rule of syncope [that] deletes the vowel of the first of two successive identical syllables." In most cases, alternative pronunciations were given in which the geminate consonant corresponds to a C1VC1- sequence; in other cases no such alternative was recorded. Longer forms were said to represent the speech of the older generation and syncopated forms the generation of my assistant, Uloulo Ainamangas (born ca. 1930). As it turns out, this description suffices for the derivation of initial geminates, as with [rarána] : [rrána] 'mangrove sp.', or [gigíma] : [ggíma] 'kind of tree used to make canoes', as well as for medial geminates in words that have just two identical syllables for older speakers, as [gorúru] : [górru] 'edible green seaweed', or [miróro] : [mírro] 'fish sp.', but it fails to account for medial geminates in words with three identical syllables such as [mumúmu] : [múmmu] 'to suck', or for the absence of syncope in invariant disyllables such as keke 'foot, leg', mama 'seaweed sp.' or susu 'breast'. [End Page 143]

My Mussau material was collected in two elicitation sessions totaling about six contact hours. In this limited time, I was able to gather a vocabulary of between 550 and 600 words, and a small set of sentences. Tables 1 and 2 display all 32 examples of phonetically geminated consonants that appear in my fieldnotes. Except for kkiau, initial geminates occur only in surface disyllables, while medial geminates occur in words of two or more syllables. In addition, as might be expected, medial geminates outnumber initial geminates by slightly more than two to one.

Juliette Blevins (pers. comm.) has pointed out that the Mussau material is puzzling in view of the fact that medial geminates sometimes appear to arise from the deletion of a stressed vowel. Her questions about these cases have caused me to reexamine my fieldnotes, with the result that I believe I can now state a more adequate set of conditions for deletion leading to gemination. These conditions are still surprising in the light of general theoretical notions about deletability or hierarchies of deletion probabilities for vowels, and for this reason they merit a brief notice here.

We can begin by reformulating the rule of syncope: syncope in Mussau does not delete the vowel of the first of two successive identical syllables, as stated in 1984, but rather the first vowel between like consonants, counting from the right margin of the word. This enables us to account for cases like mumumu : mummu as well as for the initial geminates that were covered by the earlier rule. However, it still leaves us with two unresolved problems: (1) counterintuitively, it deletes a stressed vowel in forms such as miroro : mirro 'fish sp.' or mumumu : mummu 'to

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Table 1.

Mussau Initial Geminates, with Variants

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Table 2.

Mussau Medial Geminates, with Variants

[End Page 144]

suck', and (2) it fails to account for the absence of syncope in forms such as keke 'foot, leg', mama 'k.o. seaweed', or susu 'breast'.

By appealing to commonly accepted views of phonetic motivation in vowel syncope, it is possible to find an apparently straightforward solution to both of...


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