Monthly Archives: June 2020

Phonological contrast and phonetic variation: the case of velars in Iwaidja

Jason A. Shaw, Christopher Carignan, Tonya Agostini, Robert Mailhammer, Mark Harvey and I have recently had an article on Iwaidja accepted to Language. It will come out in the fall issue, but for now we can share the pre-print copy.

It was a privilege to be a part of this project!. The article represents several years of work on the part of all of us – my part seeming to me to be the least of all. We acknowledge a host of granting agencies, lab supporters, and researchers, but most of all the Iwaidja speakers: Charlie Mangulda, David Cooper, James Cooper, Henry Guwiyul, Ilijili Lamilami, Isobel Lamilami, and Maggi Maburnbi for sharing the Iwaidja language and culture. (For those of you who don’t know, Iwaidja is an endangered Australian Language from NorthWest Australia.) The abstract itself summarizes the article succinctly.


A field-based ultrasound and acoustic study of Iwaidja, an endangered Australian aboriginal language, investigated the phonetic identity of non-nasal velar consonants in intervocalic position, where past work had proposed a [+continuant] vs [-continuant] phonemic contrast. We analyzed the putative contrast within a continuous phonetic space, defined by both acoustic and articulatory parameters, and found gradient variation from more consonantal realizations, e.g. [ɰ], to more vocalic realizations, e.g. [a]. The distribution of realizations across lexical items and speakers did not support the proposed phonemic contrast. This case illustrates how lenition that is both phonetically gradient and variable across speakers and words can give the illusion of a contextually restricted phonemic contrast.