Category Archives: phonology

Consonantal phoneme inventory

labial alveolar palatal velar glottal
stop (p) b t d c ɟ k g
fricative f s z ɕ ʑ h
nasal m n ɲ ŋ
liquid l r
glide w j

The voiceless palatal stop may be realized as an affricate, [tɕ]. The lateral liquid /l/ is always light even in coda position, and the rhotic liquid /r/ is a trill but also surfaces as an alveolar tap [ɾ]. The labial fricative [f] is labiodental and the glide [w] labiovelar.

The voiceless bilabial plosive /p/ is a marginal phoneme of Songhay. There are only a handful of words with /p/, which are provided below.

Word Gloss
pu `spitting sound’
pet `to be full’
lipton `black tea (French)’
pat ‘at all’

These p-containing words are atypical in that /pu/ is onomatopoetic and /lipton/ is a loanword. The words [lipton] and [pet] are also unusual in that they contain obstruent codas, which are otherwise not found in the language.

While the language lacks the voiceless labial plosive /p/, it has the voiceless labiodental fricative /f/. There were no words with the voiced counterpart /v/, however.

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Vocalic phoneme inventory

Shonghay has five short vowels and five long vowels.

front central back front central back
high i u high i: u:
mid e o mid e: o:
low a low a:

Songhay also has five diphthongs.

front offglide

back offglide

mid

eɪ  oɪ

low

Vowel length is contrastive in Songhay, as we can see in the following minimal pairs and near minimal pairs:

VOWEL WORD GLOSS
[i] bi “yesterday”
[i:] di: “to see”
[e] deɕi “fly”
[e:] de:ɕi “catfish.INDEF”
[a] kaba “arm.INDEF”
[a:] ka:ba “beard.INDEF”
[u] burò: “bread.DEF”
[u:] bu:ro “dying”
[o] ham:o “Hamed”
[o:] hamò: “meat.DEF”

Other consonants

Geminates
Songhay also has geminate consonants, which appear to be phonemic. There is one minimal pair, given below, followed by other words that contain geminates. In general, geminates are somewhat rare.

Type Word Gloss
Minimal Pair ateɪ
atteɪ
`wet’
`green tea’
Plosives subba:ho
hetti
`morning’
`that’
Fricatives assa:fo
aɕɕaɪ
`night (prayer)’
`tea’
Nasals mma
ɕenni
emphatic present marker
`language’

Prenasalized obstruents
Songhay has prenasalized obstruents, though they are infrequent and many of our examples are from function words that occur phrase medially. Below are a few examples of minimal pairs.

Place Plain Prenasal
Palatal caŋ
`be aroused’
ɲcaŋ
`mouse’
Velar ga
imperfective marker
ŋga
3.sg
ka
`to come’
ŋka
emphatic past marker

Consonant distribution

Songhay generally allows all consonant in the onset position, but only sonorant consonants in the coda position.

Examples of each consonant in initial and medial onset position and coda position (if attested) are given below.

Plosives

IPA Word Gloss
b boro
kaba
`person’
`arm’
t tu:tu
ka:ti
`pigeon’
`shouting’
d de:ne
adi:
`tongue’
`burning’
c ciroʊ
ikacu
`bird’
`little one’
ɟ ɟoʊ
ʑiɟi
`thirsty’
`to climb on top’
k ka:ji
takula
`shirt’
`cake’
g ganda
hugu
`chest’
`house’

Fricatives

IPA Word Gloss
f fo
iferʑi
`one’
`green’
s subba:ho
busal
`morning’
`knee’
z zaŋka
berzu
`child’
`whip’
ɕ ɕenni
aɕɕaɪ
`language’
`tea (Arabic)’
ʑ ʑaŋgeɪ
iferʑi
`broken rice’
`green’ (see consonant allophony about z~ʑ alternation)
h hanɕi
ja:hare
`dog’
`over there’

There is one example of a coda fricative, which is a loan from French, namely the [s] in /eske/ ‘question marker (from French est-ce que)’.

Nasals

IPA Word Gloss
m mo
homa
`rice’
`belly button’
n ni:na
weɪna
`nose’
`sun’
ɲ ɲa
moɲa
`mother’
`eye’
ŋ ŋa
haŋa
`to eat’
`ear’

Unlike obstruents, all nasals can surface as codas, as shown below.

Word Gloss
ham `meat’
han `time’
soɲ `quiet’
haŋ `to drink’

Approximants

IPA Word Gloss
l lotokor
haɪla
`doctor’
`cat’
r ra
ho:ra:
`in’
`party’
w wala
hawanda
`or’
`intent’
j jo:
ka:ji
`camel’
`shirt’

Like the nasals, the approximants can and do occur as codas. Examples with liquids are:

IPA Word Gloss
l almaro
kul
`sunset (prayer)’
`all’
r marto:wo
fur
`hammer.DEF’
`through’

Examples of glide codas are ambiguous, as it is unclear whether Songhay should be analyzed as having diphthongs, or vowel-glide sequences. For example, the words [carkaʊ] ‘vampire’ and [cireɪ] ‘red’ may more accurately be [carkaw] and [cirej]. We transcribe these sounds as diphthongs throughout, leaving open the question of what the correct analysis is. See vowel and definiteness for more discussion.

Vowel distribution

The five short vowels of Songhay can appear word medially and in word final position. In initial position, we have only found words with [a] and [i]. However, there are French loanwords, such as eske (from French “est-ce que”) “what” and ura (from French “or”) “gold”, that start with the vowels [e] and [u].

Short vowel distribution

VOWEL

WORD INITIAL

WORD MEDIAL

WORD FINAL

a arò: “man.DEF” kaba “arm.INDEF” ti:ra “book.INDEF”
e fero “brick.INDEF” ɟe:ɟe “load.INDEF”
i ibe:ri “big” bibi “black” bi “yesterday”
o iboria “good” fero “brick.INDEF”
u burò: “bread.DEF” guru “to enter”

Long vowels appear word medially and word finally in Songhay, but we have no examples of long vowels in word initial position.

Long vowel distribution

VOWEL

WORD INITIAL

WORD MEDIAL

WORD FINAL

a: ka:ba “beard.INDEF” ka: “come”
e: de:ɕi “catfish.INDEF” ne: “say”
i: ti:ra “book.INDEF” bi: “see”
o: bo:ri “beautiful” hamò: “meat.DEF”
u: tu:rò: “tree.DEF” sababu: “cause.INDEF”

Like long vowels, diphthongs can also only appear word medially and in final position. The one example of an initial diphthong we have found is the first person singular pronoun, [aɪ], which is also the only example of this particular diphthong in final position.

Diphthong distribution

DIPHTHONGS

WORD INITIAL

WORD MEDIAL

WORD FINAL

e͡I keɪri “break” gineɪ “front”
goɪka “worker.INDEF” koɪ “go”
haɪlà: “cat.DEF”
ciroʊweɪ “bird.PL” ciroʊ “bird.INDEF”
haʊro “rice.INDEF” tasakaʊ “server.INDEF”

Consonant allophony

Palatalization

Although /s, ɕ, z, ʑ/ are each independent phonemes which appear in overlapping distribution, the alveolar fricatives allophonically appear as the palatal fricatives preceding the high front vowel /i/. This alternation can be clearly observed when we look at the differences between the definite and indefinite forms of the words “dog” and “green.”

(1) a. hanso 
       dog.DEF

    b. hanɕi 
       dog.INDEF

(2) a. ciroʊ firzo 
       bird green.DEF

    b. ciroʊ ferʑi 
       bird green.INDEF

Here, we see that when a root ending in /s/ or /z/ is followed by the ending /i/, the fricative changes to the palatal /ɕ/ or /ʑ/, respectively.

The following table illustrates the distribution of alveolar, palatal, and velar obstruents preceding each vowel in the language. Every effort was made to find examples that did not precede diphthongs, however if there was no other observed example in the inventory, one with a diphthong was used.

s

z

ɕ

ʑ

t

d

c

ɟ

k

ɡ

a

isa

“the river”

izaweɪ

“daughter”

ɕatːa

“a caravan”

tami

“shoes”

daŋ

“put on”

cata

“the wall”

ɟeːɟa

“the load”

ka

“come”

ɡa

pres

e

hanseɪ

“dogs”

zeɪ

“grow” or “steal”

ɕe

“voice”

ʑenti

“story event”

teː

exist

deːɕi

“fly”

cebu

“a shave”

ɟeːɟe

“a load”

keɪri

“break”

ageɪ

3sg

i

hanɕi

“the dog”

ʑi

“kick”

tiːra

“a book”

di

“see”

cira

“the bird”

ɟina

“first”

beɪ ki

pluperf+3pl

ɡi

pres+3pl

o

hanso

“a dog”

zoː

“son”

to

“arrive”

fondo

“a road”

coʊ

“read”

diɟo

“the mirror”

koɪ

“go”

ɡo ma

prog

u

suba

“tomorrow” (likely of Arabic origin)

zurukoʊ

“runner”

tubalu

“drums”

dumbu

“cut”

ikul

“all”

huɡu

“a house”

/s/ and /z/ do not occur preceding /i/ because the contrast between alveolar and palatal fricatives is neutralized in this environment, with both phonemes phonetically expressed as the palatals. The palatal fricatives are not found preceding the back vowels /o/ or /u/ and the palatal plosives /c, ɟ/ are not found preceding /u/. The absence of a word with the voiced palatal fricative before /a/ may be accidental. From this table, we see that the distribution of alveolar fricatives and palatal stops and fricatives is partially restricted by vocalic environment, but the distribution of velars and alveolar stops is free.

Nasal place contrasts

Songhay distinguishes four places of articulation among nasals [m n ɲ ŋ].The place distinction in nasals is found in word-initial and word-medial onsets and in word-final codas, as shown in . When nasals are pre-consonantal, they always agree in place with the following consonant.

nasal Word Gloss
m kamba
himbiri
`hand’
`hair’
n ɟinda
hanseɪ
`neck’
`dogs’
ɲ gaɲɟi
diɲɟi
`pillar’
`burning coal’
ŋ hiŋka
toŋkona
`two’
`duck’