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  • Low-Vowel Fronting in Northern Sarawak1
  • Robert Blust

A number of the languages of northern Sarawak have fronted earlier *a under theoretically challenging conditions. In general, *a has been fronted following a voiced obstruent, subject to various qualifications that are noted in individual languages. This type of change bears a superficial resemblance to vowel raising following breathy voiced consonants in many of the Mon-Khmer languages of mainland Southeast Asia. However, caution should be observed in comparing the two situations because: (1) the evidence strongly suggests that although both fronting and raising are involved, raising is an incidental by-product of vowel fronting in the languages of northern Sarawak, (2) breathy voice is a prosody that spreads rightward until interrupted by certain consonants; in words of the form *CaCaC, however, fronting may skip the first low vowel and target the more distant one, (3) none of the languages in question has ever been reported as having breathy consonants. Finally, although all but one of the nine languages used to illustrate this phenomenon are members of a linguistic subgroup, "Berawan-Lower Baram," differences of detail in the conditioning of vowel fronting suggest that the change was not present in their immediate common ancestor, but was acquired independently in some or all of the languages, a conclusion supported by the discovery of similar changes outside northern Sarawak.

1. The Linguistic Situation in Northern Sarawak.

The 15- 20 languages of northern Sarawak form a linguistic subgroup that is noteworthy for at least two reasons. First, the group is typologically transitional between the Philippine-type syntax common to the languages of Sabah and the Malay-type syntax typical of much of western Indonesia. Second, it has been defined primarily by a single sound change that left typologically unusual traces in the phonology of its members, including a set of true phonemic voiced aspirates (not murmured stops) bh, dh, gh in Bario Kelabit, corresponding implosive stops in Bintulu and various Lowland Kenyah dialects, and a synchronic alternation of b and s in Kiput, reflecting *bh (Blust 1974a, 1974b).2 The internal subgrouping of the North Sarawak languages is shown in table 1. [End Page 285]

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Table 1.

Internal Subgrouping of the North Sarawak Languages

The Kelabit-Lun Dayeh group is generally divided into two languages, Lun Dayeh ("People of the interior"), also known as Lun Bawang ("People of the Country"), spoken in several dialect forms in the Fifth Division of Sarawak bordering Brunei and Sabah, and Kelabit, spoken in many dialect variants around the headwaters of the Baram River and further east into Kalimantan (Indonesian Borneo). A third language community, Sa'ban, is lexicostatistically a Kelabit dialect because it shares over 80 percent of its basic vocabulary with Bario Kelabit, but it has undergone such radical changes in its phonology, morphology, and constituent order that it might well be called a distinct language (Blust, to appear).

The Berawan-Lower Baram group divides into Berawan, a collection of four dialects representing perhaps two languages spoken on the Tutoh and Tinjar tributaries of the middle Baram, and seven or eight languages spoken in the lower course of the Baram River of Sarawak, in the lower course of the neighboring Belait river of Brunei, or in coastal settlements such as the town of Miri in northern [End Page 286] Sarawak. Several of the Lower Baram languages reported in Ray (1913), including Lemeting and possibly Dali' now appear to be extinct. The principal evidence for distinguishing the Miri group from the Kiput group is a striking difference in reflexes of PNS *bh, as f in the former group, but s in the latter.

The Kenyah group is a loosely connected complex of dialects that may fall into three or four closely related languages. The primary distinction that I make is into Highland Kenyah dialects, in which Proto-North Sarawak *bh, *dh, *jh, *gh are reflected as voiceless obstruents p, t, c, and k, and Lowland Kenyah dialects in which the corresponding segments are b, d, j, and g, with phonetic implosion at all four points of articulation (j is a palatalized alveolar implosive). There are other Kenyah groups such as...