Monthly Archives: August 2016

An unusual vowel contrast

Geoff Lindsey writes:

I do think that the official IPA chart is crowded with symbols which exist not so much for good acoustic or linguistic reasons as to fill the slots implied by its tongue-space framework.

For instance, I’m not sure that languages ever contrast ɨ and ɯ; the unrounded close non-front vowel of languages like Turkish and Vietnamese is sometimes transcribed as ɯ and sometimes as ɨ.

A while ago, I downloaded PHOIBLE‘s database, since they don’t have a search function on the site. Searching the database for inventories from the same source that contain both ɨ and ɯ, I get:

  • Apatani (RA)
  • Bora (SAPHON)
  • Kenyang (PH)
  • Kilba (GM)
  • Kod̩agu (RA)
  • Matses (PH)
  • Matsés (SAPHON)
  • Miraña (SAPHON)
  • Mishmi (RA)
  • Nimboran (UPSID)
  • Sedik (PH)
  • Sema (RA)
  • Southern Ute (PH)
  • Tangkul Naga (RA)
  • Wayana (SAPHON)

This is of course inconclusive, since the databases PHOIBLE draws from are unreliable. The Apatani vowel inventory sourced from RA in PHOIBLE differs wildly from the more usual one given in this paper.

However, this paywalled study claims that Bora really does have this contrast. SIL’s grammar of Kenyang claims that the language contrasts all of /ɨ ɯ u/, which is an even stronger example than Nimboran, the standard example of a language with such a contrast. (Nimboran has a six-vowel system with no rounded vowels, as does Matses.)

The Dravidian-Australian connection?

The indigenous languages of Australia have striking similarities in their phoneme inventories. Most have no fricatives, and none, as far as I know, have sibilants. Australian languages tend to have retroflexes (one exception is Bandjalang, which has only 12 consonants), palatals, contrastive dentals and alveolars, and several laterals and rhotics. Gasser and Bowern (2013) provide a chart of a ‘Standard Average Australian’ phoneme inventory:


Individual languages, of course, diverge from this pattern. Some have a voicing contrast in plosives, although this may really be a gemination contrast: Gasser and Bowern report that 59% of languages with a plosive voicing contrast collapse it initially. (Cf. the Proto-Basque fortis-lenis contrast: in plosives, this has become a voicing contrast, but fortis consonants could not appear word-initially and lenis consonants could not appear word-finally.) Over half have contrastive vowel length.

But there is much less difference across inventories in Australia than in most parts of the world. For example, Guugu Yimidhirr, the source of the English word ‘kangaroo’, differs only in having only one lateral (the apico-alveolar /l/) and a length contrast in its vowels. Dyirbal, the language whose noun class system inspired the title of George Lakoff’s Women, Fire, and Dangerous Things, is somewhat more divergent: its only retroflex consonant is the flap /ɽ/, its only lateral is the apico-alveolar /l/, and its only laminal consonant series is palatal.

What happens if we compare Standard Average Australian to Tamil?


The vowel inventory of Tamil differs significantly from that of SAA—Tamil has the mid vowels /e o/, the diphthongs /ai au/, and a length contrast in monophthongs—but the underlying consonant inventory is almost identical. The only significant differences are in the liquids: the rhotics are both retroflex, and Tamil has fewer laterals than SAA.

Looking to modern languages to try to gain information on ancient patterns is of course untenable as serious methodology, but it’s at least suggestive. Here’s Proto-Dravidian.


The velar nasal, present in all Australian languages in Gasser and Bowern’s sample, may not have been phonemic in Proto-Dravidian, but the general similarity is clear. I know of no other non-Australian language family that so closely follows the typical Australian language pattern, so, although I have no suggestion as to the causal relation here, no hypothetical scenario of ancient contact between India and Australia that could have spread this pattern from one place to the other, I suspect that one exists.

Interestingly, a ban on word-initial retroflexes is common among Australian languages, and Proto-Dravidian (like some languages of Western Australia, although I don’t know when this restriction developed) banned all apicals from word-initial position.