Kukuya language

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Southern Teke
Native to Republic of the Congo
Region Plateaux Department
Native speakers
39,000 (2000)[1]
Language codes
ISO 639-3 kkw
Glottolog teke1280[2]
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The Kukuya language, Kikukuya [kìkýkçȳā], also transcribed Kukẅa and known as Southern Teke, is a member of the Teke dialect continuum of the Congolese plateau. It is known for being the only language claimed to have a phonemic labiodental nasal /ɱ/ outside of Europe. The name comes from the word kuya "plateau".


The five vowels are /i e~ɛ a o~ɔ u/, which may be long (double) or short. Other vowel sequences do not occur. /u/ is realised as [y] in the environment /ɲuni/ ([ɲyni]) and also before [j] or another [y], as in the name Kukuya [kýkçȳā].

m ɱ n ɲ ŋ
mpʰ mb ɱp̪fʰ ɱb̪v ntʰ nd ntsʰ ndz ŋkʰ ŋɡ
p b pf bv t~ɾ d ts dz k~ɡ
f s j~z (h)
l w

Prenasalized voiceless consonants are aspirated. Y is pronounced [j] or [z] depending on speaker and region, apart from the word "with", which is always [jà]. The labiodental nasal is realized as [ɱʷ] before /a/ and as [ɱ] before /i/ and /e/; Paulian suggests that this is due to a conflict between labialization and the spread front vowels. The velar stop is [k] word initially and typically [ɡ] between vowels; similarly with [t]~[ɾ]. /mpf/, /ɱʷ/, /n/ and especially /d/ are uncommon. /h/ is found in a single highly frequent word, /hé/ "also".

Cw sequences are rare and only occur before unrounded vowels; they include /tw/ [tɕɥ], /sw/ [ɕɥ], /ndzw/ [ndʒɥ], /jw/ [ʑɥ], /kw/ [kɥ]. (C cannot be /f, l/.) It may be possible that the frequent sounds [pf, bv, ɱʷ] (which occur before /i a u, i e a u, i e a/, respectively) are phonemically /pw, bw, mw/, but Paulian argues against it. Cj sequences such as /pj, kj/ are also rare (a dozen cases) and only occur before /a/. It may be possible that the frequent sounds [ts, dz, ɲ] are phonemically /tj, dj, nj/, but they are not restricted as to following vowels and Paulian argues against this analysis. Diachronologically, Kukwa affricates derive from stops before close vowels or vowel sequences, and /pf/ derives from *k rather than *p. The labiodentals are not found before /o/. /n/ is not attested before /u/, and /ŋ/ is not found in underived words before /i, u/.

Prenasalized affricates are generally transcribed mf, mv, ns, nz. Phonemic neutralization may occur when consonants are prenasalized:

N + /p, w//mp/
N + /pf, f//ɱp̪f/ ("mf")
N + /d, l//nd/
N + /ts, s//nts/ ("ns")
N + /dz, j//ndz/ ("nz")

Syllables are primarily CV, with some CwV and CjV; vowel-initial syllables do not occur. Roots (not counting nominal prefixes and the like) are of the forms CV, CVV, CVCV, CVVCV, and CVCVCV. In the latter case, the middle vowel is neutralized. There are only six medial consonants, /k [ɡ], t [ɾ], n, m, l, p [b]/, and six combinations of medial C2C3 in the case of CVCVCV words, /–n–m, –t–p, –t–k, –l–p, –l–k, ?/.

Paulian posits both tone and stress, with tone being high or low, though not every syllable is assigned a tone: there are five word-tone patterns in the language. Vowels may carry two tones to accomplish this.

The labiodental nasal[edit]

A phonemic labiodental nasal, /ɱ/, has only been reported from this one language. It is "accompanied by strong protrusion of both lips", being [ɱʷ] before /a/ and [ɱ] before /i/ and /e/, perhaps because labialization is constrained by the spread front vowels; it does not occur before back (rounded) vowels.[4] However, there is some doubt that a true stop can be made by this gesture due to gaps between the incisors, which are filed to points by the Teke people and would allow air to flow during the occlusion;[5] this is particularly pertinent considering that one of the words with this consonant, /ɱáá/, means a 'gap between filed incisors'.[6] That is, Teke /ɱ/ might be better characterized as a labiodental nasal approximant than as a nasal occlusive.

Given its rarity, it is worth providing some minimal pairs with other consonants:

ɱíì eyes, míì urine, pfìí small opening
kì-mààlà to complete the rest, kì-ɱààlà to laugh at
ɱé they (class 4), bvé they (class 8), bulb, mfê the cold
kì-ɱànàmà to rejoice, kì-bvànàmà to shake with fear
ɱáá gap between filed incisors, mbváá interval
ɱáanà baby, mà-mbvàànì to meet


  1. ^ Kukuya at Ethnologue (18th ed., 2015)
  2. ^ Hammarström, Harald; Forkel, Robert; Haspelmath, Martin; Bank, Sebastian, eds. (2016). "Teke-Kukuya". Glottolog 2.7. Jena: Max Planck Institute for the Science of Human History. 
  3. ^ Jouni Filip Maho, 2009. New Updated Guthrie List Online
  4. ^ Paulian (1975:57)
  5. ^ Ladefoged & Maddieson (1996:18)
  6. ^ Paulian (1975:40)
  • Christiane Paulian (1975) Le kukuya, langue teke du Congo: phonologie, classes nominales