What is autosegmental phonology?

What is autosegmental phonology?


Autosegmental phonology is a non-linear approach to phonology that allows phonological processes, such as tone and vowel harmony, to be independent of and extend beyond individual consonants and vowels.

As a result, the phonological processes may influence more than one vowel or consonant at a time.

Multi-dimensional representations

Autosegmental phonology treats phonological representations as multi-dimensional, having several tiers. Each tier is made up of a linear arrangement of segments. The tiers are linked to each other by association lines that indicate how the segments on each tier are to be pronounced at the same time.

Examples (Mende, Sierra Leone)
  • In an autosegmental analysis of Mende, tone is not a property of individual vowels or syllables, but is a property of the word as a whole.
  • In the examples in the following table, the tone given in the left most column is the tone specified for all the words in that row, regardless of how many syllables a word contains.


    1 syllable

    2 syllables

    3 syllables


    nda@ ‘mouth’

    ngu@lu@ ‘tree’

    kE@lE@lE@ ‘fraction’


    kpa$ ‘debt’

    be$le$ ‘trousers’

    kpa$ka$l"Ý ‘chair’


    mbu^ ‘owl’

    ke@nya$ ‘uncle’

    fe@la$ma$ ‘junction’


    mba& ‘rice’

    na$vo@ ‘money’

    nda$vu@la@ ‘sling’


    mba ‘companion’

    nya$ha^ ‘woman’

    n"Ýk"Ûl"Ý ‘peanut’

  • Formal representation

    Here are some examples of formal representations of HL Mende tone:

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