Tonality in Phan Rang Cham and Tsat

The results presented concern the two Chamic languages which have had the greatest contact with tone languages, namely Phan Rang Cham and Tsat.  These languages have been under the prolonged influence of Vietnamese and the Min dialects of Chinese respectively.  These have undergone a great variety of phonological, morphological and syntactic changes in response to contact with tone languages and the development of bilingual communities that define the forefront of language change.




Although the development of tonality in Asiatic languages is usually associated the simplification of the syllable onset and coda, in Chamic languages, we should first consider the process by which the monosyllables came into being (Haudricourt, 1954; Huffman, 1977; Thompson, 1976).  Cham, like all other Malay languages had a characteristic disyllabic (two syllables) word structure.  In this system, stress is typically even over both syllables and all vowels in the vowel inventory occur in both syllables.  Even before contact with tonal Vietnamese or Chinese languages, we have important evidence for contact with speakers of non-tonal Mon-Khmer languages, confirming the presence of people related to the modern day Khmer living in what is today southern Việt Nam and the Mekong Delta before the arrival of the Cham in the 2nd century and certainly the Vietnamese in the 15th century. 


The Mon-Khmer languages exhibit what has been called sesquisyllabicity.  While the basic word is disyllabic, the stress has shifted to the second syllable and the vowel of the initial syllable, whatever it may have been originally, is reduced to a neutral schwa [ə], rendering the first syllable an appendage of the central second.  This is an important transformation, since it sets the conditions for the loss of the initial syllable through continued weakening and the development of a monosyllabic tone language.           


The following chart shows the development from proto-Cham to Western Cham (non-tonal) and Tsat, a fully tonal language:


Syllable Reduction


Proto-Cham              W. Cham                   Tsat[*]


picah                          pacah                         tsa55                broken

pluh                           pluh                           piu55               ten

dadit                          tadi?[†]                         thi?42               fan

anak                           anə?                            na?24                child

laŋit                           laŋi?                           ŋi?24                sky



Phan Rang Cham Tonogenesis



Initial Classes                                 Resulting Register             Resulting Tones


                                                                                                          High Tone (final glottal)

Proto-Chamic                                  High Register

Non-Voiced Obstruents                                                                High Tone (final non-glottal)




                                                                                                          Low Tone (final glottal)

Proto-Chamic                                  Low Register

Voiced Obstruents                                                                         Low Tone (final non-glottal)



Phan Rang Cham (Eastern Cham) exhibits incipient tonality, that is, many other distinguishing features of the syllable, such as final -h, have not quite disappeared, but it appears to show tonal variation consistent with the model (Han et al., 1992; Thurgood, 1996; Thurgood, 1999).  This is not uncontroversial, however, and there are arguments against this model, citing little evidence for the projected loss of final -h and other markers in the future (Brunelle, to appear).


Tsat Tonogenesis


Initial Classes                                 Resulting Register                         Resulting Tones


                                                                                                                      55        (final -h)

Proto-Chamic                                  High Register                                  24        (final glottal)

Non-Voiced Obstruents                                                                            33        (final voiced)



                                                                                                                      55        (final -h)

Proto-Chamic                                  Low Register                                   42        (final glottal)

Voiced Obstruents                                                                                     11        (final voiced)


Tsat is spoken by 4 500 speakers on Hải Nam (海南) Island in southern China, Tsat is remarkable for having developed a full tonal system comparable to those of the Southern Min Chinese dialects.  As seen in the syllable reduction chart above, Tsat is fully monosyllabic and fully tonal as well having syntactically transformed into what appears typologically as a Chinese language (Thurgood, 1992; Thurgood and Li, 2002; Thurgood and Li, to appear). 




The data above allow an appreciation of the importance of the Mon-Khmer contact in the development of tones - the reduction from complete polysyllables to sesquisyllabic word roots set the stage for the acquisition of tone through further reduction of the vestigial syllable.  This confirms contact between Mon-Khmer and Cham people was extensive prior to the arrival of the Vietnamese, and although most Cham fled the area of the Champa federation in the 15th century, the descendants of the Mon-Khmer remain as the indigenous population of the Mekong Delta (Kampuchea Krom) and the southern highlands. 


The flight of Cham people to southern China, inland Việt Nam and Cambodia was accompanied by further series of changes, each indicative of the new populations these refugees encountered.  However, the development of all modern Cham languages can be traced back to the Champa federation period, and represent, in all their variations, a Malay language with considerable Mon-Khmer influence, thus providing linguists with a chronological benchmark for further study and anthropologists a window on the development of a population in the process of linguistic, religious, artistic and political differentiation.  Further research could focus on the less studied Chamic languages, including Tsat, but also Jarai and Rhade, which are under considerable pressure as minority languages.  Additionally, Western Cham in Cambodia and Eastern Cham in Việt Nam, while not official languages in any capacity, have achieved acceptance as vehicles of communication and education and are in various stages of standardization - a process which involves a certain amount of self-conscious tinkering with the language and would be of interest to socio-linguists.  Another possibility would be the study of the disyllabic Jawi Malay languages of Malaysia near the Thai border and Thailand itself.  These do not appear to have developed tonality despite centuries of Thai influence.  If true, this may provide further evidence for the importance of syllable reduction in tonogenesis, confirming that Cham tonality is not merely a product of Vietnamese and Chinese influences, but instead, the end result of prolonged contact with Mon-Khmer peoples which made tonal developments possible.




Brunelle M (to appear) Eastern Cham as a Register Language. Cornell University, Ithaca.


Han PV, Edmondson J, and Gregerson K (1992) Eastern Cham as a tone language. Mon-Khmer Studies 20:31-43.


Haudricourt AG (1954) De l'origine des tons en vietnamien. Journal Asiatique 242:69-82.


Huffman FE (1977) An Examination of Lexical Correspondences between Vietnamese and some other Austroasiatic Languages. Lingua 43:171-198.


Thompson LC (1976) Proto Viet-Muong Phonology: Austroasiatic Studies II. Manoa: University Press of Hawai'i, pp. 1113-1204.


Thurgood G (1992) From atonal to tonal in Utsat (a Chamic language of Hainan). Eighteenth Annual Meeting of the Berkeley Linguistics Society, pp. 145-156.


Thurgood G (1996) Language contact and the directionality of internal "drift": The development of tone and register in Chamic. Language 71:1-31.


Thurgood G (1999) From ancient Cham to modern dialects: Two thousand years of language contact and change. Manoa: University of Hawai'i Press.


Thurgood G, and Li F (2002) Contact induced variation and syntactic change in the Tsat of Hainan. Meeting of the Berkeley Linguistics Society.


Thurgood G, and Li F (to appear) From Malay to Sinitic: The Restructuring of Tsat under Intense Contact. California State University, Chico.


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[*] Tsat tones are represented by a sequence of two numbers.  In this system, 1 is the lowest and 5 is the highest.  Together both numbers represent the contour from one pitch level to another.  55 is a level high pitch, 33 is a level middle pitch, 24 is a rising tone etc...

[†] ? = glottal stop