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Phoneme system for my still-unnamed "Language X"

From:Julia "Schnecki" Simon <helicula@...>
Date:Monday, September 5, 2005, 12:56

I've been busy on the weekend, and I've actually achieved something.
Usually, the only thing I tend to achieve on a weekend is much REALLY
THOROUGH relaxing and, basically, doing-nothing, so this is a big
moment for me. ;-)

But this weekend I finally gathered all my notes and managed to
compile a phoneme system and set of internal sandhi rules for my
(still unnamed) new language from them. <jumps up and down excitedly>

So, here's what I have now. It's lengthy, but I hope someone will find
it interesting... ;-)

1. The phoneme system

1.1. Vowels

There are six vowels (given as <grapheme> [CXS] (description)):

<a> [A] (cardinal vowel #5: open, back, unrounded)
<e> [E] (cardinal vowel #3: open-mid, front, unrounded)
<i> [i] (cardinal vowel #1: close, front, unrounded)
<o> [O] (cardinal vowel #6: open-mid, back, rounded)
<u> [u] (cardinal vowel #8: close, back, rounded)
<y> [@] (mid central vowel, a.k.a. "schwa")

There are no semivowels or non-syllabic vowels. (There are a few
glides, but they're listed below under "Consonants".) Each vowel
belongs to its own syllable; even two consecutive identical vowels
will be pronounced as two separate syllables.

There is no phonemic distinction between different vowel lengths.
(Maybe I'll decide that vowels in open syllables are always long, or
that stressed syllables are always long, or something like that. We'll
see. No phonemic length, though.)

1.2. Consonants

There are four basic points of articulation for consonants: labial,
dental, palatal, velar.

There are the following consonant phonemes:

voiceless aspirated plosives p_h, t_h, c_h, k_h
voiceless ejectives p_>, t_>, c_>, k_>
voiced unaspirated plosives b, d, J\, g
approximants/glides w, r\, j, M\

Furthermore, there are two archiphonemes (nasal, /N/, and lateral,
/L/) that are realized as [m], [n], [J], [N] resp. [l_w], [l], [L],
[L\] depending on their surroundings.

(No decision reached on consonant graphemes yet. Sorry.)

2. Sandhi rules

2.1. Vowel changes and variations

In most cases, at least one of two adjacent vowels will assimilate to
the other in some way. Generally speaking, <a> and <y> are the least
stable vowels and <i> and <u> are the most stable ones. Often, a glide
will pop up between two vowels; adjacent identical vowel phonemes are
nearly always separated by a glide. (Note the difference between a
sequence of two phonemic /@/s -- pronounced [@M\@] -- and a sequence
of two [@]s, one of which is actually an assimilated /A/ -- pronounced
[@.@], i.e. as two separate syllables but without a glide between

In fast or sloppy speech, two consecutive identical vowels may be
pronounced as just one, somewhat longer one. (Since I have hardly any
vocabulary so far, I can't tell yet whether this will eventually lead
to phonemic length anywhere.)

Here's a list of all vowel pairs and their pronunciations. (I haven't
thought about assimilation in vowel triples, or even longer vowel
sequences, yet. I'll start worrying about that if and when I see them
actually occurring...)

<aa> [AM\A] or [A.A]
<ae> [@.E]
<ai> [Eji]
<ao> [@.O]
<au> [Owu]
<ay> [@.@]

<ea> [E.@]
<ee> [EjE] or [E.E]
<ei> [Eji]
<eo> [E.@]
<eu> [@wu]
<ey> [EjE]

<ia> [ijE]
<ie> [ijE]
<ii> [iji] or [i.i]
<io> [ij@]
<iu> [iju]
<iy> [ijE]

<oa> [O.@]
<oe> [O.@]
<oi> [@ji]
<oo> [OwO] or [O.O]
<ou> [Owu]
<oy> [OwO]

<ua> [uwO]
<ue> [uw@]
<ui> [uwi]
<uo> [uwO]
<uu> [uwu] or [u.u]
<uy> [uwO]

<ya> [@.@]
<ye> [EjE]
<yi> [Eji]
<yo> [OwO]
<yu> [Owu]
<yy> [@M\@] or [@.@]

Note that when a consonant assimilates to (or dissimilates from) a
vowel, it will assimilate to (dissimilate from) the phoneme, not its
actual realization. For example, a nasal preceding [Eji] will be
realized as [N] if the vowel sequence is /Ai/ or /@i/ phonemically,
but as [J] if the vowel sequence is /Ei/.

Vowels that are immediately preceded or followed by a nasal are

Word-final vowels are partially devoiced (i.e. a word-final <i> will
be pronounced as [ii_o] or even [iC]).

2.2. Consonant changes and variations

2.2.1. Consonant assimilation and dissimilation

As already mentioned, the two archiphonemes /N/ and /L/ are pronounced
as [m], [n], [J], [N] resp. [l_w], [l], [L], [L\] depending on their
surroundings. Note that when deciding which of its "neighbors" an
archiphoneme should assimilate to, consonants are stronger than
vowels; for example, an /N/ wedged between /u/ and /k_h/ will be
pronounced [N] (velar like /k_h/) and not [m] (labial like /u/).

The vowels /E/ and /i/ have a palatalizing effect on the
archiphonemes; /A/ and /@/ have a velarizing effect; and /O/ and /u/
have a labializing effect. (This means that the "plain vanilla" dental
sounds [n] and [l] can never occur in an intervocalic position.) An
archiphoneme that has different vowels on either side assimilates to
the vowel preceding it (this is called "progressive assimilation"
IIRC). -- Note that the vowels mentioned here are the phonemes, not
their phonetic realizations. No matter whether an /A/ is pronounced as
[A], [O], [E], or [@], it will always have a velarizing effect on any
susceptible neighboring archiphonemes.

2.2.2. Consonant gradation

What with all those Finnish speakers around me, I just couldn't
resist. ;-)

Certain consonants and consonant pairs change in predictable ways when
they occur at the onset of a syllable. Their appearance depends on the
structure of the syllable (i.e. whether the syllable is open or
closed). Basically, certain consonants/consonant pairs can only occur
at the onset of open syllables (and in syllable-final position), and
others can only occur at the onset of closed syllables. If an open
syllable becomes closed (or a closed syllable becomes open) due to
inflection or derivation, for example, the consonants will change

The rules for this are as follows:

(a) A cluster consisting of a nasal followed by a plosive or ejective
    at the onset of an open syllable corresponds to a simple nasal at
    the onset of a closed syllable (e.g. [mp_h] : [m], [mp_>] : [m],
    [mb] : [m]). Note that these nasals never assimilate to their
    surroundings, since they are already assimilated to the dropped
    plosive or ejective.

(b) A voiceless aspirated plosive (preceded by anything except a
    nasal) at the onset of an open syllable corresponds to a voiceless
    fricative at the onset of a closed syllable (e.g.
    [p_h] : [f] or [p\]).

(c) An ejective (preceded by anything except a nasal) at the onset of
    an open syllable corresponds to a nasal-approximant sequence at
    the onset of a closed syllable (e.g. [p_>] : [mw]).

(d) A plosive-lateral or ejective-lateral sequence at the onset of an
    open syllable corresponds to a voiced plosive with lateral release
    at the onset of a closed syllable (e.g. [p_hl_w] : [b_l],
    [p_>l_w] : [b_l], [bl_w] : [b_l]). (That is, if I can actually
    learn to pronounce those lateral-release stops. ;)

Note that the closed-syllable variants don't count as phonemes (resp.
phoneme sequences), since they can only occur at the onset of a closed
syllable. Consonant phonemes, on the other hand, can also occur in
syllable-final position.

2.3. Consonant clusters and anaptyctic vowels

Some more assimilation in consonant clusters:

(a) A sequence consisting of an ejective and an aspirated plosive (in
    either order) changes into a voiced plosive followed by a voiced
    fricative (e.g. /p_>k_h/ and /p_hk_>/ -> [bG];
    /p_hp_>/ -> [bv] or [bB]).

(b) A voiced plosive changes into a nasal if followed by a plosive
    (voiced or voiceless) or ejective (e.g. /bk_h/ -> [mk_h],
    /bk_>/ -> [mk_>], /bg/ -> [mg]). (Like the "bare" nasals that
    result from gradation, these nasals don't assimilate to their
    surroundings either.)

(c) An aspirated plosive changes into a fricative if followed by
    another plosive or by an ejective (e.g.
    /p_hk_h/ -> [fk_h] or [p\k_h], /p_hg/ -> [vg] or [Bg]).

(d) An ejective changes into a voiced plosive if followed by another
    ejective or by a plosive (e.g. /p_>k_h/ -> [bk_h]). (I'm not sure
    yet how to handle voicedness assimilation here...)

(e) A nasal wedged between two plosives and/or ejectives disappears
    and the two plosives resp. ejectives change into voiced plosives
    (e.g. /p_hNk_>/ -> [bg]).

A few more words on allophony:

In a "high+back" environment (i.e. if surrounded by /u/s), velar
consonants may be pronounced as uvulars.

The dental fricatives that result from assimilation or gradation have
the following context-dependent allophones:

(a) [Z] (voiced) and [S] (voiceless) if adjacent to labial consonants
    or to /u/ and/or /O/;

(b) [D] (voiced) and [T] (voiceless) if adjacent to palatal or velar
    consonants or to /i/, /E/, /A/, and/or /@/;

(c) [z] (voiced) and [s] (voiceless) everywhere else (i.e. never

(Since "consonants are stronger than vowels", a voiced dental
fricative surrounded by /b/ and /i/ will assimilate to the /b/ rather
than to the /i/ and be pronounced [Z]. And since I've already
expressed a certain preference for progressive assimilation, a voiced
dental fricative preceded by /i/ and followed by /u/ will be
pronounced [D] rather than [Z]. Intervocalic fricatives should be
quite rare, though, since they can only appear as a result of

A consonant immediately followed by /i/ is always slightly
palatalized; a consonant immediately followed by /u/ is always
slightly labialized; and a consonant immediately followed by /a/ is
always slightly velarized. (Together with the archiphoneme
assimilation rules, this gives us e.g. /uNi/ -> [um_ji] and
/iNu/ -> [iJ_wu].)

Clusters of more than two consonants are avoided. Such clusters can
never occur within a morpheme, but sometimes they appear at morpheme
boundaries (for example, when a consonant-initial suffix is attached
to a stem that ends in two consonants). In such cases, a predetermined
"buffer" vowel will appear. ("Problematic", i.e. consonant-initial
resp. -final, morphemes come with their own inherent "buffer" vowels.)
(There are of course exceptions to this rule; namely, a
stop+nasal+stop sequence will drop the nasal, as described above,
instead of sprouting a vowel.)

Likewise, sequences of plosives and/or ejectives cannot occur at the
beginning or end of a word. There are some inflectional affixes that
consist of one single consonant, but they have inherent "buffer"
vowels as well.

2.4. Word-initial and word-final phonetic changes

When preceded by a vowel, word-final /N/ often disappears, leaving
only a "nasal echo" in the vowel (since vowels adjacent to nasals are
nasalized). Thus, word-final /oN/ is pronounced [O~m] or simply [O~].

Word-final continuants (especially glides) are often at least in part
devoiced -- that is, a word-final /j/ may appear not only as [j], but
also as [jj_0] or [j_0] (or even as [C] in extreme cases).

Phew! That's it for now. I hope I managed to weed out all the
inconsistencies that had crept in over the weeks...


   Julia Simon (Schnecki) -- Sprachen-Freak vom Dienst
_@"  schnecki AT iki DOT fi / helicula AT gmail DOT com  "@_
si hortum in bybliotheca habes, deerit nihil
                                        (M. Tullius Cicero)


Henrik Theiling <theiling@...>
Benct Philip Jonsson <bpj@...>