What is it about?
Bilabial trills are speech sounds made with vibrations of the lips. Most babies produce them spontaneously, but very few languages around the world use bilabial trills systematically, mostly because they are difficult to integrate into connected speech. Nevertheless, bilabial trills have not just emerged, but also persist in a group of 23 languages spoken on the island of Malekula in the Republic of Vanuatu in the South Pacific. This paper finds that the emergence and persistence of bilabial trills in Malekula languages has been supported by a number of factors, including the structure and history of these particular languages, but also social factors like attaching in-group identity to these unusual speech sounds, which are both auditorily and visually prominent.
Photo by Lilyana Zivkovic on Unsplash
Why is it important?
Our study demonstrates that unusual sound change can be explained by adopting a multi-faceted approach. This includes looking at factors related to the languages themselves, but also at social and historical factors, such as language contact and identity marking through linguistic features. In general, looking at the interplay of different factors can draw a better picture of the processes involved in language evolution.
Read the Original
This page is a summary of: A multifaceted approach to understanding unexpected sound change, Diachronica, February 2023, John Benjamins, DOI: 10.1075/dia.21051.ran.
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A slow motion video of an Ahamb speaker producing bilabial trills (and contrasting plosives)
This video shows a speaker of the Ahamb language (Malekula Island, Vanuatu) producing a set of four words, which demonstrate the contrast of four different phonemes - a prenasalised and plain plosive (ᵐb and p) and a prenasalised and plain bilabial trill (ᵐʙ and ʙ̥). You can see them both at normal rate and at slow motion.
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