High vowel phonotactics in central Australian languages

ALS Annual Meeting, 23-26 September 1990, Macquarie University


Evidence from various ‘linguistic areas’ in Australia seems to indicate that phonetic/phonemic changes such as pre-stopping of nasals and laterals and the loss of initial consonants may sweep over an area. Phonotactic rules on the other hand are not so readily seen as subject to regional influences. Phonotactics known to be in part areal in Australia are (1) intervocalic clusters of three consonants (Dixon 1980:166), and (2) the range of word-final segments -- see for instance Dixon (1980:207-212,241-245)'s summary.

We show that a particular phonotactic contraint affecting vowels is partly areal in nature, and thereby widen the class of phonotactic rules which operate across a linguistic area.

The particular constraint to be presented is the avoidance of successive high-vowel syllables with a front high vowel followed by a back high vowel. The constraint is in part dependent on the nature of the consonants or any morphological boundary between the adjacent vowels.

The vowel sequence i-C-u in successive syllables (where C is a consonant or consonant cluster) is: In general, the constraint is bounded by the boundary of a compound (whether noun-noun or particle-verb) or the constituents of a reduplication.

The above patterns suggest that the forms with two different high vowels, as in Western Desert, continue the more ancient vowels, with levelling applying in the history of languages such as Warlpiri. There has apparently been more than one historical process at work: progressive and regressive assimilation There is also a possible relation to the elimination of the phonemic distinction between the high vowels in the Arandic languages, located between Warlpiri and Arabana/Wangkangurru.

Dixon, R.M.W. 1980. Languages of Australia. (Cambridge language surveys). Cambridge, London, etc.: Cambridge University Press.

LA Hercus, HJ Koch, David Nash -- ANU Jane Simpson -- University of Sydney
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