Geoff Pullum gave us a really neat lesson on Finnish short vowels a few months ago, pointing out things that nobody but native speakers have ever known — that Finns produce a subtle duration of short /Ih/ vowels that the rest of us don’t even hear. But hey, The Finnish vowel duration distinction doesn’t come close to what’s going on in a remote part of Tanzania.
A really, really short /Ih/ has been discovered by phonetic scientists who study vowel duration. Phoneticians in East Africa recently have stumbled upon the shortest vowel ever known to humankind. They discovered that the duration of the /Ih/ vowel, already known for its very short length in languages like English (to say nothing about it’s tremendous importance in Finnish), is produced in .11 hundredths of a second by a small band of speakers of Kwatnaksa, who live on an otherwise unoccupied island in the Indian Ocean. Well, at least linguists thought the name of that language was Kwatnaksa, but never before had they noticed the very short /Ih/ squeezed between the /t/ and the /n/, and also obtruding effortlessly but noiselessly into other hitherto believed consonant clusters. They were shocked, therefore, when a 98 year-old native, speech slowed by age, clearly produced the vowel /Ih/, with an extremely short duration in all such contexts.
When extensively interviewed, the old man answered with an abundance of very brief /Ih/ sounds in the middle of what the research team had hitherto believed to be consonant clusters. Intensive research quickly followed, revealing that the name of that language is actually Kiwatinakisa, sending National Geographic cartographers into a frenzy. “Once we started listening for that very short /Ih/, we began to hear it everywhere,” said Dr. Brno Von Hurringville III, one of the lead researchers on the team. “In fact, there appear to be no consonant clusters at all in this God-forsaken language.”
Puzzled about what to do about their discovery, the research team promptly requested help from the Tanzanian Overseeing Council on Vowels and Consonants (TOCOVAC), at its headquarters in Arusha. Sadly, the researchers report, they have not yet received a response.
In an apparently misguided effort to preserve the until-now perceived original spelling of Kwatnaksa, a UN disaster relief agency has offered immediate aid, promising to send in a supply of speech therapists and to provide dozens of much needed consonant clusters to this bleak Tanzanian island. It remains unclear to most observers whether TOCOVAC will accept this kind humanitarian offer, but some feel that there are strong indications that it is not likely to be received kindly. One clue is that the UN’s offer was addressed to:
Lngg Rsrch Tm