Tlingit language – Vowels

Tlingit has eight vowels, four vowels further distinguished formally by length. However, the length distinction is often in terms of tenseness rather than length, particularly in rapid speech. For the Northern dialect, the dominant spoken dialect of Tlingit and the standard for written Tlingit, every vowel may take either high or low tone; in the orthography high tone is indicated by an acute accent, e.g. áa, and low tone is unmarked, e.g. aa. The Southern and Transitional dialects have a mid tone which is unmarked and additional low tone which is marked by a grave accent, e.g. àa.
As noted in the vowel chart above, there is an allophone of /aː/ (orthographic aa) which is realized as [ɒː] under the influence of uvular consonants, however this is not consistent for all speakers. The backness influence arises from articulation with uvular consonants, thus the word kháa “person” is often spoken as [qʰɒ́ː], whereas the word (a) káa “on (its) surface” is said as [(ʔʌ) kʰáː] by the same speakers.

18th century Tlingit art: A helmet representing the head of a wolf.(Museum of the Americas, Madrid, Spain).

Word onset is always consonantal in Tlingit, i.e. no word may begin with a vowel. Where one would occur theoretically by e.g. prefixing or compounding, the vowel is obligatorily preceded by either [ʔ] or [j]. The former is universal in single words, and the latter is found varying with [ʔ] in word-medial position in compounds. The orthography does not reflect the [ʔ] in word-initial position, but either . or y may be seen in medial position. For example, the word khoowat’áa “the weather is hot” (khu-ÿu-ÿa-t’áa, INDH.OBJ-PERF-(0, -D, +I)-hot) is phonetically [qʰuːwʌtʼáː], but when the perfective prefix ÿu- is word initial in uwat’áa “it is hot” (0-ÿu-ÿa-t’áa, 3NEU.OBJ-PERF-(0, -D, +I)-hot) the phonetic form is [ʔʊwʌtʼáː] where the glottal stop appears to ensure that the word begins with a consonant.

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