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The Australian National University

Kuke phonology

Kuke has an interesting phonological system that resembles, while not reflecting, elements of the Tibetan languages to the north and the Tamangic languages to the south.

The segments of Kuke, with as many as 34 consonants and 9 vowels, are laid out in the following tables.

Bilabial Dental Alveolar Retroflex Palato-alveolar Palatal Velar Glottal
aspirated t̪ʰ tsʰ ʈɻʂʰ tʃʰ (ʔ)
voiceless p ts ʈɻʂ c k
nasal m, m̥ n, n̥ ɲ, ɲ̥ ŋ, ŋ̊
fricative s ʃ h
rhotic ɻ, ɻ̥
lateral l, l̥
glide j, j̥ w, w̥

The segments shown above are accurate for a surface-phonetic view of the contrasts in the language. Patterns of distribution, both in terms of positioning in the word, interaction with prosody, and constraints on complex onsets, lead us to suggest a much simpler system with 13 consonants.

Bilabial Laminal Dental Alveolar Retroflex Palatal Velar Glottal
plosive p ts k
nasal m ŋ
fricative s
rhotic ɻ
lateral l
glide j, ɥ w

The voiceless aspirated stops, and the voiceless nasals, are only found word-initially; further, in syntactic phrases they are only found at the left edge of the phrase. This suggests that a non-segmental origin for these contrasts (such as [m] vs. [m̥]). Importantly, different pitch patterns are found with syllables that contain these segments, even when the segments are not realised as such due to their appearance in non-initial position. This suggests that the higher VOT lag is a secondary effect associated with a fundamentally prosodic contrast.

The vowel system is elaborate:

front back
high i, y u
 ø ɤ o
ɛ ɔ
low a

In addition to nine contrastive vowels, we also find a prevalence of glide-plus-vowel sequences; any of /ɻ/, /j/, /ɥ/ and /w/ can follow (most of) the other consonants. When a glide follows a non-plosive, which is definitionally lower than a plosive in terms of contact in the mouth, the glide too is realised with less height. When a glide precedes a low vowel this is extreme: /ljaŋ/ 'snow' is realised as [lɛ̯aŋ], and /ɻɥa/ 'child' surfaces as [ɻœ̯a̘].

The tone system shows considerable interaction with syllable shape and with segment type, initially and finally. The analysis to date posits the following contrasts. Note that all of the tones show a fall, both in citation and sentence-internally. As mentioned above, there is interaction with the 'VOT-lag prosody' which boosts the pitch of the syllable, either at the onset of voicing, for resulting aspirated stops, or as an initial rise, for voiceless sonorants.

Closed syllable (p,t,k) Closed syllable (m, n, ŋ) Nasal rhyme (N) Open syllable (V, VG)
High 43 43 43
High falling 51 51 / 41
Mid 33 32
Mid (falling) 31 31 411
Low rise(-fall) 23, (breathy) 132, breathy 232, breathy 231, breathy

An example of some basic vocabulary:


one  tjak mid
two  n(i) mid-fall
three  som rise-fall
four  sji rise-fall
five  hnga high fall
six  hrok rise
seven  hne high fall
eight  hjet high
nine  ku rise-fall
ten  tsju high fall

All in one file:

1-10  tjak, ni, som,
sji, hnga, hrok,
hne, hjet, ku,

More numerals can be found here.

Recordings of Kuke running speech here.


Updated:  23 December 2013/ Responsible Officer:  Mark Donohue/ Page Contact:  Mark Donohue