Proto-Maritime phonology

Proto-Maritime is reconstructed as having twenty phonemes. It was characterised by three points of vowel articulation, a lack of contrastive voice 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. The language was unwritten. It is believed that there were two dialects, one spoken in what is now Kuna, one in what is now Tepi. Little is known about them, however.


PM had six monophthongs, three short and three long. Long vowels are written double in this transcription.

Highi, ii
/i, i:/
u, uu
/u, u:/
Lowa, aa
/a, a:/
Proto-Maritime vowels

The International Phonetic Alphabet (IPA) is used here to indicate typical values. No doubt the sound of each vowel varied widely in practice, but few of the details of vowel variation are known.

High vowels were lowered to mid-high position when adjacent to uvular q or nq. 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 or nq.

These changes around uvulars still occurred across word boundaries

All short vowels were somewhat centralised when unstressed in closed syllables. In those positions, they became /ɐ, ɪ, ʊ/ respectively.

The combination of any short monophthong with a reduced i or u was a valid diphthong in PM. A always kept its full sound. At this stage, it is not possible to tell which vowel reduced in the diphthongs iu and ui.

The language does not appear to have possessed any triphthongs.


PM had a set of fourteen (or fifteen) consonants. These included a balanced set of stops and sonorants, plus a couple of fricatives.

/s̻~s̺ /
Liql, r
/l~ʟ, r/
Proto-Maritime consonants

Any consonant could be geminated, apart from y and w. Geminates are written double in this transcription: kk, etc. The trigraphs ngg and nqq represents the geminate /ŋŋ/ and /ɴɴ/ respectively.

Unlike in English, stops were never aspirated and R was always trilled.

The uvular nasal is transcribed here as nq for reasons of convenience and aesthetics. It is nevertheless a voiced sound, like all the other PM nasals.

Velar consonants became uvular before uvulars. This is reflected in the transcription, except across word boundaries. For example, k+q became qq.

Conversely, uvular consonants became velar before velars: q+k became kk, and so on.

Labial and alveolar consonants were deleted before uvulars and the uvular geminated. For example, t+q became qq.

Nasals were homorganic with the following consonant.

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

X was originally reconstructed as a separate phoneme, 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.

Most later linguists decided that /x/ and /χ/ were allophones of h. For these writers, h became velar or uvular when doubled or in syllable coda position. They hold that the change still occurred across word boundaries. This is the approach favoured here.

L became /ʟ/ in syllable coda position.

Suprasegmental Features

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

(C)V(C), (C)VV

Any consonant could appear in onset position. Any could be found as a coda, except for y and w.

Syllables were classed as light: (C)V; heavy (C)VC or (C)VV.

Stress normally fell on the penultimate syllable. However, if the final syllable was heavier, it took the stress instead. Secondary stress occurred on every alternate syllable before the one with primary stress.

By David Johnson

Conlanger, writer and activist.


  1. I’ve now made x and allophone of h to give the language a more Finnic look. I’ve also changed a few details to make the language sound more convincingly like a reconstruction. I’m very happy with the result. 🙂

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

    The previous post was tweaked several times, but the core concept of the Proto-Maritime phoneme set remained the same. Tweaks were mostly made so that Lemohai could be easily derived from PM with regular sound changes.

    The page was entirely rewritten on 18th March 2020 to incorporate tables and to generally improve the presentation.

    1. Another month on and I’ve tweaked the concept again and got closer to my original Finno-Greenlandic concept for PM phonology. I’m locked-down now and work have asked me to learn Finnish during this period which I’m very happy to do. This has given me ideas for Proto-Maritime,

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