Bulletin of the School of Oriental and African Studies


A Polysystemic Approach, in Proto-Tibetan reconstruction, to tone and syllable-initial consonant clusters1

R. K. Sprigg

In an earlier article (Sprigg, 1963b) I drew on Burmese, with only a few examples from certain Tibetan dialects (Lhasa, Sherpa), to advocate applying prosodic analysis, the name commonly given to the polysystemic type of phonological analysis devised by J. R. Firth, to the languages of the TibetoBurman group for purposes of comparison and reconstruction; since then I have had an opportunity of studying two typologically different Tibetan dialects, the non-tonal Golok and the slightly tonal Balti, both of them remarkable for syllable-initial consonant clusters; and the relations of tone in the tonal Tibetan dialects to syllable-initial consonant clusters in the non-tonal dialects much strengthens the case, to my mind, for basing comparison of Tibetan dialects, and. through them, Proto-Tibetan reconstruction, on polysystemic analysis. The two main characteristics of such an analysis would be: (i) separate phonological systems for different types of syllable feature and syllable-initial feature; (ii) the emphasis on the syntagmatic association of successive phonetic features of the utterance rather than on purely paradigmatic contrast.


1 Based on ‘Tibetan syllable-initial consonant clusters as syllable features, equivalent to tone’, a paper contributed to the third Conference on Sino-Tibetan Reconstruction, Cornell University, Ithaca, X.Y., in 10 1970. For references, sec pp. 586–7.