Three-Way Contrast of Secondary Articulations in PIE

Rich Alderson alderson+mail at
Thu Mar 29 19:46:45 UTC 2001

On 25 Mar 2001, David L. White wrote:

> My point is that to speak of "plain" consonants existing in such a system is
> in a sense non-sensical, because "plain" in effect means "as in a language
> without secondary articulations", which in turn means "as in a language with
> ordinary co-articulation", but a language with secondary articulations could
> not possibly have ordinary coarticulations, since overriding ordinary
> coarticlation for phonemic effect is what languages with secondary
> articulations do.

This indicates that we have encountered a terminological whirlpool.  In the
phonological theory to which I most strongly subscribe, the term "plain" means
simply "not having secondary articulations" when used to describe a sound in a
language which has same.  It makes no reference to other languages or features
to be found therein.

> Such languages can, for example, produce back velars before front vowels,
> and front velars before back vowels.  The very term "plain", as applied to
> velars, woud in effect mean "tending to be backed before back vowels and
> fronted before front vowels".

No, it means "not possessing features which are otherwise salient in this
language."  It is perfectly natural for features to be described in the

> In a language with secondary articulations, this really could not happen.  So
> where one velar series was "[i]-colored", and another was "[u]- colored", a
> third would almost have to be something like "[yeri]-colored" or "[y]-
> colored" (IPA value) or (in terms of F2) "[a]-colored", in order to stay out
> of the way of the other two.

Why?  Why complicate your phonological life with additional entities, when the
simplest analysis is "none of the above"?  Let's leave the world of obstruents
for a moment and look at a vowel system (where <+> will be used for "barred i"
for the sake of simplicity):

	i   +   u
	e   @   o
	&   a   O

In this system, we have palatal and labial vowels, and vowels which are neither
palatal nor labial.  We do not have to describe the central vowels in terms of
a third coloration, but only as having neither coloration.

Of course, this discussion all started with, if I remember correctly, Miguel
Carrasquer Vidal's proposal of a pre-IE obstruent system in which labialization
(and palatalization?  I forget.) is a salient feature at *all* points of
articulation, as in a number of Northwest Caucasian languages.  It is much less
urgent in, for example, dentals, to worry about whether "plain" equates to an
actual coloring rather than the lack of same.

> But such colorations are not, to my knowledge, known.  So I think regardless
> of other errors, Kuiper's instinct that a 3rd quality would have to be "[a]-
> colored" rather than "plain" was fundamentally correct.  I hope all that
> makes sense.

Only if you insist on complicating your phonological theory by refusing to
allow negatives.

								Rich Alderson

P. S.  There are, of course, languages in which one or more obstruents clearly
are to be considered "[a]-coloured"; cf. the effect of proximity to a pharyngal
on short /a/ in Arabic.

More information about the Indo-european mailing list