“You walked or you waaalked?” – Clearly this doesn’t make much sense in English, but in the Kabwa language the length of a vowel can make the difference between whether something was done earlier today or yesterday.
This month I have been doing some research and recording in the Kabwa language. As well as recording a basic word list (as I did last month in the Simbiti language), I have been asking questions about and recording various verbs.
There are a number of various verb forms in Kabwa that can sound very, very similar (or even identical in some cases, even to a mother-tongue speaker!).
The question is, how do we write down these very similar forms?
Does it matter if things that mean something different are written the same?
Won’t the context make it obvious what you mean?
Is it confusing to write differently words that sound the same but mean something different? (Or will this cause less confusion in the long run?)
In English we have similar spelling issues all the time:
“I read a book yesterday” vs. “I like to read books every day”
or even, “Did you read that red book about reeds that I said I’d read?”!
But back to Kabwa…
In Kabwa, there is a distinction made between whether an action was done earlier today, yesterday, or before yesterday. It is the first two of these that can sound similar; here are some examples:
(The bha- and the beginning means ‘they’ did it, and the –aa– and –iri parts make it past…)
‘They hid (yesterday)’
‘They hid (earlier today)’
(The –bhis– part is the ‘root’ of the verb, here to do with to ‘hide’)
Now, with this particular example, it is possible to hear the difference between the two – hooray!
I can even prove it my using some of my favourite sound software (Praat) – I can “see” the word and even “see” the -a- vowel and work out how long it lasts! (Some might call it sad how excited I get about this … I’m not sure what I call it, but it makes me happy!)
The area outlined in red is the -a- vowel; the top image is of the ‘yesterday’ form, the one below is the ‘earlier today’ form – can you see that the top vowel is longer?!
But now to one of the more problematic examples.
In the example above, the main part of the verb was -bhis- ‘hide’.
Problems come up though, when the main part of the verb starts with a vowel, for example –ahur- ‘choose’:
‘They chose (yesterday)’
‘They chose (earlier today)’
Hmmm, if you take a look at the ‘earlier today’ form, there are two “a”s next to each other, which makes a long vowel (in the first examples, the ‘earlier today’ form had only one -a-). I was curious whether these two forms would sound different, whether the ‘yesterday’ form would have an extra-long vowel …
Well … here the -a- vowel is almost exactly the same length. Hmmm …
According to Sasi, the Kabwa speaker I was working with, these two forms have “maana moja” – one meaning.
So… does that mean that the ‘yesterday’ and the ‘earlier today’ forms are the same when verbs begin with a vowel?
Can you not make the same distinctions as you can with other verbs that begin with a consonant?
Well, no they don’t just merge into one.
If you specify what kind of thing they chose, then you can hear the difference!
‘They chose it (yesterday)’
‘They chose it (earlier today)’
(The –yi– part is the ‘it’, for example a chicken)
In both examples, the -yi- ‘it’ splits up the -a- vowels. This means that you can tell that the ‘yesterday’ form has a long -a- before the ‘it’, and the ‘earlier today’ form has only a short vowel before the ‘it’!
The two red boxed sections are the -a- vowels either side of the -yi-.
It is clearly visible that the top example has two long -a- vowels either side of the -yi-, whereas the lower example has a very short -a- before the -yi- but a longer -a- afterwards.
Hooray! So it is possible differentiate between the two, even when the verb starts with a vowel!
The problem still remains as to the example above that you can’t differentiate.
Do we write it differently so that the difference is obvious when it is written, even though it sounds the same? Or do we write it the same because it sounds the same and risk some confusion? Which will cause Kabwa speakers less confusion when they are learning to read and write Kabwa?
Well, I don’t have all the answers! But fortunately I’m not working on my own. There are other linguists here with whom I can discuss these things, as well as two Kabwa translators and many Kabwa speakers nearby whom I can ask when I have more questions.
Now I should get back to listening to all the sound files at my desk, which is covered with rather a lot of papers as you can see!
(And congratulations if you made it all the way through this post!)