What did Classical Lekuna sound like?

When the ancient Kuna Empire was at its zenith, Classical Lekuna had twenty-four phonemes. It was characterised by four points of vowel articulation, a plain/aspirate contrast and the prominence of velar and glottal sounds. Syllables were simple or moderately complex.

Many written examples of Classical Lekuna have survived to the modern era. These range from graffiti and laundry lists to philosophy and epic poetry. They even include grammars of C Lek written by native speakers. We can, therefore, describe the formal registers of the language with confidence.


Classical Lekuna had eight monophthongs, four short and four long. Long vowels are written double in this transcription.

Closei, ii
/i, i:/
u, uu
/u, u:/
Midë, ëë
/ə, ə:/
Opena, aa
/a, a:/
Classical Lekuna vowels

The International Phonetic Alphabet (IPA) is used here to indicate typical values. No doubt the sound of each vowel varied somewhat in practice, but few of the details of vowel variation were recorded by ancient writers.

The combination of any short monophthong with a reduced i or u was a valid diphthong in C Lek. Central vowels a and ë always kept their full sound in diphthongs. Where the close vowels i and u met, the first one reduced.


C Lek had a set of fourteen consonants. Nearly half were stops. Plain stops contrasted with aspirate ones. There were a good number of sonorants and a couple of fricatives.

Stopp, ph
/p, pʰ/
t, th
/t, tʰ/
k, kh
/k, kʰ/

/s̻~s̺ /
Liql, r
/l~ʟ, ɾ~r/
Classical Lekuna consonants

Any consonant could be geminated, apart from aspirate stops, h, y, w and ‘. Geminates are written double in this transcription: kk, etc. The trigraph ngg represents the geminate /ŋŋ/.

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.

L became /ʟ/ in syllable coda position.

R was normally a flap, but became trilled in word-initial position and when geminate: /r/ or /rr/.

Suprasegmental Features

Only the following syllable types were permitted in Classical Lekuna:

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

Any consonant could appear in onset position. Any could be found as a coda, except aspirate stops and h. Coda was only found in word-final position.

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

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.

Writing system

Classical Lekuna began to be written in the alphabet of Pamak, a language of the Transmontane family. This was a unicase script written from left to right. It was adapted somewhat to meet the needs of C Lek.

Changes from Proto-Maritime


The sounds that changed between Proto-Maritime and Classical Lekuna may be grouped into the following categories:

  • C=m n ng nq p t k q s x h l r y w [Consonants]
  • V=a i u [Short Vowels]
  • P=p t k q [Plain Stops]
  • A=ph th kh [Aspirate Stops]
  • U=nq q [Uvular Consonants]
  • Z=& @ [Primary and Secondary Stress Marks]


The rules may now be presented using standardised notation. They appear in the order in which linguists think they occurred.

  • U→ʔ/_
  • ʔʔ→ʔ/_

Uvular consonants q and nq became glottal stops . Geminate uvulars reduced to a single glottal stop.

  • P→A /_&
  • P→A/s_
  • s//_A

Plain stops were aspirated at the start of the syllable with primary stress. They were also aspirated after s. The s was deleted.

  • r→ɾ/_/#_
  • ɾɾ→rr/_

R became a flap except when word-initial or geminate. In these positions, it remained a trill.

  • V→ə/C_C

Proto-Maritime short vowels a, i and u were centralised in closed, unstressed syllables, becoming /ɐ, ɪ, ʊ/. In Classical Lekuna, these converged on a single central vowel sound ë, /ə/.

(I use stress marks when rewriting words for the Zompist Sound Change Applier. Their absence from the rule above means it is only applied to unstressed syllables by the SCA).

  • V→V2/_xC
  • V→V2/_x#
  • x//_C
  • x//_#
  • x→h/_

X was deleted from syllable codas and its preceding vowel lengthened. X in onset position weakened to h.

  • CV//_C&
  • V//#_C&

Unstressed light syllables were deleted immediately before the primary stress.

Stress was regularised wherever sound change occurred.


In Classical Lekuna uvular sounds became glottal, but in its sister language Classical Letepi, they merged with velars.

The loss of uvulars in Classical Lekuna meant that close vowels (i, ii, u, uu) no longer needed to lower around them. Similarly, the open central vowels (a, aa) no longer needed to become a back vowel around uvulars. These vowels now retained their normal values in all positions.

Next, both siblings acquired aspiration in stops. The distribution of aspirate stops differs between the two languages

At first, the new vowel ë was merely an allophone of a, i and u.

The later loss of coda x meant that ë was no longer confined to closed syllables. It began to contrast with other vowels in open syllables and was therefore phonemic and available for use in new words. Long ëë was occasionally created by the lengthening of the vowel before the lost x.

The deletion of unstressed light syllables immediately before the primary stress left some aspirate stops at the start of monosyllabic words. This had not occurred previously.

By David Johnson

Conlanger, writer and activist.


  1. Parts of this post are now non-canonical. C Lek as described above is now too close to Lemohai. It will have to be altered to look more like Proto-Maritime. This will be done once a full set of changes from Proto-Maritime to Lemohai are published.

  2. For some reason the “Lekuna” tag does not show in the tag cloud when added to this post. It’s not a caching problem because other new tags have been created since, including the nonce tag “Lekuna1” which I can add to this very post. That shows up fine in the tag cloud! I’ll have to look into this some more.

  3. At last – a set of sound changes I am happy to publish! Modern Lemohai is stable now and I have a general idea of the changes I need to make to derive it from Proto-Maritime. I am working up the detail in baby steps from one stage of the language to the next to make sure I get things right.

    I am very happy 🙂

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