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Subject: Initial [tl]-cluster
Question: Hello all,

I recently met a gentleman with the last name Tlumack. He
expressed some problems with having a last name which
begins with an English-illegal consonant cluster (he was not a
linguist). He then said that he had no idea what the origin of
his last name was--though he had verified that the initial tl-
was not an orthographic error. He believed his family to have
come to the United States from Hungary.

It has been a while since I studied historical phonology (and
my studies were limited to just a few Indo European
Languages--and I never achieved ''deep'' knowledge of the
subject), so I was unable to tell him a language family or
subgroup that would have allowed the initial /tl/ cluster. I feel
that it is also possible that the <tl> in the orthography is not
actually representative of a /tl/ cluster, but rather a lateral
affricate, or something else.

I'd like to be able to help this man figure out the linguistic
origin of his last name! Is the <tl> actually representative of
that cluster? Or something else? And is the name Indo
European or maybe Uralic?

As a side note--I was curious to confirm why /tl/ might be
illegal in English while /pl/ and /kl/ are fine. Do phonologists
think it's just because /t/ and /l/ share roughly the same place
of articulation? Are these distributions similar cross-
linguistically--i.e. are /pl/ and /kl/ more common than /tl/?

Thanks so much!

Reply: Hi, Magdalene,

Dr. Sampson is right (though I only know little Czech). Polish
also permits such initial clusters: 'tlen' is a one-syllable word
meaning 'oxygen'. In other languages (*Tl*ingit and Nahua*tl*)
such graphemes, as you suggest, do represent a lateral affricate.
You are also right that in nearly all languages, -tl- or -dl- are
dispreferred clusters (even in Polish and Czech, relatively few
words begin with such clusters, for example). You mention what is
the main reason, although it is not precisely that they share the
same point of articulation, but rather that the 'l' is, in fact,
a lateral *noncontinuant* (roughly, a stop consonant, but a
sonorant one). (I should say that many, perhaps most,
phonologists do not agree with this analysis, but it does explain
this peculiar behavior of the 'l'.

Now, most noncontinuant segments are stop (or affricate)
consonants, which is the main reason why many phonologists and
phoneticians resist this analysis. The key here is defining
'continuant' as 'having no radical obstruction *in the
midsagittal plane*'. Such an obstruction is found in all stop
consonants, e. g., and also in the 'l' (as well as an obstruction
to one side or the other, in most cases.

I hope this is helpful.


James L. Fidelholtz
Graduate Program in Language Sciences
Instituto de Ciencias Sociales y Humanidades
Benem'erita Universidad Aut'onoma de Puebla, M'EXICO

Reply From: James L Fidelholtz      click here to access email
Date: 07-Sep-2012
Other Replies:
  1. Re: Initial [tl]-cluster    Anthea Fraser Gupta     (08-Sep-2012)
  2. Re: Initial [tl]-cluster    Geoffrey Richard Sampson     (06-Sep-2012)

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