All Indo-Iranian Languages: aspirated consonants mʱ nʱ lʱ [*rʱ *yʱ *ʋʱ *ɳʱ]?


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اُردو Urdu
In the phonetic inventories of most of Indo-Aryan languages (like Urdu, Hindi, Marathi, Bengali etc.) there is a class of aspirated, "breathy" consonants. An apt example of these aspirated consonants is from Devanagari script for Sanskrit:

  1. /kʱ/
  2. /gʱ/
  3. /t͡ʃʱ/
  4. /d͡ʒʱ/
  5. /t̪ʱ/
  6. /d̪ʱ/
  7. /ʈʱ/
  8. /ɖʱ/

Apart from these, some aspirated consonants different from those listed above appear in Modern Indo-Aryan languages, for example in Marathi // and // is found abundantly, even if no proper characters have been there.

On the other hand Hindi has e.g. ɽʱ (Rh) ढ़ where the nearest corresponding symbol ɖʱ ढ (Dh) is modified by a subscript dot ़ .

Nevertheless, as scripts tend to be conservative, the mere absence from a script of a specific character for representing every sound doesn't necessarily form any obstacle to the discussion, bearing in mind that script is secondary to the spoken word and phonetics in this context.

I'm new to this topic and would like learn more, especially in the context of Hindi and Urdu. I'd like to have your loose thoughts, views, examples or links, and anything you can share for learning's sake, about the following three in Indo Aryan languages:
  1. /mʱ/ aspirated m

  2. /nʱ/ aspirated n

  3. /lʱ/ aspirated l
I think /vʱ/ should also be counted?
For reference see Hindi: kumhaar malhaar kulhaaRii (*)nanhaal nanhaa tumhaaraa unheN kumhlaanaa.

Are these true aspirates or just consonant clusters?
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  • Thank you for starting this important topic; important for me at least.

    R does not exist in Sanskrit and for this reason a dot is placed below D to represent it. Therefore it is logical to expect Rh to be formed by placing a dot below Dh. A few important questions arise.

    1. Is the absence of a single letter to express an aspirate sufficient evidence to prove that there is no aspirate?

    2. In kulhaaRii, kumhaar and nannhaa, do we a have consonant cluster as you have hinted at or a true aspirate? In other words, are these words "kul_haaRii", kum_haar and nann_haa or as ku_lhaaRii, ku_mhaar and nan_nhaa?

    3. If we go down the route that the above words do not have aspirates but are merely consonant clusters, then how do we explain a word like "abhii"? Is it ab + hii which seems to be the case or a-bhii which is unlikely?

    4. If ab + hii results in an aspirate, then why can't any consonant (apart from h) + an h not produce an aspirate?
    Thanks for replying! On a short note (which is getting longer by the hour -edit), my guess on many but not all of these questions is as follows:

    Regarding the script,
    • the proof of a lack in speech of a certain sound should be not taken from the absence of its representation in script, especially when comparing Old Indic (Sanskrit) with Modern I-A languages, for on the one hand the devanaagarii script was devised for Sanskrit, while the sound inventories of the New I-A languages have evolved ever since, and the script underwent little change;
    • on the other hand, the lack of separate shapes for them doesn't necessarily imply they can't be noted by means of ligatures, perhaps due to the fact that these aspirates didn't fit into the scheme of rows and columns of Nagari,
    Wikipedia (with my emphasis in bold):
    "Beyond the Sanskritic set, new shapes have rarely been formulated. Masica (1991:146) offers the following,

    "In any case, according to some, all possible sounds had already been described and provided for in this system, as Sanskrit was the original and perfect language. Hence it was difficult to provide for or even to conceive other sounds, unknown to the phoneticians of Sanskrit".

    Where foreign borrowings and internal developments did inevitably accrue and arise in New Indo-Aryan languages, they have been ignored in writing, or dealt through means such as diacritics and ligatures (ignored in recitation).

    On devanaagarii script modifications, (especially about aspirated sonorants) the following ligatures are enlisted:
    The most prolific diacritic has been the subscript dot (nuqtā) ़. Hindi uses it for the Persian, Arabic and English sounds क़ qa /q/, ख़ xa /x/, ग़ ġa /ɣ/, ज़ za /z/, झ़zha /ʒ/, and फ़ fa /f/, and for the allophonic developments ड़ ṛa /ɽ/ and ढ़ ṛha /ɽʱ/.

    (Although ऴ ḷha /ɭʱä/ could also exist, it is not used in Hindi.)*
    • Sindhi's and Saraiki's implosives are accommodated with a line attached below: ॻ [ɠə], ॼ [ʄə], ॾ [ɗə], ॿ [ɓə].
    • Aspirated sonorants may be represented as conjuncts/ligatures with ह ha: म्ह mha, न्ह nha, ण्ह ṇha, व्ह vha, ल्ह lha, ळ्ह ḷha, र्ह rha.
    • Masica (1991:147) notes Marwari as using ॸ for ḍa [ɗə] (while ड represents [ɽə]).

    *) A scholarly note about lh, points towards its use in VEDIC Sanskrit, not modern adaptations, (though the script followed, of course much later!):
    "For Vedic, there are two additional consonantal characters ळ ḷa and ळ्ह ḷha {there should be no space} , which represent allophonic variants of ḍa and ḍha respectively in intervocalic position."
    [from "Writing systems of the indo-aryan languages" by R. Salomon]

    • No. 2 is the big question.

    • Re 2, 3 and 4. some brainstorm requested:)
    The difference between an aspirate and a cluster of Cons+h is probably the length of the breathy part and also its quality I suppose, apart from the fact that no schwa should be inserted in between (like pahaaR ≠ phaaR).

    In a descriptive grammar of MARATHI, I'm reading on the topic of, let's call it "the new class of aspirates" that,

    "[mh] [nh] [ṇh] [lh] [rh] [wh] are treated as consonant-clusters by the earlier grammarians (see Pandharipande 1997) with the exception of Kalelkar (1955). It is argued that words such as [rha] 'live', [nha] 'take bath', [mhar] 'a low caste', [lhan] 'small', [jhaj] 'ship', [dhā] 'ten', [wahən] 'vehicle' are results of syllable reduction from [rəha], [nəha], [məhar] [ləhan], [jəhaj], [dəha] and [whan]. But words such as [mhəṇ] 'say', [rhəswə] 'short', [kewha] 'when', [tewha] 'then', [pənhe] 'a drink made from raw mangoes', [məlhar] 'proper noun', [kəlhai] 'wash of tin for utensils', [allhad] 'pleasure' cannot be shown to be the result of syllable reduction."


    […] The words [amhi] 'we', [kaṇher] 'a flower plant', [unhat] 'in the sunlight', [kərha] 'a waterpot with mango leaves and coconut on it', do not have medial clusters; we treat them as aspirated sounds. There is one more support for the aspiration argument. In poetry, traditionally, the letter (=syllable) preceding a clustered-letter (=a cluster) is considered to be long. But in [tumhi kay dyawe] 'what would you give?' tu is never treated as a long syllable." (Marathi, Dhongde & Wali, 2009, p. 35).
    The consonant system of SINDHI consists of ṇh rh lh Rh wh

    p t T c k
    b d D j k
    ph th Th ch kh
    bh dh Dh jh gh
    ɓ ɗ ʄ ɠ
    m n ṇ ṇh
    (f) s (ʃ) (χ)
    (z) (ɣ) h
    r l ṛ
    rh lh ṛh
    w y
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    Interesting topic.

    The difference between an aspirate and a cluster of Cons+h is probably the length of the breathy part and also its quality I suppose,

    I am curious to find if any more information turns up from this phonetic line of investigation.

    There is one more support for the aspiration argument. In poetry, traditionally, the letter (=syllable) preceding a clustered-letter (=a cluster) is considered to be long. But in [tumhi kay dyawe] 'what would you give?' tu is never treated as a long syllable." (Marathi, Dhongde & Wali, 2009, p. 35).

    This is the phonological line of investigation, I was going to suggest. Check these two points:
    1) In the language under consideration, does a consonant cluster in general make a preceeding short vowel "long by position"? (It is so in Urdu) - Note: This prosodic weight may affect syllabification, poetic meters, but also other kinds of phonetic/phonological processes (e.g. location of stress).
    2) If (1) is answered in the affirmative, then check how the "clusters/aspirates under investigation" classify themselves, according to that criterion.
    A fun linguistics word is murmured voice. The wiki page has some useful information (including an interesting factoid about Gujarati and it's murmured vowels that I didn't know!).

    The wiki page asserts that Hindi makes a two-way distinction between voiced and murmured nasals, which means it's asserting that Hindi does have the phonemes /mʱ/ and /nʱ/. Wiki doesn't make any assertion about murmured liquids /lʱ/. All of that said, there's no academic reference cited on the Wiki page to reference this fact, and I'm not sure this is really an accurate assessment. Let me explain my thought process (perhaps a bit different than @marrish and @Dib's proposed prosodic considerations).

    Wiki defines murmured voice as "a phonation in which the vocal folds vibrate but are adjusted to let more air escape." In words like tumhaaraa, I would expect that, since the /m/ is so close to the /ɦ/, when speaking at a normal pace there would in fact be an "adjustment" of the vocal folds when pronouncing the [m]. Lots of sounds exhibit assimilation with nearby sounds like this, so it would be very surprising if this wasn't true. But I don't know if anyone's hooked up Hindustani speakers to phonological devices than can measure these kinds of things. (This is probably not the kind of thing one can introspect even if you're a native Hindi-Urdu speaker. If you can understand the question being asked, your introspection may convince you of something that might not be what you actually do...)

    In any case, even assuming that that is true, that would just be saying that sometimes, the phonetic realization of a Hindi-Urdu utterance may contain sounds like [mʱ]. In other words, it would be saying that phones like [mʱ] are possible, but that is not the same as asserting that Hindi-Urdu has a phoneme /mʱ/. Whether or not Hindustani has a phoneme /mʱ/ is probably more a question of parsimonious modeling: does positing the existence of such a phoneme lead to an accurate description of the language that's as simple as possible?

    Let me rephrase slightly. Deciding whether certain sounds are phonemes in that language is a part of building mathematical model of the language. When you're building a model (of anything, be it a language or a physical system or whatever), you want two things: you want the model to be accurate in that it explains all of the data you've observed, and you want the model to be simple. In other words, you're working under Occam's razor. Which means one possible rough strategy towards model-building is: start with something that's as simple as possible, and then add complexity until you've explained all of your observations.

    Of course this is overly simplistic and you may find that you have to scratch everything at some point and set up the model in an entirely different way, but... let's stick with the oversimplification for the moment. Since adding phonemes to the inventory makes a model more complicated, the question becomes: Are there linguistic observations that force us to add murmured nasal and liquid phonemes to the phonemic inventory of Hindustani?

    I suspect that the answer to this question is "no."

    1. Here is a paper by Esposito, Khan, and Hurst (EKS) that showed up when I was looking around on the internet (which discusses not only Hindi-Urdu but also Bengali). It's very related to the following comment:

    The difference between an aspirate and a cluster of Cons+h is probably the length of the breathy part and also its quality I suppose, apart from the fact that no schwa should be inserted in between (like pahaaR ≠ phaaR).

    Here is a brief summary of the EKS findings with respect to Hindi-Urdu. One aspect of Hindi-Urdu is that speakers often add a schwa between clusters they find problematic (a phenomenon called "schwa epenthesis"). This is why we get things like garam in place of garm and dharam in place of dharm. The decision about whether or not a particular cluster is problematic is a bit idiosyncratic (some people have no problem saying garm), but you never get people pronouncing bhaarii as [bəɦɑːriː] or ghar as [gəɦər]. This is one line of reasoning you might use to decide that /bʱ/ and /gʱ/ are in fact single phonemes in Hindi-Urdu rather than clusters.

    The EKS paper collects some data and finds that some Hindi-Urdu speakers do in fact sometimes insert a schwa between sequences consisting of a nasal plus /ɦ/ (it seems like they were specifically interested in the word kumhaar), which suggests that speakers parse nasals plus /ɦ/ as a cluster that can be broken up by schwa epenthesis (rather than as a inseparable unit like /bʱ/).

    [Interestingly, EKS finds that the time taken to pronounce an murmured stop like /bʱ/ is more than the time taken for the unmurmured /b/! I would not have expected that.]

    2. We could also try to think along the lines of "Aspiration and Nasalization in the Generative Phonology of Hindi-Urdu" by Narang and Becker (NB). NB don't explicitly discuss murmured nasals at all. What they do is suggest the following line of reasoning for positing the existence of a single phoneme like /d͡ʒʱ/ in Hindi-Urdu rather than the cluster /d͡ʒɦ/.

    The idea is to start with the verbal root samajh- ("understand"), and then notice that, in forming its participle samjhaa, we've undergone a schwa deletion. They formulate a precise and relatively simple schwa deletion rule for Hindi-Urdu that explains these morphophonemic changes, and then notice that if the jh in samajh- was regarded as a cluster /d͡ʒɦ/, then we would not expect the schwa deletion in passing to the participle samjhaa. But, since we do observe a schwa deletion here, we have two options: either (a) regard the "cluster" as a single phoneme /d͡ʒʱ/, or (b) to rewrite the schwa deletion rule to deal with this issue. If we try going down route (b), we quickly find that the schwa deletion rule would become significantly more complicated because this is not just an issue with samajh-, it's also an issue with pighal- ("melt") and many many other words. So, their line of reasoning goes, Occam's razor forces us to veer towards (a), ie, that these murmured stops are in fact single inseparable phonemes rather than clusters.

    We could try applying this NB style of reasoning to murmured nasals. In other words, the question is this: Are there any words which do undergo schwa deletion under standard morphological changes (participles, plurals, obliques, etc), but where if we analyzed them as having a phonemic representation involving a cluster /mɦ/ or /nɦ/ or /lɦ/, the NB schwa deletion rule would not operate?

    I'm not able to come up with any, which of course doesn't mean that there are in fact none. But, if there are in fact none, then NB's style of reasoning doesn't force us to add murmured nasals and liquids to our phonemic inventory, so the more parsimonious solution seems to be not having them.

    3. Here's another line of reasoning one might use. I don't know of a reference for this, but I'd be shocked if someone hadn't thought along these lines before... The basic starting observation is that Hindi-Urdu words rarely begin with consonant clusters. I think that most of the exceptions to this are English or tatsam Sanskrit loans (...?), but in any case, this is particularly true of tadbhav and deshaj words (ie, of "Indic" origin, but not tatsam Sanskrit loans --- which form most of the core stock words of Hindi-Urdu).

    If we analyzed the first sound in a word like ghar as a consonant cluster, we'd have a violation of this constraint. We could rewrite the rule and make it more complicated to deal with these kinds of exceptions, but these exceptions are quite numerous: khaanaa, bhaarii, chhor, jhanDaa, ThanDaa, so, by a similar train of thought as in the NB argument above, it seems like we're led to the conclusion that maybe it's most parsimonious to add aspirated and murmured stops to the phonemic inventory.

    This leads us to the following question: are there any tadbhav or deshaj words that begin with mh-, nh-, or lh-? If so, maybe it's parsimonious to have the murmured nasals and liquids /mʱ/, /nʱ/, and /lʱ/ as a part of our phonemic inventory. But I doubt such examples exist.
    It's so wonderful, Dib ;) and aevynn :p to have your insigʱts here; thank you so much for help.

    Actually the interest in this topic originated in an Urdu thread concerned with spelling of certain words of the type [t̪ʊmɦɑːɾɑː]/[t̪ʊmʰɑːɾɑː], by means of a ـہـ– /–ɦ/ or with a ـھـ– /–ʰ/.

    Meanwhile I copied relevant paragraphs from Masica :

    There is a natural tendency (cf. Greek, Iranian) for aspirates to evolve into fricatives, especially aspirates ([ph>f, th>θ, kh>χ]). On the whole this tendency has been resisted in NIA, and the aspirates are firmly in place as such. […]​

    On the other hand, contrastive aspiration has extended its domain to nasals, laterals, flaps, and even semivowels in a number of NIA languages. Here again analytical opinions differ (unit vs. cluster), but initial /mh-, nh-/ occur in Marathi, Konkani, most dialects of Rajasthani, Kumauni, Braj, and the Saurashtra language, and the sounds are found non-initially also in Gujarati, Sindhi, other Hindi dialects, the Bihari languages, Kalasha, and most West Pahari dialects. A /ṇh/ occurs in Gujarati and some West Pahari dialects, and a /ŋh/ occurs in Maithili, Bhojpuri, and Chhattisgarhi. In contrast to all these languages, where aspirated nasals are very much part of colloquial speech, in Bengali they belong to an artificial acrolectal pronunciation and are ordinarily converted into plain geminated nasals (*brɔmhɔ = [brɔmmho]>/brɔmmo/).​

    An aspirated /lh/ is found in Maithili, Bhojpuri, Chhattisgarhi, Braj, Standard Hindi, Nepali, Kumauni, Gujarati, various Bhili and Rajasthani dialects, Konkani, certain Marathi dialects (Warli, Kudali), Sindhi, Siraiki, and Kalasha. It seems to be absent from Oriya, Assamese, Punjabi, Dogri, Kashmiri, and most other Dardic languages (except Kalasha). It does not turn up in the available West Pahari material. (Its absence in some though not all of these languages, along with the absence of aspirated nasals, is in line with the absence of voiced aspirates generally, e.g. in Kashmiri and Shina.) Although it occured in Vedic, [ḷh] is apparently a rare sound in NIA. It is reported only for Gujuri and the rural dialect of Northwestern Hindi studied by Gumperz (1955a).​

    An aspirated /rh/ occurs in Maithiil, Bhojpuri, Braj, Bundeli, Chhattisgarhi, Gujarati, Bhili, Hindi, Kumauni, Nepali, Marathi, and Siraiki. An aspirated retroflex flap ṛh occurs as a phoneme or as an allophone generally in the same languages that have its unaspirated counterpart as a phoneme or allophone. Kumauni and several varieties of Rajasthani (Marwari, Mewari, Harauti) are exceptions: they have but no *ṛh (Allen: personal communication). These sounds (lh, rh, ṛh) occur in Bengali under the same restricted circumstances as described earlier for mh, nh, ŋh.​

    Finally /wh/ (or [vh]) is a characteristic sound of Marathi and its dialects. It is also reported by Shackle (1976) for Siraiki, by Trail (1970) for Lamani, by Allen for Mewari, and unavoidably in various accounts of Marwari (Marw. vheṇo 'to be'). A word whittar, whītar 'inside' (cf. H. bhītar) turns up in LSI and other accounts of some West Pahari dialects (Mandeali, Inner Siraji), but possibly the transcription wh- is meant to indicate a /bh/ with weakened occlusion, as in Bengali.​

    Ghatage (1965) records a /yh/ in the Kudali dialect of Marathi.​

    (C. Masica, The Indo-Aryan Languages, 1991 (pp. 103-104)


    but on p. 107 the tables for the NIA consonants for HINDI don't show them:

    p t T c k
    b d D j g
    ph th Th ch kh
    bh dh Dh jh gh
    m n
    (f) s (ʃ)
    (z) h
    r l R
    ([w]) ([y])-----------------
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    I'd like to add to this discussion one thing. There seems to be at least one instance of a breathy/murmured stop becoming a breathy nasal. According to Turner, the Marathi verb, mhaṇṇe 'to say' derives from the Sanskrit verb bhanati, with the bh becoming a mh. The Konkani cognate of this verb also has the mh-. Also, accoding to Turner, this change happened in Awadhi as well, but Awadhi lost the breathy voice in the /m/ and it became mane from mhane.