Rotokas language

Rotokas is a language spoken by some 4000 people in Bougainville, an island to the east of New Guinea, part of Papua New Guinea. It is part of the East Papuan language family. Its main claim to fame is that it possesses one of the world's smallest phonemic inventories and perhaps the smallest alphabet: 6 consonants (written p t/s k v r g) and 5 (perhaps 10) vowels (written a e i o u). Only Pirahã has been claimed to have fewer speech sounds.

The Rotokas alphabet is perhaps the smallest in use. It consists of the twelve letters A E I G K O P R S T U V. (The phoneme /t/ is written either T or S, the latter before an I, and in the name 'Rotokas'.)



Rotokas has one of the smallest, perhaps the smallest phonemic inventory known. (See Pirahã for its closest competitor.) It has six consonants; five vowels, short and long; and no tones. It does not appear to have contrastive stress.

With only six consonants, it's difficult to choose IPA symbols to represent Rotokas without being misleading. The places of articulation are bilabial, alveolar, and velar, each with a voiced and an unvoiced phoneme. The voiceless consonants are straightforward as plosive [p, t, k]; there is an alveolar allophone [ts]~[s], but this only occurs before [i]. However, there is a great deal of variation among the voiced consonants, with allophonic sets , , and . Firchow & Firchow have this to say:

In the Aita dialect the nasal [allophones] predominate. [...] In Rotokas Proper, however, nasals are rarely heard except when a native speaker is trying to imitate a foreigner’s attempt to speak Rotokas. In this case the nasals are used in the mimicry whether they were pronounced by the foreign speaker or not.

There does not seem to be any reason for positing phological manners of articulation (that is, fricative, approximant, tap, stop, lateral) in Rotokas. Rather, a simple binary distinction of voice is sufficient (at least in Rotokas proper; perhaps nasality is key in Aita.)

Note that when an [l] and [r] are given as variants, without their being determined by their environment, it's likely that they are actually either a lateral flap, , or else a flap that is consistantly ambiguous as to centrality (that is, neither specifically nor , as in Japanese), and that the linguist has mistranscribed the sound.

Since a phonemic analysis is primarily concerned with distinctions, not with phonetic details, the symbols for voiced stops could be used: plosive [b, d, g] for Rotokas Proper, and nasal [m, n, ŋ] for Aita dialect. (In the proposed orthography for Rotokas Proper, these are written v, r, g. However, b, d, g would work equally well.) In the chart below, the most frequent allophones are used to represent the phonemes, without a decision being made on the laterality of the flap.





Vowels may be long (written doubled) or short. It is uncertain whether these represent ten phonemes or five; that is, whether 'long' vowels are separate sounds or mere sequences of two vowels that happen to be the same. Vowel sequences are common, as in the word upiapiepaiveira.


It does not appear that stress is phonemic, but this is not certain. Words with 2-3 syllables are stressed on the initial syllable; those with 4 are stressed on the first and third; and those with 5 or more on the antepenultimate (third-last). This is complicated by long vowels, and not all verbal conjugations follow this pattern.


Typologically, Rotokas is a fairly typical verb-final language, with adjectives and demonstrative pronouns preceding the nouns they modify, and postpositions following. However, most adverbs follow the main verb.


Firchow, I & J, 1969. "An abbreviated phonemic inventory". In Anthropological Linguistics, vol. 11 #9.

Brief grammatical overview ( available at the Rosetta Project

eo:Rotokasa lingvo


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