Thursday, February 14, 2013


Today’s Ute Word of the Day is piimihchi [ˈpiːmi̥tʃi] ‘love’. Another way to say ‘love’ in Ute is tïï asïhti’i [tɨː ˈasɨ̥tiʔi], which is literally ‘well’ + ‘like’, or “like a lot”. These words give me an opening to talk about voiceless vowels in Ute and how I’ve chosen to represent them in the practical orthography I’m working on. But first a confession: in both of these words I cheated a little; the voiceless vowels aren’t really there (as far as I can tell), so the transcriptions are more accurately [ˈpiːmtʃi] and [tɨː ˈastiʔi]. This would lead to orthographic forms piimchii and tïï asti’i. So why put in the voiceless vowels if they’re not pronounced? The answer has to do with syllable structure and phonotactics, and the history of the language.

Ute is a Numic language, most closely related to Paiute, and more distantly related to Shoshone and Comanche. All of these languages have fairly simple syllable structure: a syllable consists minimally of a single vowel or diphthong. This vowel or diphthong may be introduced by a single consonant. It may also be followed by a single consonant, provided that 1) that consonant is /ʔ/ or /h/, or 2) it is a nasal consonant (/m, n, ŋ/) that shares its place of articulation with a following consonant. These syllable structure restrictions seem to apply to the Numic languages generally.

One place where these restrictions seem to relax a bit is with voiceless vowels. A voiceless vowel is, as its name suggests, a vowel without any vocalization or voicing. Voiceless vowels are variants of regular vowels. Certain conditions must apply for a vowel to become voiceless. Typically, the vowel must be unstressed and short. Additionally, voiceless vowels show up in word-final position or before voiceless consonants like /p/, /t/, /k/, and /s/. Voiceless vowels are not universal in Numic languages, but they are common; indeed, Paiute and Comanche are well known among linguists for having voiceless vowels.

Ute also has voiceless vowels, and the conditions under which they can appear in speech are roughly those described above. However, in Ute voiceless vowels are sometimes dropped altogether and not pronounced at all. Whether a vowel is dropped or not depends on a number of factors, including the quality of the vowel (it happens to /ɨ/ more frequently than to /a/, for example) and the dialect or speech habits of the speaker. Final voiceless vowels are more frequently dropped than voiceless vowels in other positions, though as today’s Word of the Day shows, it can happen in the middle of a word as well. The dropping of a final voiceless vowel may occur so frequently with a particular word that it becomes impossible to know which vowel was originally there. In that case, the vowel is lost. An unrecoverable dropped vowel can’t be written in a practical orthography.

But other dropped vowels can be recovered; here’s an example. The object form of nouns in Ute and Paiute were originally formed by adding the suffix *-a. When voiceless vowels began to be dropped word-finally, the suffix disappeared. But the vowel at the end of the noun stem was still pronounced. Historically, the object form of the word ‘boy’ was *aːpatʃi-a. When the final vowel became voiceless and dropped off, the object form became /aːpatʃi/. The subject form of the same word was historically *aːpatʃi. After its final vowel became voiceless and dropped off, it became /aːpatʃ/. Some speakers still pronounce the final vowel, so for them it’s [aːpatʃi̥]. In the practical orthography, this would be written as aapachih. The final vowel of ‘boy’ isn’t always pronounced, but it is recoverable because it pops up again in the object form.

We’re not always so lucky to have object forms to help recover dropped vowels. But sometimes comparison with other dialects and closely related Paiute can show us what vowel was there originally. But first, a question. How do we know that the underlined vowel in piimihchi or tïï asïhti’i was there to begin with? We know that because of what we know about syllable structure constraints in Ute and other Numic languages. Recall that syllables have a simple structure: there’s a vowel and maybe one consonant before it and one consonant after it. The consonant following the vowel could only be /h/, /ʔ/ or a nasal consonant that agreed in its place of articulation with a following consonant. Now look again at asïhti’i, pronounced as [ˈastiʔi]. The consonant /s/ agrees with /t/ in place of articulation, but it isn’t a nasal, nor is it /ʔ/ or /h/. So this is a likely place for a voiceless vowel to have been dropped. Looking in Sapir’s dictionary of Southern Paiute, we find ’ac·ïntu’i, ‘to like, to want’, which we would transcribe today in IPA as /ʔaʃːɨntuʔi/. The resemblance with /astiʔi/ isn’t accidental; these words are cognates. Southern Paiute has the vowel /ɨ/ in the second syllable. This vowel apparently became voiceless and then dropped out in Ute. But it’s recoverable if we look at the Paiute cognate. For this reason, I represent [ˈastiʔi] as asïhti’i in the practical orthography.

For piimihchi, pronounced as [ˈpiːmtʃi], it’s a little trickier. The nasal consonant /m/ doesn’t agree with the affricate /tʃ/, so this is also a likely place for a voiceless vowel to have been dropped. This word is unique to Ute, which means that there are no cognates in related languages to help recover the vowel. In Givón’s 1979 dictionary of Southern Ute, he shows pi?ímhci under the entry for ‘love’. This would be transcribed in IPA as [piˈʔimV̥tʃi]. The underlined h represents a voiceless vowel of undetermined quality. So there is evidence of a voiceless vowel; it's just a guess on my part that it’s [i̥].

These might seem like weak reasons to insert vowels that aren’t pronounced at all. And it might turn out that speakers who take the time to learn to read and write using this orthography will simply not write the vowels. If that’s the case, then fine. But I hope that by including the vowels now, the orthography may become useful beyond White Mesa in places where these vowels (and others like them) are still pronounced. We’ll have to see what happens.

UPDATE (20 February 2013): I found the verb sųtí?i [sɨ̥ˈtiʔi] ‘feel, sense’ in Givón’s 1979 dictionary. I don’t think it’s too much of a stretch to relate this verb with [ˈastiʔi] ‘like, want’, giving a little more support to the inclusion of the voiceless vowel ïh in the spelling of [ˈastiʔi] as asïhti’i.

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