Linguistics and English Language

PhD Linguistics graduate wins distinguished article prize

Laura Arnold has won an award from the Philological Society, the oldest learned society in Great Britain

Congratulations to our postdoctoral researcher and 2018 PhD Linguistics and English Language graduate Laura Arnold, who is one of two winners of the R. H. Robins student Prize from the Philological Society.

Philological Society R. H. Robins Prize

Laura Arnold

Analyzing tone of an endangered language

Laura won the prize for her paper 'Highs and lows: A previously unattested tone split from vowel height'. This study looks at the development of tone in Ambel, an endangered Austronesian language spoken in the Raja Ampat archipelago (West Papua province, Indonesia).

Tone is the use of pitch to distinguish different words. In Ambel, High-toned tún ‘moon’ is realised with high pitch, whilst toneless tun ‘thorn’ is realised with low pitch.

The study uses data collected in the field from native speakers of the two dialects of Ambel, Metsam and Metnyo, to reconstruct the tones of single-syllable words in proto-Ambel, the parent language from which the two dialects were derived.

First proven case

This reconstruction provides evidence for a previously unidentified sound change in the Metnyo dialect of Ambel: a tone split conditioned by vowel height in which toneless words with non-high vowels (e, a or o) developed High tone.

For example, the proto-Ambel word wan ‘canoe, with a non-high vowel, became High-toned wán in Metnyo Ambel.

This is significant as it is widely accepted that high vowels are associated with High tone, and low vowels are associated with Low tone.

The tone split in Metnyo Ambel is the first proven case of the development of High tone on low vowels.

Understanding its significance

The finding that High tone developed on low vowels in Metnyo Ambel is significant from a historical and theoretical perspective in linguistics.

Of the eight languages in which a historical relationship between tone and vowel height has been attested, four belong to the same sub-branch of Austronesian as Ambel.

It’s a real honour to have been awarded the Robins Prize. I’m looking forward to returning to the field to collect data to test the hypotheses I present in this paper.

Laura ArnoldBritish Academy Postdoctoral Fellow in Linguistics and English Language and PhD Linguistics and English Language (2018)

Laura plans to return to Raja Ampat in the coming months to determine if Ambel and related languages have a higher average difference in pitch between high and low vowels.

Research area

Language variation and change

Related degree programme

PhD Linguistics and English Language


The Philological Society

Established in 1842, the Philological Society is the oldest learned society in Great Britain devoted to the scholarly study of language and languages.