Document Type


Date of Degree

Summer 2013

Degree Name

PhD (Doctor of Philosophy)

Degree In


First Advisor

Catherine O. Ringen

Second Advisor

Bob McMurray


This dissertation focuses on vowel harmony in Maasai, an Eastern Nilotic language spoken in Kenya and Tanzania. The main goal of this dissertation is to determine whether an adequate account of the Maasai pattern of Advanced Tongue Root (ATR) harmony can be formulated in Optimality Theory. Ultimately it is seen that it can, relying on directional Maximal Licensing constraints Walker (2011). Maasai is a language with dominant-recessive harmony. There are two sets of vowels--ATR and non-ATR. A word can only include members of one vowel set; if there is an AT R vowel anywhere in a word, all vowels will be ATR in the output. The only exception to this is the non-ATR low vowel, which lacks an ATR counterpart. It is opaque--it does not harmonize and it blocks the spread of harmony if it is followed by an ATR vowel, but it harmonizes to [o] when preceded by an ATR vowel.

All earlier analyses have been based on mainly one source, Tucker and Mpaayei (1955). To avoid using inaccurate or inaccurate data, the data analyzed in this thesis were collected from native speakers in Arusha, Tanzania. Earlier accounts have been based on impressionistic transcriptions. Acoustic analysis of the data were performed to explore the properties of the vowels. The height of the first formant was found to be the most robust acoustical cue to differentiate ATR and non-ATR vowels, though the height of the second formant has some use as a secondary cue. Like many previous studies of languages with an ATR contrast, in this study, it was found that the ATR vowels in Maasai have lower F1s than their non-ATR counterparts (Ladefoged 1964, Lindau et al. 1972, Lindau 1976, Jacobson 1980, Hess 1992, Maddieson and Gordon 1996, Fulop et al. 1998, Anderson 1999, 2007, Przezdziecki 2005, Gick et al. 2006, Starwalk 2008, Kang and Ko 2012). Guion (2004)'s acoustic analysis of Maasai, which showed that ATR and non-ATR vowels in minimal pairs or near minimal pairs differ in F1 was confirmed. Unlike previous research, vowels that have undergone harmony were also investigated. It was observed that not only does Maasai show an ATR/ non-ATR distinction, but that the harmony process is neutralizing. An ATR suffix will force a non-ATR root to harmonize, and an ATR root will force a non-ATR prefix to harmonize. The vowel that has undergone harmony to become ATR is not distinguishable from one is always ATR. It was also found that distance from the trigger (the ATR vowel that causes harmony) does not affect the harmony process.

Maasai has been described as having one lexically ATR prefix which causes only less peripheral prefixes to harmonize (Tucker and Mpaayei 1955, Mol 1995, 1996). This claim was investigated, but no acoustic evidence was found to support the claim that there is an ATR prefix. Instead, it is suggested that the perception of the prefix as ATR arises from coarticulatory effects that are the result of the unique environment of the prefix. Acoustic analysis of prefixes preceding the putative ATR prefix were found to be non-ATR.

Although previous OT analyses of Maasai have been either unduly complex, incapable of accounting for all the data or have dismissed elements of the harmony as morphological, the harmony system can be accounted for rather simply with two directional harmony constraints. Walker (2011) suggests that languages which appear to demonstrate one bidirectional harmony process might actually be the result of two unidirectional harmony processes. The analysis of Maasai presented her supports this suggestion. There are two directional Maximal Licensing constraints which are high-ranked there is another constraint that must be ranked between them to account for the asymmetric behavior of the low vowel.


ATR, Maa, Maasai, Phonetics, Phonology, Vowel Harmony


xvi, 208 pages


Includes bibliographical references (pages 202-208).


Recordings of Maasai Speech Samples are available.


Copyright 2013 Lindsey Quinn-Wriedt

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