The mystery of word-initial consonant loss in Kera’a


Kera’a, a Trans-Himalayan language, shows a theoretically and typologically unexpected loss of word-initial consonants in CV syllables (e.g. /kalondrõ/ > /alondrõ/ ‘mosquito’, /tahru/ > /ahru/ ‘to listen’, /miku/ > /iku/ ‘dog’). Word-initial consonant loss challenges a number of widespread assumptions: that the CV syllable is the basic syllable structure, and that consonants in word-initial position are strengthened rather than reduced. In addition, we will see that the Kera’a data also challenges the notion that sound change is necessarily phonetically grounded. So far, this kind of unexpected loss has otherwise mostly been found in numerous Australian languages, where it is described as a typological and theoretical oddity (Blevins 2001, 2007, Verstraete 2022). Attempts to explain the loss in the Australian context are diverse (Blevins 2001), and in several instances, there is no satisfactory explanation. In this paper, we argue that Kera’a poses a perhaps even greater challenge to phonological theorising, as none of the Austalianist explanations - stress shift as a trigger, a link with utterance-initial position and thus contextual predictability, or only phonetically “weak” consonants being affected or affected first - holds for Kera’a. In contrast to several Australian languages, Kera’a also shows little evidence for a phonetic foundation of the loss in lenition. This paper explores this unexpected loss through phonological synchronic and diachronic discussion, and through a detailed phonetic, acoustic analysis. Based on our findings we argue for a qualification of some basic tenets of phonological theory.

Naomi Peck
Naomi Peck
PhD Student; Wissenschaftliche Mitarbeiterin

PhD linguist who is interested in how units are formed, wherever they are found in language.