LINGUIST List 9.873

Sat Jun 13 1998

Sum: Rising and Falling Diphthongs

Editor for this issue: Martin Jacobsen <>


  1. Chris Golston, Sum: Rising and Falling Diphthongs

Message 1: Sum: Rising and Falling Diphthongs

Date: Fri, 12 Jun 1998 10:15:39 -0800
From: Chris Golston <>
Subject: Sum: Rising and Falling Diphthongs


Summary: Rising and Falling Diphthongs

I posted a query to the Linguist List last fall as follows: 'Does
anyone know of a language that contrasts rising [ia, ua] and falling
[ai, au] diphthongs?' The following, to whom huge sums of thanks are
due, replied:

Jerry McMenamin (Spanish)
Patricia Donegan (Khmer, Frisian)
Markus Hiller (Swabian, MHG)
Asya Pereltsvaig (Russian)
Rob Pensalfini (Jingulu)
Vivian Franzen (Rumanian)
Shobhana Chelliah (Meithei)
Paul Boersma (Geleen Limburgian)
David Parkinson (Inuktitut)
Sean Jensen (Mandarin)
Antony Dubach Green (Irish)
Philip Franz Seitz (Vietnamese)
Z.S. Bond (Latvian)
Thomas Becker (Middle High German)
Dom Watt (German, Tyneside English)
Horst Simon (Bavarian German)
Vivian Franzen (Romanian)
Vincent Jenkins (Maori)
Peter T. Daniels (English)
Mark Mandel (Spanish)
James L. Fidelholtz (Spanish)
Stan Whitley (Spanish)

I hope I haven't left anyone out. Here's a general summary of what's
going on:

Diphthongs are much less common than monophthongs and most languages
lack them entirely (e.g. Tuscarora, Williams 1974); they occur in only
a third or so of the languages of the world (Lindau, Norlin &
Svantesson 1985). With very few exceptions, no language has all the
diphthongs one could get by arbitrarily pairing all the vowels of the
language. Consider the exponential problem of complex nuclei: a
language with five vowels and branching nuclei should have thirty
distinct nuclei, all things being equal: 5 short vowels, 5 long vowels
and 20 diphthongs. There are of course languages with large diphthong
inventories, but it is very rare to have a language in which the
number of branching nuclei is the square of the number of simple
nuclei. Part of this is due to sonority dispersion, of course: if low
vowels are more sonorous than mid vowels which are more sonorous than
high vowels languages should prefer [ai] to [ia] and [ou] to [uo].
And one sometimes reads in the literature that languages do not
contrast rising and falling diphthongs: 'languages have on or the
other type of diphthong, but not both at the same time' (Rubach 1998).
But this is not the case, as we will now see.

A number of languages contrast rising and falling 'diphthongs' across
what appear to be syllable boundaries: [ka.i] vs. [ki.a] and the like.
This probably includes Maori (Jenkins, p.c.) and Jingulu (Pensalfini,
p.c.). I leave such cases aside and concentrate on true
(tautosyllabic) diphthongs. A number of languages have what might be
called orthographic diphthongs: languages in which the first (or last)
member of a diphthong is always a high vowel and patterns like a
glide. Spanish provides a clear case, as the orthography uses the
symbols <i> and <u> interchangeably for [i, j] and [u, w]:

(1) Spanish
 cuando [] 'when'
 causa [] 'cause'

We can see that this is merely orthographic by considering rhyme. If
the <ua> in cuando is all in the nucleus it should rhyme only with
other words that contain <ua>; if the sequence is actually [wa], with
[w] in the onset and [a] in the nucleus, it should rhyme with words
that contain just [a] in the nucleus. The facts here are quite clear:
cuando rhymes with Armando, showing that orthographic [u] is actually
a glide [w] in the onset. The stress-facts of Spanish are somewhat
problematic but it is probably safe to assume that post-vocalic hi
voicoids like the [w] in causa are gllides in the coda (Harris 1995).
If causa has a simple nucleus [a] and cuando does too, there is no
contrast between [au] and [ua] in the rhyme in Spanish: [wa] spans the
onset and rhyme, [aw] is contained within the rhyme.

Similar arguments obtain for Romanian, which has orthographic
diphthongs that are best treated as Glide + Vowel (Mallinson 1986,
339); for Russian, where [ia, ai, iu, ju, io, oi, ie, ei] are best
treated as [ja, aj, ju, uj, jo, oj, je, ej] (Asya Pereltsvaig, p.c.);
for Chinese languages such as Mandarin and Cantonese, where prenuclear
high vowels are best treated as part of the onset (Duanmu 1990); and
for Vietnamese, where prevocalic [u] is best analyzed as a property of
the preceding onset (Philip Franz Seitz, p.c.).

Pike & Pike's (1947) analysis of Huautla Mazatec is another good
instance of orthographic diphthongs, although here the orthography is
IPA. They posit the following diphthongs, noting that (i) they are of
the same phonetic length as monophthongs and (ii) there are no
diphthongs that begin with [e]:

(2) Mazatec diphthongs (omitting contrastive nasalization and
 ae ao ai oe oi ie
 oa ia io

Three problem pairs arise: [oa, ao; ai, ia; oi, io], all of which are
featurally identical and yet contrast. But Golston & Kehrein (1998)
have argued that all putative complex nuclei in Mazatec are
glide-vowel sequences, with labial (w), palatal (j) and velar ()
on-glides in the preceding onset. The reanalysis accounts for the
peculiar facts about Mazatec 'diphthongs' already noted by Pike &
Pike: (i) they are no phonetically no longer than monophthongs
(because they are monophthongs) and (ii) they never begin with [e]
(because there is no corresponding glide for [e] distinct from [j]).
On this analysis Huautla nuclei contain a simple short vowel (a, e, i,
o) with or without tone, nasality, breathy voice or creaky voice.

Languages like Kurdish admit of plausible reanalysis for a different
reason. In these languae all diphthongs end in high vowels [i] and

(3) Kurdish (Abdulla & McCarus 1967)
 ai au ei eu oi ui i u

Analyzing [i] as [j] and [u] as [w] is harmless and accounts for the
otherwise puzzling fact that diphthongs never end in mid or low

I hasten to add that little hinges on such reanalysis in most cases:
no language to my knowledge contrasts [ai] with [aj] or [au] with
[aw], so interpreting VV sequences as VG has little consequence.

Some languages admit of reanalysis because of peculiar gaps that
appear given published descriptions. Consider Acoma (Miller 1966),
the diphthongs of which include the following:

(4) Acoma (Miller 1966)

ai au ei eo iu Ii (I= barred i)

Curiously absent from Acoma is [oi], a very common diphthong in other
languages. If the diphthong [ui] is a misphonemicization of [oi],
Acoma can neatly be reanalyzed as follows:

(5) Acoma reanalyzed
 ai au ei eo oi iu Ii

A similar case comes from !Xu (Maddieson 1984) which seems to contrast
[ao] and [oa]:

(6) !Xu diphthongs (omitting contrastive nasalization and
 ae ao ei eu oe oi ia ui

Conspicuously absent is the diphthong [ua], alongside extant [ia]. If
we analyze [oa] as [ua] mirror-image diphthongs disappear from the
language altogether.

There are in fact a number of langugages that have mirror-image
diphthongs that are NOT susceptible to the type of reanalysis that
Acoma and !Xu) are susceptible to. These include Greleen Limburgian,
Inuktitut, Irish, Khmer, Latvian, Meithei, Swabian, Vietnamese and
White Hmong. Consider the diphthongs of White Hmong:

(7) White Hmong (Smalley et al. 1990)
 ai aI au (I= barred i)
 ia ua

The phonetic description that Smalley et al provide makes it clear
that the bottom row of diphthongs in (7) is somewhat centralizing: 'ia
roughly similar to see a (cat)... ua roughly similar to sue a (man).'
This is confirmed in an acoustic study by Jones (1998), who finds the
F2-F1 endpoint for [Ai] is about 170 Hrz. further back than
monophthongal [i] and that the endpoint for [iA] is about 120
Hz. further front than monophthongal [A]. Let us call the
centralization of the second part of a diphthong a curtailed
trajectory. It is tempting to reanalyze diphthongs with rising
sonority as eg, [i] and [u], but the contrasts available to Hmong
monophthongs make this an unlikely solution: Hmong has only six
monophthongs, [a, e, O, i, I, u], lacking a schwa entirely.

Curtailed trajectories are very common in languages with mirror-image
diphthongs. Consider Swabian. Standard sources (Frey 1975, Russ
1990) include the [ai, ia, au, ua], but according to Markus Hiller
(p.c., Geumann and Hiller 1996), the pairs [au, ua] and [ai, ia] are
not phonetic mirror images. Instead, the end-point of the rising
diphthongs [ua, ia] is central, not low like the beginning of the
falling diphthongs [au, ai]. The same seems to be the case for
related languages like Frisian (Cohen et al. 1961) and Middle High

A number of other languages with mirror-image diphthongs are
surprisingly similar: Vietnamese has /ai, ia/ but they are realized as
[ai, i] (Philip Franz Seitz, p.c.); Latvian (Z.S. Bond, p.c.) and
Irish (Antony Dubach Green, p.c.) both realize /ai, ia, au, ua/ as
[ai, i; au, u]; and Greleen Limburgian curtails the initial vowel of
the diphthong realizing /iQ, Qi, ua, au/ as [IQ, Qi; Ua, au] (Paul
Boersma, p.c.).

As we have seen, a number of languages seem to have mirror-image
diphthongs. Many of these cases are better analyzed as containing GV
or VG sequences with the glide in the onset or coda. But a number of
other languages have mirror-image diphthongs that are harder to
reanalyze. Many of these have a clear phonetic difference between
diphthongs with relatively canonical members and mirror-image
diphthongs with one centralized member, i.e. with curtailed
trajectories. This might be taken as evidence that what appear to be
mirror-image diphthongs are in fact featurally distinct since the
centering present in one diphthong is absent in its mirror-image.
Future research will have to decide the issue.


Chelliah, Shobhana. 1997. A Grammar of Meithei. Mouton de Gruyter.

Cohen, A. C. L. Ebeling, K. Fokkema, M.W.S. DeSilva. 1961. Fonologie
van het Nederlands en het Fries. The Hague: Nijhoff.

Duanmu, San. 1990. A formal study of syllable, tone, stress and
domain in Chinese languages. PhD dissertation, MIT.

Frey, Eberhard. 1975. Stuttgarter Schwaebisch. Marburg: Elwert.

Geumann, Anja, and Markus Hiller. 1996. Diphthong dynamics in
Swabian. Paper presented at the 3rd ASA/ASJ joint meeting.

Golston, Chris and Wolfgang Kehrein. 1998. Mazatec Onsets and Nuclei.
CLS 33.

Harris, James. 1995. Projection and ewdge marking in the computation
of stress in Spanish. In John Goldsmith (ed.), The Handbook of
Phonological Theory. 867-887.

Huffman, Frank. Introduction to Modern Cambodian. 197x.

Jones, Rosemary. 1998. Distinction between canonical and
noncanonical vowels in White Hmong. Ms, California State University,

Lindau, Mona, Kjell Norlin and Jan-Olaf Svantesson. 1985.
Cross-linguistic differences in diphthongs. UCLA Working Papers in
Phonetics 61, 40-44.

Maddieson, Ian. 1984. Patterns of sounds. Cambridge: Cambridge
University Press.

Mallinson, Graham. 1986. Rumanian. London: Croom Helm.

Miller, Wick R. 1966. Acoma grammar and texts. U.C. Publications in
Linguistics 40. University of California Press, Berkeley and Los

Pensalfini, Rob. 199x. Jingulu grammar, dictionary, and texts.
Doctoral dissertation, MIT. MIT Working Papers in Linguistics.

Pike, Kenneth L. and Eunice Pike. 1947. Immediate constituents of
Mazatec syllables. IJAL 13:78-91.

Rischell, Jrgen. 1974. Topics in West Greenlandic Phonology.
Copenhagen: Akademisk Forlag.

Rubach, Jerzy. 1998. A Slovak argument for the onset rhyme
distinction. Recent Linguistic Inquiry, 168ff.

Russ, Charles V. J. 1990. Swabian. In Charles V. J. Russ (ed.), The
dialects of Modern German. London: Routledge. 337-363.

Seitz, Philip Franz. 1986. Relationships between tones and segments
in Vietnamese. PhD dissertation, University of Pennsylvania.

Smalley, William A et xxxx. 1990. The mother of writing. xxxx

Wiesinger, Peter. 1989. The central and southern Bavarian dialects
in Bavaria and Austria. In Charles V.J. Russ (ed.), The Dialects of
Modern German. A Linguistic Survey. Stanford University Press.

Williams, Marianne Mithun. 1974. A grammar of Tuscarora. Doctoral
dissertation. Yale University.

Selected gems from various of the respondents follow in no particular order:

Boersma, Paul (p.c., 11.17.97) "While [i] and [Au] have equal F1
contours, their rising counterparts [i] and [UA] do not start at the
same height."

Bond, Z.S. 'Latvian might qualify. We have eg, uiela 'street', laiva
'boat', ala 'egg', lauva 'lion'. The second component of the ie ua
diphthongs is phonetically rather obscure, not a clear /a/.'

Green, Antony Dubach (p.c. 11.17.97) "Irish contrasts [au] with [u]
and [ai] with [i]."

Hiller, Markus (p.c., 11.21.97) "The Swabian opening and closing
diphthongs are NOT mirror images of each other (even though Frey's and
Russ's transcriptions look like that). The same goes, by the way, for
Middle High German, although orthography at first glance seems to
suggest otherwise..."

Jenkins, Vincent (p.c. 11.18.97) "Maori has the following pairs, but
you may want to call them separate syllables rather than

Seitz, Philip Franz (p.c. 11.18.97) "Roughly, Vietnamese contrasts
upgliding and ingliding diphthongs. However,the ingliding diphthongs
can be analyzed as underlying long vowels (and they are realized with
little or no inglide in some contexts) in some cases and as a
combination of a rounded initial consonant plus plain vowel in the
rest of the cases. Here are some minimal-pair examples in VIQR
("Vietnamese Quoted Readable," the representation of VN orthography
used on the Internet and in telegrams). In the phonetic
transcriptions, "x" stands for schwa (mid-central unrounded short
vowel) and "S" stands for the alveopalatal voiceless sibilant. Tones
are not indicated in the transcriptions; in VIQR, "'" is the high
rising tone, "`" the low falling tone, and no extra mark is the high
level tones (all examples have one of these three tones out of the
five or six VN tones). 1. [a:u], [au], and [xu] contrasting with [wa],
where the rounded element can be analyzed as a property of the initial

1a. tao [ta:u] 'I (arrogant)'
 toa [twa] 'a prescription for medicine' or 'a car of a train'

1b. ta`u [tau] 'ship' or 'Chinese'
 toa` [twa] 'classifier for large building or court'

3. [a:i], [ai], and [i] contrasting with [i], where [i] can be
analyzed as an allophone of long /i/ (/i:/).

3a. chai [tSa:i] 'bottle'
 chia [tSi] 'to separate'

- Note here, e.g., chie^'n [tSin] ~[tSi:n] 'struggle': syllables with
final consonants, especially with the high rising tone, show variation
between an ingliding diphthong and a long vowel (cf. 2a).

3b. cay [kai] 'piquant'
 kia [ki] 'over there'

3c. cay [ki] 'classifier for stick-like objects'
 kia [ki] 'over there'

Department of Linguistics, M/S 92
California State University Fresno
Fresno CA 93740

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