Why Australian Aboriginal languages have small vowel systems

Andrew Butcher – endymensch@gmail.com

Flinders University, GPO Box 2100, Adelaide, SA, 5001, Australia

Popular version of 1pSC6 – On the Small Flat Vowel Systems of Australian Languages
Presented at the 185th ASA Meeting
Read the abstract at https://doi.org/10.1121/10.0022855

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

Australia originally had 250-350 Aboriginal languages. Today, about 20 of these survive and none has more than 5,000 speakers. Most of the original languages shared very similar sound systems. About half of them had just three vowels, another 10% or so had four, and a further 25% or so had a five-vowel system. Only 16% of the world’s languages have a vowel inventory of four or less (the average number is six; some Germanic languages, such as Danish, have 20 or so).

This paper asks why many Australian languages have so few vowels. Our research shows that the vowels of Aboriginal languages are much more ‘squashed down’ in the acoustic space than those of European languages (Fig 1), indicating that the tongue does not come as close to the roof of the mouth as in European languages. The two ‘closest’ vowels are [e] (a sound with the tongue at the front of the mouth, between ‘pit’ and ‘pet’) and [o] (at the back of the mouth with rounded lips, between ‘put’ and ‘pot’). The ‘open’ (low-tongue) vowel is best transcribed [ɐ], a sound between ‘pat’ and ‘putt’, but with a less open jaw. Four- and five-vowel systems squeeze the extra vowels in between these, adding [ɛ] (between ‘pet’ and ‘pat’) and [ɔ] (more or less exactly as in ‘pot’), with little or no expansion of the acoustic space. Thus, the majority of Australian languages lack any true close (high-tongue) vowels (as in ‘peat’ and ‘pool’).
So why do Australian languages have a ‘flattened’ vowel space? The answer may lie in the ears of the speakers rather than in their mouths. Aboriginal Australians have by far the highest prevalence of chronic middle ear infection in the world. Our research with Aboriginal groups of diverse age, language and geographical location shows 30-60% of speakers have a hearing impairment in one or both ears (Fig 2). Nearly all Aboriginal language groups have developed an alternate sign language to complement the spoken one. Our previous analysis has shown that the sound systems of Australian languages resemble those of individual hearing-impaired children in several important ways, leading us to hypothesise that the consonant systems and the word structure of these languages have been influenced by the effects of chronic middle ear infection over generations.

A reduction in the vowel space is another of these resemblances. Middle ear infection affects the low frequency end of the scale (under 500 Hz), thus reducing the prominence of the distinctive lower resonances of close vowels, such as in ‘peat’ and ‘pool’ (Fig 3). It is possible that, over generations, speakers have raised the frequencies of these resonances to make them more hearable, thereby constricting the acoustic space the languages use. If so, we may ask whether, on purely acoustic grounds, communicating in an Aboriginal language in the classroom – using a sound system optimally attuned to the typical hearing profile of the speech community – might offer improved educational outcomes for indigenous children in the early years.