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I am working on a language and I am trying to bring it down to seventeen consonants. One of the ways I am trying to do that is by removing all voiced fricatives. Is this even reasonable?

  • A friend and I were working up a language for rubber-suit aliens that were genetically engineered to not have audible voices. The language we worked up had no voiced consonants whatsoever. – Jeff Zeitlin Apr 17 '18 at 18:36
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    'course you can! Toki pona doesn't have any. – as4s4hetic Apr 17 '18 at 22:41
  • I'm looking for real ones – skout Apr 17 '18 at 23:52
  • Old English at some point had no voiced fricatives. They were allophones intervocalically, and by borrowing from French we got /v/. The further imbalance and loaning gave us all /v z ʒ ð/. – Duncan Whyte Apr 20 '18 at 18:24
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According to the World Atlas of Language Structures (WALS), a large database of various world languages' structural properties gathered from descriptive materials like grammars, around a third of the surveyed languages have a voicing contrast in plosives but not fricatives, and another third have no voicing contrast in either plosives or fricatives. Based on this, it seems that by raw numbers you're more likely to have only voiceless fricatives than you are to have both voiced and voiceless fricatives.

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There are even languages with no fricatives at all. The UPSID sample contains 31 of them, making 6.8% of the sample.

FUll output of my UPSID query:

The 'fricative' sounds do not occur in these languages:

Language (sounds)

ALAWA (26) ANDAMANESE (24) ANGAATIHA (21) ARRERNTE (30) AUCA (21) BANDJALANG (16) BARDI (24) BORORO (20) BURARRA (21) DERA (17) DINKA (32) DIYARI (25) DYIRBAL (16) EKARI (15) GARAWA (22) GUGU-YALANDYI (16) KALKATUNGU (23) MALAKMALAK (19) MBABARAM (24) MURINHPATHA (25) NASIOI (13) NGARINJIN (24) NGIYAMBAA (18) NUNGGUBUYU (23) PANARE (25) WARAY (21) WESTERN DESERT (20) WIK-MUNKAN (18) YANYUWA (32) YIDINY (16) YOLNGU (23)

These 31 languages are 6.87% of all languages in UPSID.

Querying for languages without voiced fricatives gives "These 222 languages are 49.22% of all languages in UPSID". So the absence of voiced fricatives is a quite common feature of natural languages.

  • How many of those 31 are Australian? – Anton Sherwood Apr 26 '18 at 3:56
  • @AntonSherwood: Clicked through the sample, to my surprise there 8 non-Australian languages, and the Australian ones are distributed over several families (not all Pama-Nyugan) – jknappen Apr 26 '18 at 9:43
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Sure. A lot of languages don't distinguish voicing in fricatives. This doesn't necessarily mean that fricatives in such languages will be unvoiced, but most of them will probably do that.

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Voiced fricatives are actually rare, humans don't seem to like them for some reason.

Of course, you could also count languages that don't distinguish voicing at all, but many of these make some other distinction like aspiration.

There are some languages out there with phoneme inventories even smaller than what you're aiming for. Piraha and Rotokas come to mind. Creoles in general tend to have minimalistic phoneme inventories too.

  • With 50.78% of the languages in the UPSID database featuring voiced fricatives you can say that voiced fricatives are "rare". – jknappen Apr 20 '18 at 12:00
  • The last time I checked that site, it said only between 10%-20% of languages had voiced fricatives, and about 50% had voiced plosives (the percentage varied for each one, of course). – user348 Apr 20 '18 at 20:36

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