Tlingit language – Consonants

The consonant m is a variant of w found in the Interior dialect, for example in amsikóo “(he) knew it”, which would be awsikóo in the Coastal dialects. It is not strictly an allophone as Interior speakers appear to distinguish the two; it is more likely that the distinction is allomorphic. The consonant ll is an allophone of n now mostly obsolete, but still occasionally heard among the oldest speakers, particularly in the Interior dialect. However its former allophony with n is still evident in many Tlingit loanwords where n replaces the [l] in the source language, such as sgóon “school”.

The consonant ÿ (/ɰ/) has recently merged with (/j/) y or (/w/) w depending on the phonological environment, with w next to rounded vowels and labialized consonants, and y elsewhere. It shows up as a g occasionally in placenames derived from Tlingit during the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries, as well as in some broad transcriptions by earlier anthropologists, e.g. “Gan Gulihashee Hit” for Ÿan Ÿuliháshi Hít “Drifted Ashore House” as recorded by Olson, today written Yan Wuliháshi Hít. Because the use of y versus w is predictable from context where it was originally a ÿ, this graph is used consistently in linguistic transcription, but not in ordinary writing. Note that this consonant has been erroneously referred to as “gamma”, confused with the similar [ɣ] which is however the voiced velar fricative, not an approximant.

Leer (1991) argues the existence of two labialized glottal consonants, [ʔʷ] and [hʷ], which could be written in the popular orthography as .w and hw. The latter sound does appear in the speech of some speakers, but only in the highly variable word oohwaan (“first person plural independent pronoun”). This particular word is also pronounced (and hence spelled) oohaan, hoowaan, and oowaan among other variations. The labialized glottal stop is not attested in any Tlingit transcriptions or recordings, although speakers seem to be able to produce it when requested.

Nasal consonant assimilation with /n/ and the velar and uvular plosives is common among Tlingit speakers of all dialects. For example, the sequence nk (/nk/) is often heard as [ŋk] and nkh (/nq/) as [ɴq]. Native speakers in a teaching position may admonish learners when they produce these assimilated forms, deriding them as “not Tlingit” or “too English”, but it is not uncommon to later hear the speakers producing these forms themselves. It is uncertain whether this assimilation is autochthonous or if it arose from contact with English, although the former is more likely from a purely articulatory perspective.

Tlingit body armour made with Chinese cash coins on display at the Peabody Museum of Archaeology and Ethnology.

Young speakers and second language learners of Tlingit are increasingly making a voiced/unvoiced distinction between consonants rather than the traditional unaspirated/aspirated distinction. This is due to the influence of English and its similar distinction. For speakers which make the voiced/unvoiced distinction the distribution is symmetrical with the unaspirated/aspirated distinction among other speakers.

Maddieson, Smith, and Bessel (2001) note that all word final non-ejective stops are phonemically unaspirated. This contrasts with the orthography which typically represents them as aspirated stops, e.g. t [tʰ] for the more accurate d [t]. There is wide variation in ordinary speech, ranging from unreleased [t̚] to a very delayed aspiration [tːʰ]. However the underlying phoneme is certainly unaspirated /t/ because it is consistently produced when the word is suffixed. The orthography usually but not always reflects this, for example hít “house” is written (du) hídi “(his) house” when marked with the possessive suffix -ÿí. It is possible that aspirated and unaspirated stops are collapsed into a single phoneme word-finally, however this has not been verified.

Maddieson and colleagues also confirm that the ejective fricatives in Tlingit are in fact true ejectives. This is counter to the widely held assumption that ejective fricatives are not actually phonetically ejective, but are instead produced as a sequence of fricative and glottal stop. In Tlingit, at least, the articulation of ejective fricatives does include complete closure of the glottis before frication begins, and the larynx is raised in the same manner as with ejective stops. Characteristically, the ejective fricatives in Tlingit feature a much smaller aperture for frication than what is found in ordinary fricatives. This articulation provides increased resistance to counter the continual loss of dynamic airstream pressure. In addition, ejective fricatives appear to include tightening of the pharyngeal muscles which reduces the diameter of the air column and thus further increases pressure. This pharyngeal constriction is not true pharyngealization, however, since the diameter is still greater than that found in pharyngealized consonants in other languages.

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