Words Without Vowels EXCLUSIVE
Across many languages from unrelated families, spoken-word recognition is subject to a constraint whereby potential word candidates must contain a vowel. This constraint minimizes competition from embedded words (e.g., in English, disfavoring win in twin because t cannot be a word). However, the constraint would be counter-productive in certain languages that allow stand-alone vowelless open-class words. One such language is Berber (where t is indeed a word). Berber listeners here detected words affixed to nonsense contexts with or without vowels. Length effects seen in other languages replicated in Berber, but in contrast to prior findings, word detection was not hindered by vowelless contexts. When words can be vowelless, otherwise universal constraints disfavoring vowelless words do not feature in spoken-word recognition.
Words Without Vowels
Our recent discussions about syllabicity ("Readings" below) made me wonder whether it's possible to have syllables, words, and whole sentences without vowels. That led me to this example from Nuxalk on Omniglot:
This makes me recall my consternation and amusement when travelling through the Czech countryside on trains and trying to pronounce the names of the stations with an abundance of vowels and hardly a vowel to be seen.
Are vowels, in general, used relatively infrequently in the Nuxalk language? And, if so, could it be because the speakers live in a cold climate and open vowels would release to much heat from the mouth?
There has been some dispute as to how to count the syllables in such words, what, if anything, constitutes the nuclei of those syllables, and if the concept of 'syllable' is even applicable to Nuxalk. However, when recordings are available, the syllable structure can be clearly audible, and speakers have clear conceptions as to how many syllables a word contains. In general, a syllable may be C̩, CF̩ (where F is a fricative), CV, or CVC. When C is a stop, CF syllables are always composed of a plain voiceless stop (p, t, c, k, kʷ, q, qʷ) plus a fricative (s, ł, x, xʷ, x̣, x̣ʷ). For example, płt 'thick' is two syllables, pł.t, with a syllabic fricative, while in t̓x̣t 'stone', st̓s 'salt', qʷt 'crooked', k̓x 'to see' and łq 'wet' each consonant is a separate syllable. Stop-fricative sequences can also be disyllabic, however, as in tł 'strong' (two syllables, at least in the cited recording) and kʷs 'rough' (one syllable or two). Syllabification of stop-fricative sequences may therefore be lexicalized or a prosodic tendency. Fricative-fricative sequences also have a tendency toward syllabicity, e.g. with sx 'bad' being one syllable or two, and sx̣s 'seal fat' being two syllables (sx̣.s) or three. Speech rate plays a role, with e.g. łxʷtłcxʷ 'you spat on me' consisting of all syllabic consonants in citation form (ł.xʷ.t.ł.c.xʷ) but condensed to stop-fricative syllables (łxʷ.tł.cxʷ) at fast conversational speed. This syllabic structure may be compared with that of Miyako.
However, I think it is a bit misleading to say that these words do not have vowels, as the "r" is clearly the nucleus. I think many people hear the statement that a word has no vowels and take it to mean that it has no nucleus; thus it is all one consonant cluster and perhaps not even a full syllable.
Upon listening, my first thought is that it sounds like Klingon. My second thought is that I'm definitely hearing vowels in some of them (the ones with an "h" mostly). Also "psst" is an English word without vowels.
I notice that all of the sounds in all of these words are unvoiced. (This is why they "sound whispered" to Rose Eneri above.) Do voiced consonants occur in this language only adjacent to vowels? Is there a sense in which some of the h's or other sounds here might be better analyzed as "unvoiced vowels"?
Is there an accepted technical definition of a vowel? A couple of people have mentioned the "r" sound, for example. Innumerable English words have essentially r as a vowel. It is spelled with a preceding e or i, but those sounds are not pronounced. (Preceding a or o is pronounced.) It seems to me that "L" can also serve as a vowel, in the sense that it's easy to pronounce a syllable that contains it between stops or fricatives; it's just that it doesn't occur without one of the five 1/2 official vowels adjacent, at least not that I can think of. But it's easy enough to say gld instead of guild or gold. The z sound also works. Does "birds" contain a vowel?
But by far the most common are 3 phoneme words like vlk, krk, mrk, brk, plk which can be extended with a fricative as in smrk, strč or sprd or an affricate as in cvrk. Obviously the highly sonorant nasals like M and N make it possible to go even further as above.
"Is there an accepted technical definition of a vowel?"Perhaps the more relevant question is whether there's an accepted definition of a consonant. Any vocalization that doesn't entirely stop the flow of air can function as a vowel in certain circumstances. We're all aware that "rhythm" has no vowel in its second syllable, but really, it doesn't have any vowels at all, except to the extent that the initial "r" functions as a vowel, as does the "th." The "y" seems be there as a courtesy.
I don't understood the last parts of your comment, Bloix. Why do you say that "rhythm" 'really [has no] vowels at all' ? Would you say that the same is true of "prism" ? Does the "i" seem to be there as a courtesy ?
'asthmatic' I agree there's no vowels in the 'sthm' part. 'arithmatic' has no second syllable to the 'rithm'; in both cases that's because the 'm' is start of the next syllable. But 'rhythm' isn't pronounced like the middle of those.
"Are vowels, in general, used relatively infrequently in the Nuxalk language? And, if so, could it be because the speakers live in a cold climate and open vowels would release to much heat from the mouth?"
Nuxalk is isolated from the rest of its language family and is now surrounded by the northernmost Northern Wakashan languages, which have influenced it greatly, as we know from other evidence such as an enormous loanword lexicon. Those languages are similarly outliers to their family, in that they less stringently require vowels for syllablehood, with syllabic nuclei often instead being resonants.
My understanding as a Salishanist is that Nuxalk just has carried to a greater degree the pan-Salish tendency to reduce (esp. unstressed) vowels to schwa, as well as to (what's described as) zero given appropriate phonotactic environments.
My pet way of conceptualizing this is that what then "remains" of the historically present vowels thus reduced is the articulatory release of the preceding consonant, in today's featured example the aspirations.
I think I posted this somewhere before, but one of my junior-high English texts (ca. 1960) adjured us not to pronounce, e.g., "elm," "film" and "rhythm" with two syllables. I understood that "ellum" and "fillum" were nonstandard, but "rhythm" as a monosyllable buffaloed me. I now think they must have meant that it should be pronounced as a syllabic nasal without a schwa, because spelling I guess. They must have convinced themselves that the result was a monosyllable. Ah, textbook writers!
Have you ever played word games like Scrabble or the very popular Wordle? If you have, then you understand the importance of having a varied (and even unconventional) vocabulary. And, some of the least-typical vocabulary items in English are words without vowels.
But, there's a little trick: whether these words genuinely exist or not depends on your definition of vowels. In this article, we'll explore 10 English words without vowels, their meaning, and how to pronounce them easily.
In English, there are only five written vowels: "a," "e," "i," "o," and "u." But, there are 12 vowel sounds: 2 long and short versions of each sound and two special sounds called shwa and long shwa. The English language also has eight diphthongs considered by experts to be vowel sounds, too.
These are Celtic Welsh words that have been adopted in the English language. "Cwm" means a hollow at the head of a valley, while "crwth" refers to a circular valley or bowl-shaped depression. As you can see, they do not contain the vowel symbols "a," "e," "i," "o," or "u," so they are usually considered to be words without vowels.
Ordinal indicators may also be considered words without vowels. Examples include the "rd" suffix in "3rd" or the abbreviation "nth" in the phrase "to the nth degree" (which means something taken to the extreme).
From initially seven vowels we now have arrived at just three (ɨ, ə, a) that are only distinguished by height (and maybe length, see below). This analysis is widely accepted, with some linguists proposing just two vowels for Kabardian. But that still leaves us with two or three vowels! Let us continue from here.
Until today linguists argue about the vowel [a]: Some say it is not different in height from the ə-vowel, but is just its long variant. Kuipers established his own theory: Since the four vowels i, e, o, and u are actually central vowels that are altered by consonants, then the same might be true for [a]. Again, make the test: say the word hard and notice how your tongue does not move at all from h to a: for h you only narrow your vocal cords a bit, that is the only difference. And again he would say that a h before or after ɨ or ə will change the vowel, basically pulling it down to become an open vowel a:
The problem here is while [j] and [w] actually occur in Kabardian, [h] does not. Kuipers needs to argue that what was once a consonant [h] is gone in modern Kabardian, and what is left is only the effect that consonant had on the neighbouring vowel, in pulling a high vowel down to a. In other words, to maintain his theory, he needs to claim that [h] totally assimilated (i.e. disappeared) in every single context without a trace, or at least only a slight trace (sometimes, there is a slight glottal friction on the a-vowel). However, he can use this theory to show why a is the only vowel that stands at the beginning of a word: there used to be a consonant that assimilated to the vowel over time.