LINGUIST List 5.1463

Sat 17 Dec 1994

Sum: Vowel length in orthographies

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  1. Helen Fraser, Sum: Vowel length in orthographies

Message 1: Sum: Vowel length in orthographies

Date: Fri, 16 Dec 1994 14:28:15 Sum: Vowel length in orthographies
From: Helen Fraser <>
Subject: Sum: Vowel length in orthographies

A few weeks ago I posted a query about the orthographic marking of vowel
length, with special reference to Korean. I received many very interesting
replies, both on Korean and on the general question, which I will summarise
below - the whole topic raises some issues that people might like to
comment further on. First though - thanks to everyone who took the trouble
to send me information. It was my first linglist query and I'm delighted
with the way it works! It would have taken me ages to assemble all these
examples from library research.

At first I was surprised to get a lot of replies suggesting as examples of
languages that dont mark vowel length, English, German and so on. Then I
realised I should have been clearer in my original request. A. Fox put the
problem well with his question: 'Your query about writing and vowel length
is slightly odd, since it implies that in most languages with contrastive
vowel-length the writing system represents it. But this depends on what you
mean by 'representing' vowel-length; in the sense of having an explicit and
consistent marker of length, such as a double letter, a diacritic or other
length mark, this is not very common, at least in languages with which I am
familiar. But length can be implicitly marked in a variety of ways, and
therefore discoverable from the spelling for anyone (such as the literate
native speaker) who knows the system.'

I'd intended to include all of these things as ways of 'representing' vowel
length; definitely not only cases where vowel length is represented as a
feature in its own right by a macron , double symbol etc.

So what I wanted was examples of languages with an extensive system of
minimal pairs differentiated wholly or mainly by vowel length which have
identical orthographic representations of the members of the pairs. This is
the situation in Korean, for quite a largish set of words of both one and
two syllables. It's definitely not the situation in English, German,
Canadian French, Danish etc.

I dont THINK its the situation in Latin either, though I might be wrong,
and would be glad of correction. Here and in quite a few of the other
languages that were suggested to me, vowel length is predictable from some
other aspect of the word (including its lexical identity) so you dont
actually get many or any minimal pairs differentiated only by length.

The same would appear to be the case for Hausa; and possibly for the OTHER
Estonian vowel length contrast? My Estonian is a bit rusty, but would I be
right in guessing that the full three way contrast is fairly limited?

However, several of the Pacific languages that were mentioned to me DO seem
to fit the bill: Tokelauan, Samoan, Maori, Fijian and the Ponapeic
languages are all candidates for having what I would call a genuine length
contrast (although it seems that in Maori at any rate the system of
contrasts is quite limited), which is at least sometimes not shown in the
orthography. So, it seems, does the Australian language Bardi, and its
orthography doesnt show it..

The thing I found very interesting was the number of people who sent
anecdotal evidence about how native speakers of these languages feel about
marking vowel length. Their writing systems are all of course relatively
recent introductions based on the Roman alphabet, and there are plenty of
ways they COULD show vowel length. But they dont always use this potential
it seems. Apparently the speakers of Ponapeic languages use length marking
inconsistently, so do Fijian speakers, Maori speakers find it 'unnatural'
and dont like using it, Tokelauan teachers have decided not to teach it,
and in Samoa use of a length marker is banned!

There seems to be something worth exploring here. The obvious hypothesis is
that though the words are differentiated phonetically by length, this is
not the distinction that is most salient to the native speakers. The next
obvious hypothesis is that it is some kind of lexical distinction, similar
to that of English 'good' vs 'food', 'boot' vs 'soot', 'look' vs 'loop' etc
that is perfectly simple for native speakers and horrible for learners.
(Which could also explain why Gaelic has taken the opposite trend and
started marking vowel length where it never used to, since it is used so
much nowadays by less than fully native speakers ...).
Thoughts on these hypotheses would be gratefully received.

But back to Korean ...
This STILL seems like a very unusual situation to me. It seems likely and
indeed it was suggested by some of the Korean respondents that the original
Hangul did have a length marker, but I have found no evidence for this in
my research on Hangul. (That's why i posted the orginal query, and I ve
just had another look at Ledyard's thesis on the topic.) Maybe I just need
to do more careful research: pointers on this also gratefully received.

A couple of points of clarification: the distinction between the
monosyllabic vowel length 'minimal pairs' does seem to be dying out (though
it is the fact that it previously existed but was not marked in the writing
system at that time that I find odd; could it be that the lack of
orthographic representation contributes to its demise??). But there is a
clear distinction in the sound of the two syllable pairs. To my ears these
distinction seems to be much more one of pitch accent than of length.
And: when I said that native speakers dont easily identify vowel length, i
didnt mean that they SAY 'my language doesnt have a vowel length
distinction' - which would indeed be a statement to be cautious of! I meant
they dont know which word is supposed to have the long vowel and which the
short. This is consistent with information sent by native speakers that it
is something taught in schools as a prescriptive rule

Well for anyone who has read this far, let me reward you by sharing with
you this response from Fran Karttunen (I hope she doesnt mind). I dont know
exactly how to interpret it with respect to my questions above, but I'm
sure there's something in it for all of us!

'Both the Maya and the Nahua (speakers of unrelated Mesoamerican languages)
had achieved a partially-syllabic approach to writing before the arrival of
Europeans in the first quarter of the 16th century. From what we can tell
of their writing, both made some use of rhebus principles in which a
drawing of thing, the name of which was similar rather than identical, was
used to suggest the intended word/syllable. For instance, a drawing of a a
bare bottom (tzin-tli "buttocks") was used for the honorific suffix -tzin.
Likewise a drawing of a banner, pan-tli was used for locative -pan. These
two examples are suffixes, but there are similar cases for initial
syllables of Nahuatl noun stems, for instance. Vowel length, at least for
Nahuatl, is not taken into account in these cases. The honorific suffix
today has the reflex of a long vowel in most modern dialects of Nahuatl,
making it homophonous with the stem of "buttocks", but attestation from the
sixteenth century consistently show them to contrast in vowel length (short
for the honorific, long for "buttocks"). Same for "banner" (long vowel)
versus the locative (short).'

Thanks again to all respondents, who are listed below as acknowledgment.
(Hope that's ok; preparing this summary has already taken so long that i'm
not keen now to go through and give proper 'who said what'

Helen (Allan C Wechsler)
RCosperHUSKY1.STMARYS.CA (Ronald Cosper)
Fran Karttunen ( (Shelly Harrison)
PULJURICEVM1.RICE.EDU (Gyonggu Shin) (Ian Green) (Geoffrey S. Nathan) (Malcolm Ross)
kenneth de jong (
Lance Eccles (
J. A. Rea
Henry Rogers (
Brian D Joseph (
David Fertig (
Stavros Macrakis (
Charles Scott (
Lars Mathiesen (U of Copenhagen CS Dep) (
Mark Aronoff ( (Caoimhin P. ODonnaile) (jaejung song)
"A.T.C.Fox" (lnp6atcfLUCS-MAC.NOVELL.LEEDS.AC.UK) (Marit Julien)
Blaine Erickson (ericksonuhunix.uhcc.Hawaii.Edu)

___________________ (

Helen Fraser (Dr)
Dept of Linguistics
University of New England
NSW 2351

Phone 067 73 2128/3189
Fax 067 73 3735
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