Rotokas language

Rotokas language

states=Papua New Guinea
fam1=East Papuan (geographic)
fam2=North Bougainville

Rotokas is a language (part of the East Papuan language phylum) spoken by some 4000 people in Bougainville, an island to the east of New Guinea, part of Papua New Guinea. There are at least three dialects of the language: Central Rotokas ("Rotokas Proper"), Aita Rotokas, and Pipipaia. Central Rotokas is most notable for its extremely small phonemic inventory and for having perhaps the smallest modern alphabet.


Rotokas possesses one of the world's smallest phoneme inventories and its alphabet is perhaps the smallest in use. (The Pirahã language has been claimed to have fewer speech sounds, but it is not written.) The alphabet consists of twelve letters, representing eleven phonemes. The alphabet characters are "A E G I K O P R S T U V". "T" and "S" both represent the phoneme /t/, such that /t/ is written as "S" before an "I" and in the name 'Rotokas', and as "T" elsewhere. The "V" is sometimes written as "B". The language has a vowel length distinction (i.e., all vowels have a short and long counterpart) but otherwise lacks distinctive suprasegmental features (i.e., no tone and no contrastive stress).

The three voiced members of the Central Rotokas dialect consonant phoneme inventory each have wide allophonic variation. Therefore, it is difficult to find a choice of IPA symbols to represent them which is not misleading. The total consonant inventory embraces the following places of articulation: bilabial, alveolar, and velar, each with a voiced and an unvoiced phoneme. The voiceless consonants are straightforward as plosive [p, t, k] ; there is an alveolar allophone [ts] ~ [s] , but this only occurs before [i] . The voiced consonants are the allophonic sets IPA| [β, b, m] , IPA| [ɾ, n, l, d] , and IPA| [g, ɣ, ŋ] .

It is unusual for languages to lack nasal phonemes. Firchow & Firchow (1969) have this to say on the lack of nasal phonemes in the Central Rotokas dialect (which they call "Rotokas Proper"):

Robinson (2006) shows that in the Aita dialect of Rotokas there is a three-way distinction required between voiced, voiceless, and nasal consonants. Hence, this dialect has nine consonant phonemes versus six for Rotokas Proper. The voiced and nasal consonsants in Aita are collapsed in Central Rotokas, i.e. it is possible to predict the Central Rotokas form from the Aita Rotokas form, but it is not possible to predict the Aita form from the Central form. This shows that the phoneme inventory of the ancestor language of Aita and Central Rotokas was more like Aita, and that the small phoneme inventory in "Rotokas Proper" is a more recent innovation.

There does not seem to be any reason for positing phonological manners of articulation (that is, "fricative, approximant, tap, stop, lateral") in Central Rotokas. Rather, a simple binary distinction of "voice" is sufficient.

When an [l] and [r] are given as variants, without their being determined by their environment, it's likely that they are actually either a lateral flap, IPA| [ɺ] , or else a flap that is phonologically unspecified as to centrality (that is, neither specifically IPA| [ɾ] nor IPA| [ɺ] , as in Japanese), and that the linguist has mistranscribed the sound.

Since a phonemic analysis is primarily concerned with distinctions, not with phonetic details, the symbols for voiced stops could be used: plosive [b, d, g] for Central Rotokas, and nasal [m, n, ŋ] for Aita dialect. (In the proposed orthography for Central Rotokas, these are written "v, r, g". However, "b, d, g" would work equally well.) In the chart below, the most frequent allophones are used to represent the phonemes, without a decision being made on the laterality of the flap.


ee also

* Rotokas alphabet


*Firchow, I & J, 1969. "An abbreviated phonemic inventory". In "Anthropological Linguistics", vol. 11 #9.

*Robinson, Stuart. 2006. "The Phoneme Inventory of the Aita Dialect of Rotokas". In "Oceanic Linguistics", vol. 45 #1, pp. 206-209. ( [ Download] )

* [ Brief grammatical overview] available at the Rosetta Project

* [ Irwin Firchow (1987), "Form and Function of Rotokas Words"]

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