What did Proto-Maritime sound like?

How people used to talk on Mohai.

Proto-Maritime is reconstructed as having 20 phonemes. It was characterised by its three points of vowel articulation, a lack of voicing contrast amongst consonants and the prominence of velar, uvular and glottal sounds. Syllables were simple or moderately complex.

The standard model of PM phonology has stood the test of time, but some uncertainties remain. These are indicated below. The language was unwritten. It is believed that there were two dialects, one spoken on Mohai, one on Pheku. Little is known about them, however.



PM had three short monophthongs each with a long equivalent, giving a total of six. Long vowels are written here with a macron.

a, i, u = /a, i, u/

ā, ī, ū = /a:, i:, u:/

The International Phonetic Alphabet (IPA) is used here to indicate typical values. No doubt the sound of each vowel varied widely in practice, in different contexts. It is believed that long vowels varied somewhat less than short vowels but this is not certain.

Diphthongs & Triphthongs

The combination of any short monophthong with a short i or u was a valid diphthong in PM. I and u reduced nearly to /j, w/ whilst a kept its full sound. At this stage, it is no longer possible to tell which vowel reduced in the diphthongs iu and ui.

The language does not appear to have possessed any triphthongs. That is to say, there are none in the corpus of reconstructed words. 

Vowel Allophones

Close vowels were lowered to close-mid position when adjacent to uvular q. So i would then be pronounced /e/ and u would become /o/.

The central vowel /a/ became a back vowel, /ɑ/, when adjacent to q.



Proto-Maritime had five plosives, all voiceless. All are written here with their IPA characters. T was laminal. None seem to have been aspirated like their English counterparts often are. Glottal stop is not found word-initially in any of the known PM words.

p, t, k, q, ‘ = /p, t, k, q, ʔ/


The language had three nasal consonants. Usually, these were articulated at the same points as their voiceless counterparts p, t, k.

m, n, ng = /m, n, ŋ~ɴ/


There were also two voiceless fricatives. The sound of these varied somewhat.

s, x = /s̻~s̺ ,  x~χ/

Other Consonants

Finally, the language possessed four voiced, non-nasal sonorants.

l, r, y, w  = / l, ɾ, j, w/

Consonant Gemination

Any consonant could be geminated, apart from glottals and semi-vowels (, h, y, and w). Geminates are written double in this transcription: kk, etc. Geminate /ŋ/ is written here as ngg. Note that this is sounded /ŋŋ/ and not /ŋg/.

Consonant Allophones

Velar consonants became uvular before uvulars. Spelling reflects this in the transcription used here. K+q became qq. Conversely, uvular consonants became velar before velars: q+k becomes kk, and so on. Alveolar and labial consonants were deleted before uvulars, for example, t+q became q.

N had a wide range of allophones, as it was homorganic with any following consonant.

S was in free variation between laminal and apical varieties. Hence, its transcription above as /s̻ ~ s̺ /. The first of these sounds is more hissing, the latter more hushing.

X was in free variation between velar and uvular positions. Hence its transcription above as /x~χ/. The sounds are similar, though the uvular variety is harsher and more salient.

L became /ʟ/ in syllable coda position.

R was normally a flap, but became trilled word initially and when geminate: /r/ or /rr/.

Supra-segmental Features

Only the following syllable types were permitted in Proto-Maritime:

(C)V, (C)V:, (C)VV, (C)VC

Any consonant could appear in onset position. Any could be found as a coda, except for glottals and semi-vowels (, h, y and w).

Stress fell on the penultimate syllable unless the final syllable was heavy (i.e. unless the final syllable was CV:, CVV or CVC). Heavy final syllables took the stress instead. Secondary stress occurred two syllables before the syllable with primary stress.

Author: David Johnson

Conlanger, writer and activist.

3 thoughts on “What did Proto-Maritime sound like?”

  1. This post was originally published in April 2017 under the title “What did Proto-Dahu-Kemba sound like?”. It was republished on 26th September 2018 under the title “What did Proto-Maritime sound like?”.

    The change of title reflects the fact that the language family is now seen as originating on Mohai and the neighbouring island of Pheku. It also reflects the fact that the two branches of the family are no longer called “Dahu” and “Kemba”, but more of that anon.

    The opportunity was also taken to tweak the phoneme inventory, as one does.

  2. Edited 04.08.17. My attempts to derive sound changes for later languages have shown that I did not need so many consonants. I have therefore reduced the number of phonenes in PDK from 27 to 21. Most of the lost phonemes reappear as allophones and the language was previously short of allophony. A double win, I think.

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