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The Biak Language in its cultural context

Phonology: the sounds of the language and their alternations

The phonology of a language describes its sound system. Each sound system contains a number of phonemes, which can be described as ‘meaning-distinguishing sounds’.  In English, for example, p and b are different phonemes because bet and pet are different words. There is no phonemic difference, however, between different types of t’s. In English there is no difference in meaning between, for example, belt pronounced with the tongue tip touching the teeth (a so-called dental t) and belt pronounced with the tongue tip touching the alveolar ridge (just behind the teeth, a so-called alveolar t).

The Biak consonant-phonemes are the following:  b, p, m, ß (spelled as v), w, f, d, t, n, s, l, r, j, k. The phoneme t is used very scarcely, and has probably entered the sound system only recently. The Biak vowel-phonemes are a,e,i,o,u and their long counterparts á, é, é, ó, ú.

The structure of the syllable can be represented as follows, where C stands for a consonant and V for a vowel : C (C) V (V) C (C).  The language has a remarkable arsenal of possible consonant clusters, both at the beginning and at the end of a syllable, leading to words like srepk ‘short’, or msawk ‘tear’. Root-final clusters are broken up by [e] in prepausal position, so that ifn ‘tuber’ is realized as ifen, with stress on the last syllable.

In Van den Heuvel (2006:48f) it is argued that words are not lexically specified for stress, which means that stress is not a property of the word itself. There is a difference between long and short vowels, however. When words are uttered, either in isolation or in context, the language prefers to use a certain rhythmic pattern for an entire intonation unit. This intonation unit may coincide with just one word, but will often be longer than one word. The rhythmic pattern is determined by an interplay between inherently long (and therefore prominent) vowels and the strive for a so-called iambic pattern (alternation of short and long syllables, with the last syllable in row preferably long).

The phonology of a language also describes how sounds behave or alternate when they ‘meet’ each other. In Biak, some of the ways in which sounds influence each other are given here. When a nasal, m or n, is followed by r, in Biak the sequence is realized as [mbr] and [ndr], respectively. In a sequence of a nasal (m or n) and k, the latter is realized as ɡ (voiced velar stop, as in English ‘good’). A sequence of nasal and v, finally, is realized as [mb].

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