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The world's languages make heavy use of prosody--tone, stress, intonation, and length--to communicate meaning, and tone is the most complex of these elements. Although non-tone languages typically exploit pitch for intonational purposes, the more sophisticated use of pitch in tone languages means that speakers of such languages will have quite different mental representations of pitch from speakers of English and better-known European non-tone languages.

This project is investigating the tone and reduced-tone languages of New Guinea, a linguistically under-investigated area of the world which is home to a sixth of the world's languages. The project is collecting substantial new bodies of recorded and transcribed language data from several undescribed tone languages. It will use computational and theoretical methods to analyze the geographical distribution of tonal properties and the interaction of tone and other prosodic features.

The project will incorporate technology into linguistic fieldwork and develop an exemplary model of prosodic description. Language consultants will be trained in the model's use, leading to more accessible primary data and more accountable descriptions. The data will be made available in a form that can be readily used by scholars, language teachers, and communities of speakers and will support the development of writing systems and literacy programs for these languages.