A language with no word-initial consonants

I was having a look at some of the squibs in Linguistic Inquiry today, which are often fairly interesting (and have the redeeming quality that, when they’re not interesting, they’re at least short), and there was an especially interesting one in the April 1970 (second ever) issue by R. M. W. Dixon (Dixon 1970) which I’d like to write about for the benefit of those who can’t access it.

In Olgolo, a variety of Kunjen spoken on the Cape York Peninsula, there appears to been a sound change that elided consonants in initial position. That is, not just consonants of a particular variety, but all consonants. As a result of this change, every word in the language begins with a vowel. Examples (transcriptions in IPA):

  • *báma ‘man’ > áb͡ma
  • *míɲa ‘animal’ > íɲa
  • *gúda ‘dog’ > úda
  • *gúman ‘thigh’ > úb͡man
  • *búŋa ‘sun’ > úg͡ŋa
  • *bíːɲa ‘aunt’ > íɲa
  • *gúyu ‘fish’ > úyu
  • *yúgu ‘tree, wood’ > úgu

(Being used to the conventions of Indo-Europeanists, I’m a little disturbed by the fact that Dixon doesn’t identify the linguistic proto-variety to which the proto-forms in these examples belong, nor does he cite cognates to back up his reconstruction. But I presume forms very similar to the proto-forms are found in nearby Paman languages. In fact, I know for a fact that the Uradhi word for ‘tree’ is /yúku/ because Black (1993) mentions it by way of illustrating the remarkable Uradhi phonological rule which inserts a phonetic [k] or [ŋ] after every vowel in utterance-final position. Utterance-final /yúku/ is by this means realized as [yúkuk] in Uradhi.)

(The pre-stopped nasals in some of these words [rather interesting segments in of themselves, but fairly widely attested, see the Wikipedia article] have arisen due to a sound change occurring before the word-initial consonant elision sound change, which pre-stopped nasals immediately after word-initial syllables containing a stop or *w followed by a short vowel. This would have helped mitigate the loss of contrast resulting from the word-initial consonant elision sound change a little, but only a little, and between e.g. the words for ‘animal’ and ‘aunt’ homophony was not averted because ‘aunt’ had an originally long vowel [which was shortened in Olgolo by yet another sound change].)

Dixon says Olgolo is the only language he’s heard of in which there are no word-initial consonants, although it’s possible that more have been discovered since 1970. However, there is a caveat to this statement: there are monoconsonantal prefixes that can be optionally added to most nouns, so that they have an initial consonant on the surface. There are at least four of these prefixes, /n-/, /w-/, /y-/ and /ŋ-/; however, every noun seems to only take a single one of these prefixes, so we can regard these three forms as lexically-conditioned allomorphs of a single prefix. The conditioning is in fact more precisely semantic: roughly, y- is added to nouns denoting fish, n- is added to nouns denoting other animals, and w- is added to nouns denoting various inanimates. The prefixes therefore identify ‘noun classes’ in a sense (although these are probably not noun classes in a strict sense because Dixon gives no indication that there are any agreement phenomena which involve them). The prefix ŋ- was only seen on a one word, /ɔ́jɟɔba/ ~ /ŋɔ́jɟɔba/ ‘wild yam’ and might be added to all nouns denoting fruits and vegetables, given that most Australian languages with noun classes have a noun class for fruits and vegetables, but there were no other such nouns in the dataset (Dixon only noticed the semantic conditioning after he left the field, so he didn’t have a chance to elicit any others). It must be emphasized, however, that these prefixes are entirely optional, and every noun which can have a prefix added to it can also be pronounced without the prefix. In addition some nouns, those denoting kin and body parts, appear to never take a prefix, although possibly this is just a limitation of the dataset given that their taking a prefix would be expected to be optional in any case. And words other than nouns, such as verbs, don’t take these prefixes at all.

Dixon hypothesizes that the y- and n- prefixes are reduced forms of /úyu/ ‘fish’ and /íɲa/ ‘animal’ respectively, while w- may be from /úgu/ ‘tree, wood’ or just an “unmarked” initial consonant (it’s not clear what Dixon means by this). These derivations are not unquestionable (for example, how do we get from /-ɲ-/ to /n-/ in the ‘animal’ prefix?) But it’s very plausible that the prefixes do originate in this way, even if the exact antedecent words are difficult to identify, because similar origins have been identified for noun class prefixes in other Australian languages (Dixon 1968, as cited by Dixon 1970). Just intuitively, it’s easy to see how nouns might come to be ever more frequently replaced by compounds of the dependent original noun and a term denoting a superset; cf. English koala ~ koala bear, oak ~ oak tree, gem ~ gemstone. In English these compounds are head-final but in other languages (e.g. Welsh) they are often head-initial, and presumably this would have to be the case in pre-Olgolo in order for the head elements to grammaticalize into noun class prefixes. The fact that the noun class prefixes are optional certainly suggests that the system is very much incipient, and still developing, and therefore of recent origin.

It might therefore be very interesting to see how the Olgolo language has changed after a century or so; we might be able to examine a noun class system as it develops in real time, with all of our modern equipment and techniques available to record each stage. It would also be very interesting to see how quickly this supposedly anomalous state of every word beginning with a vowel (in at least one of its freely-variant forms) is eliminated, especially since work on Australian language phonology since 1970 has established many other surprising findings about Australian syllable structure, including a language where the “basic’ syllable type appears to be VC rather than CV (Breen & Pensalfini 1999). Indeed, since Dixon wrote this paper 46 years ago Olgolo might have changed considerably already. Unfortunately, it might have changed in a somewhat more disappointing way. None of the citations of Dixon’s paper recorded by Google Scholar seem to examine Olgolo any further, and the documentation on Kunjen (the variety which includes Olgolo as a subvariety) recorded in the Australian Indigenous Languages Database isn’t particularly overwhelming. I can’t find a straight answer as to whether Kunjen is extinct today or not (never mind the Olgolo variety), but Dixon wasn’t optimistic about its future in 1970:

It would be instructive to study the development of Olgolo over the next few generations … Unfortunately, the language is at present spoken by only a handful of old people, and is bound to become extinct in the next decade or so.

References

Black, P. 1993 (post-print). Unusual syllable structure in the Kurtjar language of Australia. Retrieved from http://espace.cdu.edu.au/view/cdu:42522 on 26 September 2016.

Breen, G. & Pensalfini, R. 1999. Arrernte: A Language with No Syllable Onsets. Linguistic Inquiry 30 (1): 1-25.

Dixon, R. M. W. 1968. Noun Classes. Lingua 21: 104-125.

Dixon, R. M. W. 1970. Olgolo Syllable Structure and What They Are Doing about It. Linguistic Inquiry 1 (2): 273-276.

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3 responses to “A language with no word-initial consonants

  1. David Marjanović

    As the title of Breen & Pensalfini implies, Arrernte is best analyzed as not having word-initial consonants either, or any syllable-initial consonants at all – there are VCC syllables, but no CV ones!

    transcriptions in IPA

    Not quite: y is used differently, and the acute accent means high tone rather than stress in the IPA.

    On the phonetic level, ɲ is also misleading, because Australian palatals aren’t dorsal like in the rest of the world, they’re laminal. Unfortunately, the IPA doesn’t have dedicated symbols for these; the closest there is is the “retracted” diacritic (a minus, as in [n̠]). So Australianists end up using the symbols for the dorso-palatals anyway.

  2. David Marjanović

    They’re [t͡ʃ] minus the [ʃ].

    …Or rather, “[t͡ʃ]” is almost always [t̠͡ʃ]. Except for trz in Polish for some speakers; the others use a boring old length difference ([t̠͡ʃː]) to distinguish it from cz.

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