11
$\begingroup$

Bilabials are nearly universal consonants within human speech. However, why would a naturally evolved language spoken by humans lack bilabials entirely?

$\endgroup$
15
  • 8
    $\begingroup$ Oh so many. My favourite is: Because it's a naturally evolved language in a non human race, and humans adopted it when they become allies. Eg when humanity joins a galactic federation led by a non humanoid race and realises the economic benefits of adopting the universal language. (perhaps more info is needed?) $\endgroup$
    – Ash
    Jul 23 at 9:29
  • 17
    $\begingroup$ There is no rule which says that all languages have to use all the phonemes which can be made by humans. For example, why does English lack (1) front rounded vowels (such as German ö and ü or French eu and u, (2) pharyngeal fricatives such as /ʕ/ (which give Arabic its distinctive sound), (3) palatalized consonants (ubiquitous in Russian), (4) geminated consonants (as in Greek, in Latin and in Italian), (4) words ending in /a/ or /e/, (5) native words starting with /ʒ/ or /kn/? Moreover, lo and behold, there do exist languages which lack bilabials. $\endgroup$
    – AlexP
    Jul 23 at 10:54
  • 3
    $\begingroup$ There are languages which lack consonants. And, in a sense, vowels, for that matter. Why shouldn't a language lack bilabials? $\endgroup$
    – Matthew
    Jul 23 at 13:45
  • 3
    $\begingroup$ This might be a better fit for conlang.stackexchange.com $\endgroup$ Jul 24 at 14:26
  • 2
    $\begingroup$ @Matthew There are codes which lack consonants. "Whistle languages" are universally secondary registers of otherwise-normal language, with consonants. There are none which exist as independent languages on their own. $\endgroup$ Jul 24 at 14:27
44
$\begingroup$

When I was a kid one of the game we played with my friends when we were in the sea was to talk underwater and have the other understand what we were saying.

If we were wearing a scuba mask and the mouthpiece for breathing, pronouncing bilabial consonants would be almost impossible, due to the mouthpiece preventing it from happening: papa or mama would have sounded both as a haha.

Imagine a language that starts and develops in a human community where its members spend a lot of time using a mouthpiece: consonants which cannot be pronounced will necessarily fall out of usage.

$\endgroup$
25
$\begingroup$

Because they're heavily addicted to nicotine.

Your society learnt to fortify and roll tobacco into cigarettes before they developed a formal language. As grunts started to become standardised, they were being made by humans with cigarettes between their lips.

The desire to avoid cutting off that sweet sweet nicotine mean that sounds made by joining the lips were difficult to do, thus bilabials require extra work than other sounds, and are thus not considered practical for inclusion in the language.

As words are imported into the language after contact with other communities, they're localised by softening all bilabials (ie "paper" -> "hay-her"), as no-one wants to give up the cigarette to accurate pronounce that new word.

$\endgroup$
2
  • 16
    $\begingroup$ quite conveniently "cigarette" has no bilabials in it $\endgroup$
    – L.Dutch
    Jul 23 at 10:10
  • 7
    $\begingroup$ neither does "tohacco". Or "harijuana" for that matter. $\endgroup$ Jul 23 at 18:38
17
$\begingroup$

There is absolutely no reason why a language must have bilabials. In fact, several terrestrial languages lack bilabials altogether, including Oneida and Wichita. No special excuse is necessary.

EDIT: @JirkaHanika in the comments suggests a connection between labrets and lack of labials (Jakobson 1941 (transl. 1968) p48, Rood 1975 p317). Though I know of cases where bilabials occur even with labrets (e.g. Kayapo), it could well be the case that such lip operations are a prerequisite to the lack of labials.

$\endgroup$
11
  • 4
    $\begingroup$ +1 Approximately 0.7% of the world's languages lack bilabial consonants altogether, including Tlingit, Chipewyan, Oneida, and Wichita. $\endgroup$
    – Fred
    Jul 25 at 5:13
  • 2
    $\begingroup$ This answer could be improved by an explanation how wearing of labrets by both men and women speaking Iroquois languages made bilabial plosive articulation essentially impossible. The correlation between the historic wearing of labrets and the lack of bilabial plosives is striking. Of course, the anatomical and historical situation on other planets may be rather different than here. $\endgroup$ Jul 25 at 23:04
  • 2
    $\begingroup$ @JirkaHanika I’ve never heard of such a correlation between labrets and lack of bilabials. Do you have a source for this claim? $\endgroup$
    – bradrn
    Jul 25 at 23:15
  • 2
    $\begingroup$ @bradrn - Yes, this is known for a long time. (Jakobson, Roman. 1941 (transl. 1968). Child Language, Aphasia and Phonological Universals. De Gruyter Mouton). Re Wichita, I think I've seen it here. But of course it is just a correlation, specific to a single world. As such, it doesn't contradict your frame challenge answer. Feel free to ask on this or this site separately if you are genuinely interested further. $\endgroup$ Jul 26 at 6:55
  • 1
    $\begingroup$ @bradrn - Looks good to me. BTW among Kayapo, only men wear lip plates, women and children don't. (In some other tribes that do have labial plosives, only women undergo other kinds of lip modification - but men don't.) In our world, it seems the prerequisite to the lack of bilabials could be labrets worn by both men and women, and all cases known to me are from North America. $\endgroup$ Jul 26 at 12:45
9
$\begingroup$

It happened that the local whistled language variant became very useful for some reason (perhaps geography very similar to Canary Islands, spanning the whole continent) and it was ubiquitous in the society for such a long time that it started to influence the spoken language. The whistled variant might have disappeared later on, leaving only traces in rather unusual phonology of the language - heavily tonal language, no stops, few vowels, no consonant clusters, open syllables etc...

$\endgroup$
1
  • $\begingroup$ My language is non-tonal and has a rather standard phonology with the exception of bilabials. $\endgroup$
    – Galactic
    Jul 23 at 20:49
8
$\begingroup$

A long history of facial decoration that interferes with or obscures bilabials -- for example, piercing of the tongue and upper and/or lower lips. It need not even be universal; if such decoration is a sign of status, then only low-status individuals would be able to make the sounds, thus they would be considered low class and looked down upon, and heavily discriminated against. The higher status people forcibly control the evolution of language.

You can achieve the same effect without physical ornamentation. The ruling class is inbred and develops a heritable speech impediment that interferes with the production of bilabials. Pretty soon, bilabials start to be regarded as a form of mockery, punishable by death.

$\endgroup$
2
  • $\begingroup$ piercing of the tongue would surely affect coronal consonants, not labial ones. Only lip piercings would interfere with production of labial consonants $\endgroup$
    – Tristan
    Jul 26 at 9:43
  • $\begingroup$ Are you challenging my knowledge of what "bilabial" means, my hard won knowledge that I wrested from the jealous clutches of Google, immediately after reading this question? How dare you! $\endgroup$
    – sfink
    Jul 28 at 0:16
4
$\begingroup$

Populations stop using some sounds over time, which is why it seems that no single naturally evolved language has all the sounds that humans can do. English, Chinese and Korean lack the hard R sounds of romance languages, almost all romance languages lack the 'v' sound from Spanish, Japanese has no L and so on. Arabic has an 'a' sound that non-native speakers have a hell of a time to pronounce and Russian has a very funny sound that I can only approximate the pronunciation of if I pretend to be stabbed. But the piece of the cake goes to Portuguese 'ão', no non-native speaker will ever be able to pronounce that correctly to save their lives, even native speakers of Spanish!

So if some people don't like or have no use for bilabials, over millennia their languages will drop that sound. There is a study which suggests that Eyak and Oneida have no bilabials at all:

As already noted, Eyak and Oneida are the two languages classed as having neither bilabials nor nasals.

Having never had contact native speakers, I read this with a grain of salt; The Wikipedia article for Eyak mentions a labial 'b' sound. Might be like the Spanish 'uve' - or not, for all I know. Still, I believe that such languages could develop naturally in any world inhabited by humans.

$\endgroup$
9
  • 1
    $\begingroup$ ‘Could develop naturally’, not ‘would’. There is nothing to indicate that such a language must develop, and only two languages out of over seven thousand indicates that it’s a reasonably rare occurrence. On a side note, the Swedish ‘sj’ sound is another fun example of a language-specific sound (only Swedish and a couple of little-spoken German dialects have it). $\endgroup$ Jul 24 at 11:58
  • $\begingroup$ @AustinHemmelgarn I think you're right - could is more accurate than would here. I'm editing. $\endgroup$ Jul 24 at 13:17
  • 2
    $\begingroup$ The Wikipedia article for Eyak also mentions that /b/ and /m/ only occur in loanwords. The native vocabulary inherited from Na-Dene lacks them entirely. $\endgroup$ Jul 24 at 14:31
  • $\begingroup$ Being a native Russian speaker, I'm now intrigued what that "very funny sound" is... $\endgroup$
    – Ruslan
    Jul 25 at 15:50
  • $\begingroup$ @ruslan it's the sound of the letter 'bl' (sorry I don"t know hpw to get it here in proper cyrilics). $\endgroup$ Jul 25 at 16:30
1
$\begingroup$

An extreme real-world example of a natural language lacking many of the sounds other languages have is the Nama language of Namibia, which has only eleven non-click consonants, including glottal stop, plus some allophones. (These do include some bilabials.)

Mundanely, bilabials became allophones of other sounds and disappeared, similar to how English has the fricatives F and V instead of the bilabial fricatives in other languages, and sometimes uses a labiodental nasal as an allophone of M or N (as I do in the words symphony or sin), but replacing the bilabials more comprehensively.

A more colorful explanation (which might at least be a folk etymology) is that some king or hero had a speech disorder that prevented them from fully articulating their lips, and others imitated their accent. Or bilabials became the equivalent of the raspberry, and taboo. Or, some prudes thought that puckering their lips looked like having an orgasm, so proper young ladies would say [p̺ɯ], never [bu].

Or those might all be just-so stories people tell to explain it. How many of the reasons for any of our language shifts in the ancient past do we actually remember? That’s just how they talk, and we can only make educated guesses why.

$\endgroup$
2
  • 2
    $\begingroup$ ‘An extreme real-world example of a natural language with none of the common sounds of other languages is the click languages of Africa.’ — This is false. Khoisan languages have plenty of common sounds: /b/, /d̪/, /ɡ/, /t̪/, /k/, /ʔ/… $\endgroup$
    – bradrn
    Jul 24 at 7:46
  • $\begingroup$ @bradrn Thank you for the correction. $\endgroup$
    – Davislor
    Jul 24 at 14:33
-1
$\begingroup$

A "naturally evolved" [sic] language could lack bilabials or any other morphological change, because "natural evolution" can only simplify, merge or drop sounds altogether. The direct application of intelligence is required to create more complex cohesive structures.

A universally observed phenomenon of all language families is that inflexional morphology has simplified over time. The history of the IE family overwhelmingly illustrates this, and sometimes in very short time scales (about 200 years each for the Great Vowel and High German shifts).

Theoretical reconstruction of proto Indo European suggests that there were three genders, eight noun cases and three verbal aspects; far more complex than European languages today.

To illustrate this, note that synthetic languages use word-endings to indicate meaning, rather than the word order that is essential to derive correct meaning in analytic languages like modern English. Consider the sentence "the boy loves the girl", where changing the order of the nouns would reverse the meaning entirely, since there are no inflexions to identify subject and object.

As languages become more analytic over time, the need for word endings to derive meaning reduces, and inflexional morphology becomes less and less significant, vacuuming the natural motivation for humans to bother with the complexity. Ethnic mixing, where strangers struggle with language concepts, may promote the degradation of the native language and accelerate the natural simplification process.

Anyone who has tried to speak a foreign language (or hears a foreigner speak their own language) knows that the word endings are the most easily confused or omitted elements of the words. The earliest form of English, known as Old English or Anglo-Saxon (c. AD 450-1150), was highly inflected, with three genders and several cases. Within the approximate period AD 800-1000, there were many Scandinavian invasions into England, and for a while most of NE England was ruled by Danes and this area was known as the "Danelaw". The language spoken by the invaders is known as Old Norse (from which modern Danish, Swedish, etc. have descended), and was similar to Old English in many ways, being also a Germanic language. Because of the mixing of these peoples whose languages had similarities, the inflexions of Old English were worn down.

To put it simply "natural evolution" deconstructs, simplifies, and degrades. It cannot build complexity or structure. The wonder is not why languages would lack bilabials at all, rather we should wonder how they have been retained and who originated them in the first place.

  • Baugh, A.C., A History of the English Language, Routledge and Kegan, London, 1959
  • Barber, C., The English Language: A Historical Introduction, Cambridge University Press, Cambridge, 1993
  • Millward, C., A Biography of the English Language, Holt, Rinehart and Winston, New York, 1988
  • Waterman, J.T., A History of the German Language, University of Washington Press, Seattle, 1966
  • Collinge, N.E., The Laws of Indo-European, John Benjamins Publishing Company, Amsterdam/Philadelphia, 1985
  • Weekley, E., The English Language, Andre Deutsch, London, 1952
  • et al.
$\endgroup$
10
  • 4
    $\begingroup$ To my understanding, this is an oversimplification of current knowledge on linguistics. Certainly simplification is common among natural languages. But so is the opposite; Finnish, for example, has 15 noun cases while its ancestor Proto-Uralic is believed to have had only 6. And modern English has more than ten contrasting vowel sounds (possibly as many as 15, depending on how you count) while Proto-Indo-European had 4 (counting vowel length). "Ethnic mixing" is also known to complexify as well as simplify: see hybrid languages like Michif, which combines aspects of French and Cree grammar. $\endgroup$
    – Reese
    Jul 24 at 17:35
  • 2
    $\begingroup$ In fact, it is trivially easy to see that natural evolution of languages must have gone from simple to very complex at least once. $\endgroup$
    – Obie 2.0
    Jul 25 at 7:43
  • $\begingroup$ I think your assumptions about simplification in language are just a touch exaggerated. Yes, English verbal morphology has become very "simple", but in contrast, English verbs have become very complex in their lexical construction and also in their tense-aspect construction. Phrasal verbs, bizarre constructions, all of these happen without any actual application of intelligence. $\endgroup$
    – elemtilas
    Jul 25 at 19:14
  • 1
    $\begingroup$ In other words, language evolves corporately and in a non-directed fashion. Take this sentence from an actual Twitter twat: I usually stay longer, and if I had would have gone to see Caroline's one-woman show, which sounds fascinating. This verb has become so complex that is now completely impossible to determine what it really means. $\endgroup$
    – elemtilas
    Jul 25 at 19:15
  • $\begingroup$ '"natural evolution" can only simplify, merge or drop sounds altogether' is incorrect. Sounds can split, resulting in new phonemes. Likewise morphology can complexify, and this is attested in Indo-European, even in well-known languages. The Romance future & conditional aren't inherited directly from Latin but are a new synthetic structure derived from an analytic one (originally the infinitive followed by an inflected form of habeo, with the present tense giving the new future, and the imperfect giving the conditional) $\endgroup$
    – Tristan
    Jul 26 at 9:48

Your Answer

By clicking “Post Your Answer”, you agree to our terms of service, privacy policy and cookie policy

Not the answer you're looking for? Browse other questions tagged or ask your own question.