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Phonology Taa has at least 58 consonants, 31 vowels, and four tones (Traill 1985, 1994 on East ǃXoon), or at least 87 consonants, 20 vowels, and two tones (DoBeS 2008 on West ǃXoon), by many counts the most of any known language. These include 20 (Traill) or 43 (DoBeS) click consonants and several vowel phonations, though opinions vary as to which of the 130 (Traill) or 164 (DoBeS) consonant sounds are single segments and which are consonant clusters.

Tones

Traill describes four tones for the East ǃXoon dialect: high [á], mid [ā], low [à], and mid-falling [â]. DoBeS describes two tones, high and low, for the West ǃXoon dialect. This may reflect a difference in analysis rather than a difference in the tone systems.

Vowels

Taa has five vowel qualities, [a e i o u]. The Traill and DoBeS descriptions differ in the phonations of these vowels; it is not clear if this reflects a dialectical difference or a difference of analysis.

East ǃXoon (Traill)

Traill describes the phonations of the East ǃXoon dialect as plain, murmured, or glottalized. [a o u] may also be both glottalized and murmured, as well as pharyngealized or strident. [a u] may be both pharyngealized and glottalized, for 26 vowels not counting nasalization or length.

Murmured vowels after plain consonants contrast with plain vowels after aspirated consonants, and likewise glottalized vowels with ejective consonants, so these are phonations of the vowels and not assimilation with consonant phonation.

Vowels may be long or short, but long vowels may be sequences rather than distinct phonemes. The other vowel quality sequences (diphthongs?), disregarding the added complexity of phonation, are [ai, ae, ao, au, oi, oe, oa, ou, ui, ue, ua].

All plain vowels may be nasalized. No other phonation may be nasalized, but nasalization occurs in combination with other phonations as the second vowel of a sequence ("long vowel" or "diphthong"). These sequences alternate dialectically with vowel plus velar nasal. That is, the name ǃXóõ may be dialectically [kǃxóŋ], and this in turn may be phonemically /kǃxóɲ/, since [ɲ] does not occur word-finally. However, this cannot explain the short nasal vowels, so Taa has at least 31 vowels.

A long, glottalized, murmured, nasalized o with falling tone is written ôʼhõ. A long, strident nasalized o with low tone is written òqhõ, since Traill analyzes stridency as phonemically pharyngealized murmur. (Note that phonetically these are distinct phonations.)

West ǃXoon (DoBeS)

DoBeS describes the phonations of the West ǃXoon dialect as plain, a e i o u; nasalized, an en in on un; epiglottalized or pharyngealized, aq eq iq oq uq; strident, aqh eqh iqh oqh uqh; and glottalized or 'tense', aʼ eʼ iʼ oʼ uʼ.

Consonants

Taa is unusual in allowing mixed voicing in its consonants. These have been called "prevoiced", but they actually appear to be consonant clusters. When homorganic, as in [dt], such clusters are listed in the chart below.

Taa consonants are complex, and it is not clear how much of the difference between the dialects is real and how much is an artifact of analysis.

East ǃXoon (Traill)

Marginal or rare consonants are in parentheses. Asterisks mark consonants added in 1994, which are likely also marginal or rare. A parenthetical alternative is the analysis of Miller (2011).

East ǃXoon dialect (Traill 1985, 1994): Non-click consonants
Labial Dental Alveolar Palatal Velar Uvular Glottal
Plosive voiced d dz ɡ (?) ɢ ~ ɴɢ (?)
tenuis p* t ts k q ʔ
voiceless aspirated * tsʰ (?) (?)
voiced aspirated
(breathy voiced?)
dtʰ
()
dtsʰ
(dzʱ)
ɡkʰ* (?) ɢqʰ ~ ɴɢqʰ (?)
voiceless ejective * tsʼ *, kxʼ (?) (qʼ) (?)
voiced ejective dtsʼ (?) ɡkxʼ (?)
Fricative voiceless f* s x h*
Nasal voiced m n ɲ (ŋ)
glottalized ˀm ˀn
Other (β) (l) (dʲ ~ j)

The nasal [ɲ] only occurs between vowels, and [ŋ] only word finally (and then only in some dialects), so these may be allophones. [β], [l], [j] also only occur in medial position.

The mixed-voice consonants have long been puzzling. Miller-Ockhuizen (2003) analyzes them as breathy voiced, attributing the medial voicelessness to a larger glottal opening gesture than is found in Hindustani breathy-voiced consonants. The same four-way contrast in phonation is found in the pulmonic contour clicks. Taa is typologically unusual regardless in having mixed-voice ejectives. However, Juǀʼhoansi, which is part of the same Sprachbund as Taa, truly does have mixed voicing in [d͡tʰ, d͡tʃʰ, d͡tsʼ].<ref>{{#invoke:citation/CS1|citation |CitationClass=book }}</ref>

Of the velar and uvular series, Miller (2011) only reports /k, x, q/; the others in the table are marked (?).{{#invoke:Category handler|main}}{{#invoke:Category handler|main}}[track this down] There are additional consonant clusters, though these can also be analyzed as uvularized consonants: /pʼkxʼ (pᵡʼ), tx (tᵡ), dtx (dᵡ), tsʰx (tsᵡ), dtsʰx (dzᵡ), tʼkxʼ (tᵡʼ), dtʼkxʼ (dᵡʼ), tsʼkxʼ (tsᵡʼ), dtsʼkxʼ (dzᵡʼ)/.

Taa may have as few as 83 click sounds, if the more complex clicks are analyzed as clusters. Given the intricate clusters posited seen in the non-click consonants, it is not surprising that many of the Taa clicks should be analyzed as clusters. However, there is some debate whether these are actually clusters; all non-Khoisan languages in the world that have clusters allow clusters with sonorants like r, l, w, j (as in English tree, sleep, quick, cue), and this does not occur in Taa.

There are five click types: bilabial, dental, lateral, alveolar, and palatal. There are seventeen series, differing in phonation, manner, and complexity (what were traditionally considered uvular clicks, but that are now analyzed either as clusters or as airstream contours). These are perfectly normal consonants in Taa, and indeed are preferred over non-clicks in word-initial position.

East ǃXoon dialect (Traill 1985, 1994): Click consonants
noisy clicks 'sharp' clicks manner, along with speaker or dialect variation DoBeS CC
analysis
Miller (2011)
analysis
bilabial
clicks
dental
clicks
lateral
clicks
alveolar
clicks
palatal
clicks
Tenuis (k) ǂ
kʘʰ* kǀʰ kǁʰ kǃʰ kǂʰ Aspirated () kǂ + qʰ ǂʰ *
ɡʘ ɡǀ ɡǁ ɡǃ ɡǂ Voiced (ɡ) ɡǂ ᶢǂ
ɡʘh ɡǀh ɡǁh ɡǃh ɡǂh Voiced velar plosive followed by aspiration (ɡh, ɡkʰ) ɡǂ + qʰ ᶢǂʱ
ŋʘ ŋǀ ŋǁ ŋǃ ŋǂ Voiced nasal (ŋ) ŋǂ ᵑǂ
ŋ̊ʘ ŋ̊ǀ ŋ̊ǁ ŋ̊ǃ ŋ̊ǂ Voiceless nasal (ŋ̊) ŋ̊ǂ ᵑ̊ǂ
↓ŋ̊ʘʰ ↓ŋ̊ǀʰ ↓ŋ̊ǁʰ ↓ŋ̊ǃʰ ↓ŋ̊ǂʰ Ingressive voiceless nasal with delayed aspiration (↓ŋ̊ʰ) kǂ + h ᵑ̊ǂʰ
kʘˀ kǀˀ kǁˀ kǃˀ kǂˀ Glottalized plosive () kǂ + ʔ ᵑǂˀ *
(kʘʼ?)*  ?  ? ǂˀ *
ˀŋʘ ˀŋǀ ˀŋǁ ˀŋǃ ˀŋǂ Preglottalized nasal (ˀŋ) kǂ + mˀ/nˀ ˀᵑǂ
Tenuis uvular (q) kǂ + q ǂ͡q
(qʘʰ?)* Aspirated uvular () ? ǂ͡qʰ *
ɢʘ ɢǀ ɢǁ ɢǃ ɢǂ (Prenasalized) voiced uvular (ɢ, ɴɢ) kǂ + ɢ ᶢǂ͡ɢ
ɢǀh ɢǃh ɢǂh Voiced (prenasalized) uvular plosive followed by aspiration, velar frication,
or uvular trill (ᴺɢh, ᴺɢx, ᴺɢʀ)
ɡǂ + ɢqʰ ᶢǂ͡ɢʱ
kʘˣ kǀˣ kǁˣ kǃˣ kǂˣ Voiceless affricate () kǂ + x ǂ͡qχ
ɡʘx ɡǀx ɡǁx ɡǃx ɡǂx Voiced velar plosive followed by voiceless velar fricative (ɡx, ɡkx) ɡǂ + x ᶢǂ͡ɢʁ
qʘʼ qǀʼ qǁʼ qǃʼ qǂʼ Uvular ejective () kǂ + qʼ ǂ͡qʼ
kʘʼqʼ kǀʼqʼ kǁʼqʼ kǃʼqʼ kǂʼqʼ Velar ejective followed by uvular ejective (kʼqʼ, dialectically kxʼ) kǂ + kxʼ ǂ͡kxʼ
ɡʘqʼ ɡǀqʼ ɡǁqʼ ɡǃqʼ ɡǂqʼ Voiced velar plosive followed by uvular ejective (ɡqʼ, dialectically ɡkxʼ) ɡǂ + kxʼ ᶢǂ͡kxʼ

The DoBeS project takes Traill's cluster analysis to mean that only the twenty tenuis, voiced, nasal, and voiceless nasal clicks are basic, with the rest being clusters of the tenuis and voiced clicks with x, kxʼ, q, ɢ, qʰ, ɢqʰ, qʼ, ʔ, h and either or . Recent work on Taa's sister language Nǁng suggests that all clicks in both languages have a uvular or rear articulation, and that the clicks considered to be uvular here are actually lingual–pulmonic and lingual–glottalic airstream contours. It may be that the 'prevoiced' consonants of Taa, including prevoiced clicks, can also be analysed as contour consonants, in this case with voicing contours.

*There is a misalignment in the source tables: DoBeS has 17 series, Miller (2011) 19, with the additional distinctions apparently being ǂʰ vs. ǂ͡qʰ and ᵑǂˀ vs. ǂˀ.

All nasal clicks have twin airstreams, since the air passing through the nose bypasses the tongue. Usually this is pulmonic egressive. However, the ↓ŋ̊ʰ series in Taa is characterized by pulmonic ingressive nasal airflow. Ladefoged & Maddieson (1996:268) state that "This ǃXóõ click is probably unique among the sounds of the world's languages that, even in the middle of a sentence, it may have ingressive pulmonic airflow." Taa is the only language known to contrast voiceless nasal and voiceless nasal aspirated clicks (Miller 2011).

West ǃXoon (DoBeS)

West ǃXoon has 164 consonants in a strict unit analysis, including 111 clicks in 23 series, which under a cluster analysis reduce to 87 consonants, including 43 clicks.

These are written in the practical orthography (Naumann 2008). Marginal consonants are not marked as such.

West ǃXoon dialect (DoBeS 2008): Consonants other than clicks
Labial Alveolar Palatal Velar Uvular Glottal
Plosive voiced b d d͡z ɡ ᶰɢ
tenuis p t t͡s k q ʔ
aspirated tsʰ
voiced aspirated d͡zʱ ɡʱ ᶰɢʱ
ejective t͡sʼ q͡χʼ
voiced 'ejective' d͡zʔ ɡʔ ɢʔ ɢʁʔ
Fricative voiceless f s χ ɦ
Nasal voiced m n ɲ ŋ
voiceless
glottalized ˀm ˀn
Approximant w l j
"Intermittent" ɾ

Vowel nasalization is only phonemic on the second mora (in CCVV etc. syllables), as it is a phonetic effect of clicks such as nǂhh on the first mora. nǂhh does not make the following vowel breathy, maintaining a contrast between nǂhha and nǂhhah. Likewise, while gǂʼ does make the following vowel creaky, there is a delayed onset to the vowel and the amplitude of the glottalization is less than that of gǂaʼ with a phonemically creaky vowel.

In an attempt to keep the phonemic inventory as symmetric as possible, the DoBeS team analyzed as segments two of the click types that Traill analyzed as clusters. These are (using the palatal clicks as examples) the pre-glottalized nasal clicks, ʼnǂ, which Traill had analyzed as /ǂ/ + /ʼn/, and the voiced aspirated clicks, gǂh, which Traill had analyzed as /ɡǂ/ + /qʰ/.

The expectation, from the morphology of ǃXoon, for voiceless-voiced pairs of click clusters led to the discovery of several series not distinguished by Traill. (This morphology appears to be more pervasive in West ǃXoon than in the East ǃXoon dialect that Traill worked on.) Thus for Trail's ǂqh, the DoBeS team distinguishes two phonemes, ǂqh and ǂh, and for Traill's ǂʼ, they have ǂ" and ǂʼ. It also lead to the discovery of voiced click types which may not exist in East ǃXoon at all, namely nǂ", nǂhh, gǂʼ, and gǂqʼ.

Under the contour analysis of Miller (2009), the distinction between simple and contour clicks largely parallels the DoBeS identification of clusters, apart from the last four rows (ǂ", nǂ", ǂhh, nǂhh), which are considered to be simple clicks.

Phonotactics

The Taa syllable structure, as described by DoBeS, may be one of the following:

  • CVV
  • CCVV
  • CVC2V
  • CCVC2V
  • CVN
  • CCVN

where C is a consonant, V is a vowel, and N is a nasal stop. There is a very limited number of consonants which can occur in the second (C2) position and only certain vowel sequences (VV and V…V) occur. The possible consonant clusters (CC) is covered above; C2 may be [b~β̞], [dʲ~j], [l], [m], [n], [ɲ].


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