Lorenzo Maselli – lorenzo.maselli@ugent.be

Instagram: @mundenji

FWO, UGent, UMons
Ghent, Oost-Vlaanderen 9000

Popular version of 1aSC2 – Retroflex nasals in the Mai-Ndombe (DRC): the case of nasals in North Boma B82
Presented at the 185th ASA Meeting
Read the abstract at https://doi.org/10.1121/10.0022724

Please keep in mind that the research described in this Lay Language Paper may not have yet been peer reviewed.

“All language sounds are equal but some language sounds are more equal than others” – or, at least, that is the case in academia. While French i’s and English t’s are constantly re-dotted and re-crossed, the vast majority of the world’s linguistic communities remain undocumented, with their unique sound heritage gradually fading into silence. The preservation of humankind’s linguistic diversity relies solely on detailed documentation and description.

Over the past few years, a team of linguists from Ghent, Mons, and Kinshasa have dedicated their efforts to recording the phonetic and phonological oddities of southwest Congo’s Bantu varieties. Among these, North Boma (Figure 1) stands out for its display of rare sounds known as “retroflexes”. These sounds are particularly rare in central Africa, which mirrors a more general state of under-documentation of the area’s sound inventories. Through extensive fieldwork in the North Boma area, meticulous data analysis, and advanced statistical processing, these researchers have unveiled the first comprehensive account of North Boma’s retroflexes. As it turns out, North Boma retroflexes are exclusively nasal, a striking typological circumstance. Their work, presented in Sydney this year, not only enriches our understanding of these unique consonants but also unveils potential historical implications behind their prevalence in the region.

North BomaFigure 1 – the North Boma area

The study highlights the remarkable salience of North Boma’s retroflexes, characterised by distinct acoustic features that sometimes align and sometimes deviate from those reported in the existing literature. This is clearly shown in Figure 2, where the North Boma nasal space is plotted using a technique known as “Multiple Factor Analysis” allowing for the study of small corpora organised into clear variable groups. As can be seen, their behaviour differs greatly from that of the other nasals of North Boma. This uniqueness also suggests that their presence in the area may stem from interactions with long-lost hunter-gatherer forest languages, providing invaluable insights into the region’s history.

North Boma Figure 2 – MFA results show that retroflex and non-retroflex nasals behave very differently in North Boma

Extraordinary sound patterns are waiting to be discovered in the least documented language communities of the world. North Boma serves as just one compelling example among many. As we navigate towards an unprecedented language loss crisis, the imperative for detailed phonetic documentation becomes increasingly evident.

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