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The phonemic inventory of Maldivian consists of 29 consonants and 10 vowels. Like other modern Indo-Aryan languages the Maldivian phonemic inventory shows an opposition of long and short vowels, of dental and retroflex consonants as well as single and geminate consonants.
Dental and retroflex stops are contrastive in Maldivian. For example: maḍun means ‘quietly’ madun means ‘seldom’. The segments /t/ and /d/ are articulated just behind the front teeth. The Maldivian segments /ʈ/, /ɖ/, /ʂ/, and /ɭ/ are not truly retroflex, but apical, produced at the very rear part of the alveolar ridge.
Maldivian has the prenasalized stops /ᵐb/, /ⁿd/, /ᶯɖ/, and /ᵑɡ/. These segments occur only intervocalically: /haⁿdu/ ('moon') /haᶯɖuː/ ('uncooked rice') and /aᵑɡa/ ('mouth'). Maldivian and Sinhalese are the only Indo-Aryan languages that have prenasalized stops.
The influence of other languages has played a great role in Maldivian phonology. For example, the phoneme /z/ comes entirely from foreign influence: /ɡaːziː/ ('judge') is from Persian, /maːziː/ ('past') is from Urdu.
The phoneme /p/ also occurs only in borrowed words in Modern Standard Maldivian: /ripoːtu/ ('report'). At one point, Maldivian did not have the phoneme /f/, and /p/ occurred in the language without contrastive aspiration. Some time in the 17th century, word initial and intervocalic /p/ changed to /f/. Historical documents from the 11th century, for example, show 'five' rendered as /pas/ whereas today it is pronounced /fas/.
In standard Maldivian when the phoneme /s/ occurs in the final position of a word it changes to [h] intervocalically when inflected. For example, /bas/ ('word' or 'language') becomes /bahek/ ('a word' or 'a language') and /mas/ ('fish') becomes /mahek/ ('a fish'). /s/ and /h/ still contrastive, though: initially /hiᵑɡaː/ ('operating') and /siᵑɡaː/ ('lion') and intervocalically /aharu/ ('year') and /asaru/ ('effect').
/r/, a voiceless alveolar flap or trill, is peculiar to Maldivian among the Indo-Aryan languages. But some people pronounce it as [ʂ] a retroflex grooved fricative.
Modern Standard Maldivian has borrowed many phonemes from Arabic. These phonemes are used exclusively in loan words from Arabic, for example, the phoneme /x/ in words such as /xaːdim/ ('male servant'). The following table shows the phonemes that have been borrowed from Arabic/Persian together with their transliteration into Tāna.
|Tāna||Arabic / Persian||SAMT||IPA|
Native Maldivian words do not allow initial consonant clusters; the syllable structure is (C)V(C) (i.e. one vowel with the option of a consonant in the onset and/or coda). This affects the introduction of loanwords, such as /is.kuːl/ from English school.