Structure Of Tone In Liangmai


Ethnically and linguistically Liangmai people belong to the mongoloid group of race and speak Liangmai, a Tibeto-Burman language under the Naga Bodo section family (G.A. Grierson in Linguistic Survey of India). Liangmai is an indigenous and minority language in Manipur. Liangmai is one of the 33 recognized tribes by the Government of Manipur which include Aimol, Anal, Hmar, Maram, Mao, Paite, Simte, Thangal, Tangkhul, Thadou, etc. In Nagaland Liangmais are recognized as Zeliang which comprises Zeme and Liangmai. The language spoken by the people of Liangmai is known as Liangmai language. It is mainly spoken in Manipur and Nagaland. In Manipur, Liangmai speakers are found in Tamenglong headquarters, Tamei sub division and in Senapati district. They are also found in Tening Sub­division, Jalukie of Peren district, Dimapur and Kohima of Nagaland. According to 2001 census report, the total population of Liangmai in Manipur was estimated to be above 34,232 with 17,477 males and 16,755 females. According to 2001 census report, the total population of Zeliang in Nagaland was 36012 (2315 Liangmai). This language is linguistically closer to Maiam, Poumai, Thangal, Rongmei and Zeme which are spoken in the same region. They are said to have migrated from South-West China. Liangmai names such as Suang, Hu Wang Liu San, Kiang etc are some names which are identical with the Chinese names. The Liangmai has no historical documents to show the migration and origination.

But the folksongs, folk tales and legends of different Naga tribes are sorts of Naga history through which we can trace the origin. Many writers take note of Makhel (as the Liangmai called Makhiang) where all Naga tribes lived together before a major dispersal took place. The vast majorities of Liangmai groups are agriculturist and still live in villages. As their village is on the top of the hills, it provides a proper habitat for cultivation. They practice shifts cultivation. Accessibility to some of these villages is difficult because of the slope mountain. Some villages are accessible only on foot. Some of the Liangmai villages in Manipur are still not yet connected with electricity. Liangmai religion was traditionally animism; however, they have converted to Christianity even before India’s independence and it is due to the influence of the Christian missionaries. Southern Liangmais living near Tamenglong Headquarters especially Tharon, Namtiram, Marongpa etc hesitate to speak their mother tongue due to some unknown reasons and this may lead to extinction of the language in near future. Liangmai language is also included in UNESCO Atlas on Indian endangered languages in 2009.

Language spoken

It is mainly spoken in Manipur and Nagaland. In Manipur, Liangmai speakers are found in Tamenglong headquarters, Tamei sub division, Senapati district and scattered over near Imphal. They are also found in Tening Sub-division, Jaluke of Peren district, Dimapur and Kohima of Nagaland. Liangmai language belongs to Tibeto-Burman language under Naga-Bodo section. Liangmai language is mutually intelligible in Manipur and Nagaland even though the language has slight variation from place to place and village to village.

Tone in Liangmai

The term tone has a general sense in which it is almost synonymous with ‘pitch’. A tone in a linguistic system will be realized in such a way that it contrasts with other tones in a linguistic system while varying according to content. In many languages tones are more directly associated with syllables or lexical items, examples in Mandarin, Chinese, Burmese, and Vietnamese etc.

Many of the world’s languages are, traditionally recognized as ‘tone languages’. It is common among linguists to stress lexical relevance; in atone language, tone is a feature of the lexicon, being described in terms of prescribed pitches for syllables or sequences of pitches for morphemes or words’. (Ruttenden 1986, P.8): or more informally, pitch distinguishes the meanings of words) [pike 1948].

Most of the world’s languages are in fact tonal in this sense including major East Asian languages such as Chinese, Vietnamese, Burmese and Thai as well as substantial proportion of the languages of Africa, the Americas and Papua New Guinea.

Tibeto-Burman group of languages is spoken in India such as Assam, Arunachal, Manipur, Meghalaya, Mizoram and Nagaland and so called Northeast region. Liangmai is an agglutinative language having the characteristics of SOV language. This language is linguistically closer to Maram, Rongmei, Poumai, Thangal and Zeme which are spoken in the same region.

Liangmai has six vowels and twenty consonantal phonemes. Following chart shows the vowels and consonants of Liangmai.1.1. Vowels system:

Front Central Back

High i u

Mid e o

Low a

All six vowels are short and have no long vowel in this language. There are two front unrounded vowels and two back round vowels. Besides, one low central vowel and mid central vowel.

2.2. Consonant system

The IPA chart of Liangmai:

4.0. Tone system in Liangmai

The present work is an attempt on the tone system of Liangmai. It tries to study the nature of tones in Liangmai and the arrangement of tones into a system in the language. Liangmai has five tones. All these are contour tones. The contour tones are falling, rising, falling-rising and rising­falling which are illustrated below. Contour tones:

Rising-falling Vs falling rising:

In the above examples, the segmental sounds are same but tones are different causing change in the meaning. The contrasting difference in the above examples is between rising-falling and falling rising tones. Above mentioned examples show it again in sentences:

Tone Sandhi

In many contour-tone languages, one tone may affect the shape of an adjacent tone. The affected tone may become something new, a tone that only occurs in such situations, or it may be changed into a different existing tone. This is called tone Sandhi.

In Mandarin Chinese, for example, a dipping tone between two other tones is reduced to a simple low tone, which otherwise does not occur in Mandarin, whereas if two dipping tones occur in a row, the first becomes a rising tone, indistinguishable from other rising tones in the language. The following are the tone Sandhi in Liangmai:


In Liangmai, tone 1 is rising, tone 2 is falling, tone 3 falling, tone 4 is rising-falling and tone 5 is falling-rising (all five tones are contour tones)

1. Falling-rising is seen on words with disyllabic structure (on final syllable contrasting with falling and rising). The first syllable carries a level tone.

2. There is a contrast of falling; rising and level tone in disyllabic words.

3. In disyllabic words, the rising-falling tone and falling-rising tone are contrastive. Here the gliding pitch starts in the first syllable and ends in second syllable (final syllable)

4. In tri-syllabic words, the first syllabic has the level tone (it is difficult, however, to pinpoint whether the level tone is a high or low level tone. Spectrographic evidence is needed). The gliding pitch i.e. the falling-rising or falling-rising is spread over second and third syllable.

*The article is written by  Ch Widinibou.

(Courtesy: The Sangai Express)

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