Dwarvish aspirations

Menelion asks:

I have a question about phonetics: Tolkien states that kh is an aspirated k sound. And that’s OK if we have a vowel after it (as in Khazad). But what will we do in the case of words like “rukhs”? This is an after-stress position without a vowel, so I find this quite difficult to pronounce correctly. Do you think the sound would somewhat become more plain and closer to k or, maybe, there will be a schwa between kh and s?

Although both of these possibilities are of course possible, and both deaspiration and epenthesis of a vowel in difficult clusters do occur in real-world languages, in this case I take the transcription at face value: that rukhs represents [ʀukʰs]. The distinction between [ks] and [kʰs] is that in the latter case there’s an audible expiration of breath, a voiceless period of transition between the two consonants. If you wanted, you could represent it as [ə˳] — a voiceless schwa — but it would be very short, it wouldn’t be a syllabic nucleus in itself, and so phonologically wouldn’t count as a vowel.

But this reminds me that I promised to say something about Dwarvish aspirates and the lack of [pʰ] — and the presence of [f]. Khuzdul is unusual among the languages of Third Age Middle-earth in having voiceless aspirated stops — though the loremasters of the Eldar postulated such stops (pʰ, tʰ, kʰ, kʷʰ) for earlier stages of the Elvish languages. They can also be found in Adûnaic, Tolkien’s other Semitic-influenced language. In all of these languages (Khuzdul, early Elvish, and Adûnaic) there is a three-way contrast in stops. A stop may be voiceless and unaspirated  (like p, t, k) — meaning that the period of voicelessness, when the vocal folds stop vibrating, can be very brief. If preceded and followed by a voiced vowel sound — in, say, the sequence apa — the vocal folds stop vibrating only for the brief moment that the lips come together to make the sound p.

Or a stop may be voiceless and aspirated (like pʰ, tʰ, kʰ). This means that the voicelessness continues into the following sound. In the sequence apʰa, the first part of the following vowel a is voiceless — effectively, whispered. The sound of h in English is a pure aspiration — it’s not so much a consonant in itself as it is the devoicing, or whispering, of the following vowel. If you look at yourself in the mirror while saying he, hay, ha, haw, hoe, who you’ll see that the h itself has no shape, and that the mouth immediately takes the shape of the vowel as you begin to say each word.

Or a stop may be voiced (like b, d, g). This means that the vocal folds continue to vibrate all the way through a sequence like aba.

Now the curious thing is that, although this kind of three-way voicing contrast was found in languages like ancient Greek and certain Indic dialects, or for that matter in ancient Chinese and Tibetan, it is absent from the Semitic languages. There indeed is a three-way contrast for some consonants in some Semitic languages; but the contrast is not based on voicing and aspiration, but on voicing and what is called, for a lack of a better term, “emphasis”.

What “emphatic” means with reference to Semitic languages depends in part on the language and in part on who is doing the analysis. They have been interpreted as velarized, pharyngealized, or glottalized or ejective sounds. What these all have in common is that they involve a certain amount of constriction of the throat coarticulated with the consonant. For our purposes, we don’t have to worry about the exact phonetic details, and we’ll just represent “emphasis” by that ambiguous symbol so much used by scholars of Semitic: the sub-dot.

The most common “emphatic” stops in Hebrew, Aramaic, and Arabic are ṭ (ṭêt in Hebrew, ṭā in Arabic) and ḳ, more commonly written q (ḳôp in Hebrew, ḳāf in Arabic). There is, notably, no emphatic p in these languages. The gap can be shown graphically this way:

labial coronal velar
voiceless p t k
emphatic
voiced b d g

This is rather distant from Khuzdul. There are a couple of things, however, which can bring it closer. One is that it appears that, in Hebrew and Aramaic at least, the voiceless stops may have been incidentally aspirated: that is, though phonologically /p t k/, phonetically they may have been [pʰ tʰ kʰ] rather than [p t k]. Two things point to this: one, that in Greek (which had the aspirated/unaspirated distinction) Semitic /p t k/ usually get transcribed as φ θ χ (pʰ tʰ kʰ) and not as π τ κ (p t k). In fact, τ and κ are usually used to represent ṭ and ḳ! The other is that in both Hebrew and Aramaic, /p t k/ in some environments (following a vowel, mostly) became fricatives [f θ x] (in some varieties of both Hebrew and Aramaic, even [f s x]) — which may suggest an intermediate stage of pʰ tʰ kʰ. In Yiddish, where the consonant values are derived from a rather late stage of Hebrew, the normal sound of כ (Hebrew /k/) is [x], while ט and ק (Hebrew ṭ and ḳ) are the normal representations of [t] and [k].

One might hazard a guess that Khuzdul — transcribed in alphabets invented by Elves — is no better represented than Hebrew transcribed into the Greek alphabet would be. If so, then possibly a table of Khuzdul stops would look something like this:

labial coronal velar
voiceless t written th k written kh
emphatic ṭ written t ḳ written k
voiced b d g

This makes Khuzdul look a lot more like Semitic, and explains why Khuzdul doesn’t have a p; it would be equivalent to an emphatic p, which is not found in the more common Semitic languages. But wait, there’s a problem – Khuzdul not only lacks p (emphatic p), it also lacks ph (/p/)! However, this is exactly the situation found in Arabic — where the phoneme cognate to /p/ in other Semitic languages is /f/. And we do indeed have an [f] in Khuzdul! If *p became f in Khuzdul just as in Arabic, then we could postulate a proto-Khuzdul consonant system substantially similar to that of Semitic.

This is all speculation, of course, and I have not the slightest shred of evidence that Tolkien ever actually thought along these lines. It is, however, a fairly neat way of justifying some of the curious asymmetries of the Khuzdul consonant system.

6 Responses to “Dwarvish aspirations”

  1. Mad Latinist

    That sounds exactly right to me.

    By the way, the reconstruction of Proto-Afro-Asiatic used by Loprieno does include an emphatic p, which, if I remember right, yields Semitic p, but Egyptian f.

    Reply
  2. H.K. Fauskanger

    Perhaps Tolkien, while aiming for a generally “Semitic” style in Khuzdul, decided to be original on one point: instead of using emphatic consonants he would have strong aspirates.

    I have myself wondered if it is possible to pronounce Rukhs perceptibly different from *Ruks, but with some effort they probably can be distinguished. However, the spelling may well be regarded as orthographic only, taking into account that the root is indeed R-Kh-S (as clearly perceived in the plural Rakhas).

    Reply
    • Mad Latinist

      Yeah, well at least in antiquity the Semitic stops probably were aspirates, perhaps even “strong aspirates,” it’s just not the aspect that was salient in the tradition. (Btw, hi! We exchanged some emails long ago.)

      Now, of course, in Greek stops lose their aspiration before /s/. But I’ve never assumed this was a universal. I’m even not certain whether or not this is true in my (native) pronunciation of English — hard to judge my own speech. David, does indic allow {aspirate}+{sibilant} sequences? I can’t seem to find this information online.

      Reply
      • David Salo

        I don’t know of any variety of Indic which might allow [tʰs], [pʰs], or [kʰʂ], but of course that doesn’t mean that they don’t exist or might not have been the real pronunciations of clusters that are customarily written differently. But in writing, at least, all Sanskrit stops lose distinctive aspiration and voicing before sibilants, so that the only existing stop+sibilant sequences are written ts, ps, kʂ. And in Pāli these become ccʰ and kkʰ, so they’re not even stop-sibilant sequences any more. Probably new stop-sibilant clusters arise in Indic languages at a later period, but I don’t know much about post-Prakritic Indic!
        As far as Greek goes, I believe there’s epigraphic evidence of spellings like ΧΣ and ΦΣ (for Ξ and Ψ), but I don’t know how those graphies are analyzed in the literature, and whether they should be literally understood as [kʰs] and [pʰs], or, if so, whether that’s just a characteristic of some dialects.

        Reply

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