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Phonological geography


Phonological systems are often studied in abstraction from the geographical region in which the language is spoken.  Yet as is well known, all languages show some degree of influence from the languages with which they are in contact.  Areal properties or "Sprachbünde" occur over regions often embracing many genetically diverse languages, and many aspects of the phonological structure of a language are best explained in terms of language contact.  This point can be illustrated by the distribution of implosive sounds (sounds produced by drawing in air at their release) in African languages.  These sounds are mostly concentrated in the Sudanic belt, extending laterally from the Atlantic Coast to the Ethiopian Highlands, where they encompass many different language families.  Elsewhere they occur in Bantu languages of southern Africa. Outside of these two areas, they are very rare, occuring in less than 4% of non-African languages in our data base.



Distribution of implosives in a sample of 150 African languages.  Black circles show languages having implosives, white circles show languages lacking them.  (Small circles = languages with less than 1m speakers, medium-sized circles = languages with 1-10m speakers, large circles = languages with over 10m speakers.)

The square at left highlights an area in which implosives are mostly absent.  This area extends from the Badama River in Côte d'Ivoire to the Niger River in Nigeria. Languages bordering this "exclusion zone" commonly have implosives. 


Selected reading


2005      G. N. Clements & Annie Rialland, "Africa as a phonological area."  In Bernd Heine & Derek Nurse, eds, A Linguistic Geography of Africa. Cambridge University Press,  in press.