I just ran across this protein-filled piece on phonology written by Professor Edward Vajda (editor of Word) for his Linguistics 201 class at Western Washington University. It contains all sorts of gems (including, for those of you who took part in the discussion of “nucular” a few days ago, this: “Metathesis rule reorders the segments that are present: ask/aks; nuclear, ‘nucular’… These are examples of a rule randomly applied”); I was particularly struck by this:

A more striking example of a morphological constraint on phonetic distribution is to be found in Cherokee. Cherokee has a sound [m] that contrasts with other sounds to create changes in meaning: ama ‘salt’; ada ‘baby bird’; ana ‘strawberry’; ata ‘young girl’. However, the sound [m] appears in only about 10 morphemes: ugama ‘soup’; kamama ‘butterfly’; gugama ‘cucumber.’ Although most of these words seem to be foreign borrowings, no new words using [m] seem to be entering the language. Nor do new words containing [m] seem be made in Cherokee on any regular basis. Thus, the sound [m], which definitely would be considered a phoneme in the phoneme theory of phonology, is highly restricted in its distribution, at least as far as concerns the present state of Cherokee. The restriction is random: the sound [m] only appears in a small collection of words with no specific meaning in common. Yet the restriction on the distribution of [m] is morphological rather than phonological: [m] is restricted to a specific and limited set of words.

An even more extreme example is to be found in Quileute, a Native American language from the Olympic Peninsula of Washington State. The sound [g] appears in only one word in the entire language: hága’y ‘frog.’ Thus, this sound, which is in contrastive distribution with other phonemes, is entirely restricted in function to being able to contribute to the makeup of a single phoneme, the word for ‘frog.’ It is even possible to say that [g] in Quileute has a specific function: to contribute to the morpheme meaning ‘frog.’


  1. Michael Davies says

    How would the last sound in “garage”, in English, compare to this? There are very few sounds in English with that sound, but everyone knows how to make it. I was once in a discussion trying to think of words with that sound that weren’t borrowed from French, and all we could come up with was “pleasure” (borrowed from French, but the French word “plaisir” doesn’t have the sound in it).

  2. There are quite a few English words with this sound, though not very many.

    However, there’s only one reasonably common English word which starts with this sound. Do you know which word that is? 🙂

  3. Genre?

  4. Unrelatedly (!), do you know of the book The Codex Seraphinianus? it’s a giant encyclopedia of an imaginary world, written in an imaginary language (yet undeciphered; possibly undeciphered); and chances are if you live somewhere with a few good libraries or university special collections, you can take a look at it some afternoon. It’s illustrated beautifully and brilliantly, so even if you don’t see any linguistic beauty (& I am no judge of that, besides the script of the letters, which IS beautiful), it’ll be amazing to look at…

    find links here (and elsewhere too):

  5. Thanks, m!

  6. *coughs nervously* Totally OT, but…

    Can you or any of your wordy readers help me with a question I have, please?

  7. It is said that the only minimal pair contrasting /þ/ (I can’t type theta, sorry) and /ð/ in English is “thy”/”thigh”, and one of those words is doomed. This kind of contrastive phonology is notorious for its loose ends.

  8. Blue Witch’s question is: “Why do we say, for example, “a 5 foot bed”, a “40 foot garden”, or “he’s 6 foot tall” [?], but refer to, “a bed 6 feet wide”, “a garden 40 feet long” or “that man is 6 feet tall”? It’s the only example I can think of where what should be a plural is used in the singular, apparently incorrectly, and I can’t work out why.”

    That’s the basic rule in English: modifiers take the singular before a noun. It’s not just for measurements; a market that sells stocks is a “stock market.” The interesting thing is that the rule is changing to allow for more and more exceptions; there’s an interesting discussion here. And in general, beware of trying to apply logic to language; it doesn’t work that way!

    I hope this helps, but by all means ask if you have further questions — that’s what we’re here for (aside from having fun and hearing the sound of our own voices)!

  9. Thanks languagehat.
    Another mystery solved for me.

    Bit sad isn’t it, I only got “A”s in English at “O” and “A” level and now (sometimes) teach English to KS1 and 2 kids.

    What is the world coming to? (I guess that should be, “To what is the world coming?” in these quarters, though? 🙂

  10. The “zh” sound is often said to have come to English via French, but it was pointed out to me that it is only relatively recently that the sound has started showing up in the French words themselves (previously we had been using the “English j” as the English still do in words like garage), not counting examples like the afforementioned pleasure.

    The sound is definitely more common in American English than in the UK. In addition to the afforementioned pleasure and garage, we (that is Americans) use it in words like diffusion, Asia, and version where the Queen’s English prefers an “sh” sound or [sj].

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