I was pleased to learn, via a thread at Tenser, said the Tensor, that a lack of fricatives or affricates is “virtually universal for all Australian languages, of all families.” Furthermore, the phenomenon is almost entirely limited to Australia and the adjacent regions; the list given by The Tensor (created from the UCLA Phonological Segment Inventory Database) has only two outliers (AUCA: S. American, Andean; DINKA: Nilo-Saharan, Eastern Sudanic, Nilotic, Dinka-Nuer); as he says, “That’s an areal feature if I’ve ever seen one.” And yet another rebuttal to the universalists (who used to claim that all languages have fricatives).


  1. joe tomei says

    For some more information about Australian languages, check out this page for some more details. The phonology of Australian languages is very interesting, with 6 way nasal distinctions and no voicing contrast. One wonders what our theories of phonology would look like if we hadn’t lost so many of them…

  2. Yet another rebuttal to the universalists (who used to claim that all languages have fricatives).

    Sign language must have come as a bit of shock, then?

  3. Some Australian languages have fricatives. Kala Lagaw Ya has the word kwasarr for 2 (

  4. the list given by The Tensor

    To be precise, Tensor queried UPSID for languages without *sibilants*, not languages without fricatives or affricates. UPSID can still be queried today through a web interface, and the answers to those questions overlap a lot, but not completely. Some languages have fricatives but only non-sibilant ones (for some of them, like Hawaiian, the only fricative is /h/, if you count that as a fricative). And some have the sibilant affricate /t͡ʃ/ but no fricatives.

    WALS has a map of Absence of Common Consonants: bilabials, fricatives, and nasals. Caution: a few languages don’t have fricatives but do have affricates as just mentioned, and WALS can’t filter those out for you, you have to dig for that information elsewhere.

    Also caution: some languages have fricatives and stops as allophones of each other, like the b in Spanish. Do they count as having no fricatives? Depends on which one gets chosen to label the phoneme. In the name of the Australian language Martuthinira, the spelling “th” represents [ð], an allophone of the dental stop, but WALS counts this language as having no fricatives.

    As the map shows, there are also a handful of no-fricative languages in South America.

  5. Claire (2004): Some Australian languages have fricatives.

    And Claire has continued to push back on over-generalizations about Australian languages ever since. Her Standard Average Australian tested a lot of claims about “common” or “typical” Australian features and found that about half of them were either wrong or unverifiable. The claim about not having fricatives isn’t wrong, but “virtually universal” and “almost entirely limited to Australia” are a bit overstated. There’s a map showing a dozen or so Australian languages that have phonemic stop/fricative distinctions, vs. 8-10 times that many that don’t, in “Revisiting Phonological Generalizations in Australian Languages” by Emily Gasser and Claire Bowern (2014).

    I couldn’t find anything about how many languages might have fricatives as allophones of stops, but since Claire didn’t make a point about that, I guess it isn’t too common. Australian Kriol is said to replace fricatives with stops in English-source words, because of substrate phonology.

    Seems a little ironic to quote a “virtually universal” claim as a *rebuttal* to universalism — shouldn’t universalism be suspect on the scale of Australia, too?

    (Not that I have any expertise here. If I’ve misunderstood something, this is the place to find out.)

  6. David Eddyshaw says

    William Foley describes Yimas without any fricative phonemes, though he says that “younger speakers” (as of 1991) have the allophone [s] of /c/ between vowels.

    Dinka is by no means the only Western Nilotic language that lacks fricatives; so does its close relative Nuer, and the less-close Anywa, Luwo and Lango, for example.

  7. David Marjanović says

    The other interesting thing about fricatives in Australia is that when languages do have fricatives, sibilants are still absent, so [θ] is more common than [s]. This has been blamed on widespread middle-ear infections that prevent people from hearing high frequencies.

    Kala Lagaw Ya is the only Australian language to have the alveolar fricatives /s/ and /z/. However, these have allophonic variants /tʃ/ and /dʒ/, which are the norm in Australian languages (usually /c/ and /ɟ/ but non-contrasting). These latter two are allophones in that in all environments /s/ and /z/ can appear, while /tʃ/ and /dʒ/ can not appear at the end of a word; note that this allophony is very similar to that of the neighbouring Papuan language Bine. All the stops, except for the alveolars ⟨t⟩ and ⟨d⟩, have fricative allophones, thus ⟨p⟩ can be [p] or [ɸ], ⟨k⟩ can be [k] or [x], ⟨b⟩ [b] or [β], and so on. Furthermore, it is one of the few Australian languages with fully functioning voiced-voiceless distinctions (⟨p/b⟩, ⟨t/d⟩, ⟨s/z⟩, ⟨k/g⟩, ⟨th/dh⟩) — and one of the few without retroflex stops.

    It’s Pama-Nyungan, but most of its words (and further parts of its phonology) are from overseas, so is verb number morphology, and its system of personal pronouns looks like a calque of Tok Pisin – native roots remixed and used to fill in a Papuan grid (without a trial number, though).

  8. This has been blamed on widespread middle-ear infections that prevent people from hearing high frequencies.

    Children, specifically.
    It makes perfect sense from the viewpoint of infection prevalence and acoustics, and yet, I find it hard to believe.

  9. Indeed: Anelisa Fergus’s Lend Me Your Ears: Otitis Media and Aboriginal Australian languages, a 2019 paper (thesis?), supervised by Claire Bowern, concludes,

    Using comparative methods, phonological research, and mixed effects modelling, I show that the historical, phonological, and general medical prerequisites for Butcher’s 2006 hypothesis are insufficient to fully explain the unique phonemic inventories of Australian languages and cannot be generalized in a broader linguistic context.

  10. David Marjanović says

    Thanks, I’ve downloaded it.

  11. I don’t agree with everything in Fergus’s paper, but my main takes are that the Australian prevalence of Otitis Media is much too low to make a difference (4%; I’d misremembered something like 90%), and that populations with a much higher incidence (Indigenous Alaskans, 30–46%) speak languages with multiple fricative phonemes (including sibilants).

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