Documenting and analying phonetic raritiesː The bilabial trills of Ahamb (Vanuatu)

Speaker Tihomir Rangelov
Affiliaton(s) MPI for Evolutionary Anthropology, Leipzig
Workshop Lecture Series "Language: Documentation and Theory (ELAR / ZAS)"
Date 12.11.2021
Time 16:00 o'clock
Venue Hybrid

Language: Documentation and Theory

The Endangered Languages Archive (ELAR) at the Berlin-Brandenburgische Akademie der Wissenschaften (BBAW) together with the Leibniz-Zentrum Allgemeine Sprachwissenschaft (ZAS) are delighted to announce the launch of a new lecture series. Our aim is to give a forum to linguistic work that advances or is based on the documentation of underdescribed languages, thus not only supporting linguistic research but also honoring the UNESCO International Decade of Indigenous Languages (2022-2032). For inquiries, please contact Mandana Seyfeddinipur (ELAR) or Manfred Krifka (ZAS),

Our first talk will be on November 12, 2021, 16:00 Berlin Time.

Tihomir Rangelov, MPI for Evolutionary Anthropology, Leipzig
Documenting and analying phonetic raritiesː The bilabial trills of Ahamb (Vanuatu)

Due to Corona measures, participation in the lecture room of ZAS is restricted (please inform Manfred Krifka if you want to join). Participation is possible via Zoom (Meeting-ID 636 0651 0838, Meeting Link 


I will start this talk with an overview of the Ahamb Language Documentation Project – an ELDP-funded project for the documentation and description of the previously undcoumented Ahamb language, spoken on Malekula Island in Vanuatu (Rangelov 2020). 

One of the most typologically interesting features of Ahamb is the presence of two phonemic bilabial trills, which are cross-linguistically very rare sounds despite their being relatively easy to articulate in isolation. While the prenasalized bilabial trill ᵐʙ is found in a number of other languages of Malekula, Ahamb was the first Austronesian language in which a phonemic plain unvoiced bilabial trill ʙ̥ was documented.

Firstly, I will address the challenges in documenting phonetic features in a remote field setting. In the case of Ahamb’s bilabial trills, it was possible to make recordings using a simple but innovative technique for analyzing nasality (Stewart & Kohlberger 2017) as well as slow motion video recordings, in order to determine more precisely the articulatory properties of Ahamb’s bilabial trills (Rangelov 2019). 

Secondly, I will present a historical analysis of bilabial trills in Ahamb and other Malekula languages, to determine the phonological environments that triggered the development of bilabial trills. The results are partially in line with previous theories of the emergence of bilabial trills (Maddieson 1989; Lynch 2016) but the articulatory properties of ʙ̥ in particular present further challenges.

Thirdly, considering the results of the phonetic and historical analyses, I will try to answer the question why these rare sounds emerged and persisted in exactly these few languages and not in others. I will propose a scenario in which the emergence and persistence of bilabial trills in Ahamb and other Malekula languages was driven by a number of forces which are both language-internal and external, and can be classified as either phonetic, structural, or social (Rangelov et al. 2021).  


  • Lynch, John. 2016. Malakula internal subgrouping: Phonological evidence. Oceanic Linguistics 55. 399-431.
  • Maddieson, Ian. 1989. Aerodynamic constraints on sound change: The case of bilabial trills. UCLA Working Papers in Phonetics 72. 91-115.
  • Rangelov, Tihomir. 2019. The bilabial trills of Ahamb (Vanuatu): Acoustic and articulatory properties. Proceedings of the 19th International Congress of Phonetic Sciences, Melbourne, Australia 2019, ed. by S. Calhoun, P. Escudero, M. Tabain & P. Warren, 1292-96. Canberra: Australasian Speech Science and Technology Association Inc.
  • Rangelov, Tihomir. 2020. Documenting Ahamb, a Small Island Language of Vanuatu. Endangered Languages Archive. Handle:
  • Rangelov, Tihomir, Julie Barbour & Mary Walworth. 2021. Whence the prenasalized and plain bilabial trills of Vanuatu’s Malekula Island? Manuscript in preparation.
  • Stewart, Jesse & Martin Kohlberger. 2017. Earbuds: A method for analyzing nasality in the field. Language Documentation & Conservation 11. 49-80.