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  • A Phonological Oddity in the Austronesian Area:Ejectives in Waimoa1
  • John Hajek and John Bowden

Details are provided about a series of ejective stops in Waimoa, spoken in East Timor. Not uncommon in other parts of the world, ejective stops are exceptionally rare within the whole Austronesian area.

We report here on the existence of voiceless ejective stops in Waimoa (also Waima'a), an Austronesian language spoken in East Timor. This is only the second Austronesian language for which ejectives have ever been reported.

According to the most recent edition of Ethnologue (Grimes 2000), Waimoa is a member of the Nuclear Timor subgrouping within the larger Timor grouping inside Central Malayo-Polynesian.2 The language is most closely related to Kairui-Midiki and Habu, and has approximately 3,000 speakers living in a small number of villages on the Baucau plateau on the northeastern coast of East Timor. Neighboring languages are Galoli (Austronesian) to the west, Kairui-Midiki to the south, and Makasae (non-Austronesian) concentrated in and around the city of Baucau immediately to the east. Tetun Dili is widely used as a lingua franca in interethnic communication in this whole area—particularly with the Makasae. Waimoa speakers report that Waimoa and Kairui-Midiki are mutually intelligible, and may be used as alternatives to Tetun between speakers of these languages.

Field data for this report were collected in the village of Caisido, ten kilometers west of Baucau. Initial analysis of our data indicates that Waimoa has the following contrastive system of stops:


voiceless unaspirated p t k ʔ
voiceless aspirated ph th kh
voiceless ejective p' t' k'
voiced plain b d g

(Near-)minimal sets can be found incorporating all stop types at three places of articulation—including the three ejective stops (p', t', k'). The result is a four-way stop contrast system at velar, coronal, and bilabial place. [End Page 222]


  1. a. kama    'bed'
    kha ma   'eat already'
    k'ama   'scratch'
    gama    'shark'

  2. b. tegi    'kneel'
    theki   'gecko'
    t'eri   'belch'
    degu3   'night'

  3. c. porti    'strong'
    phalta   'lack'
    p'ari    'big'
    baibain 'usually'

The voiceless glottal stop is contrastive in intervocalic position. As it is marginal to discussion here, it will not be considered further.

Ejectives in Waimoa are articulated clearly and in a manner that is consistent with the phonetic description provided by Ladefoged and Maddieson (1996) and Laver (1994), among others. While there is complete closure of the oral cavity, there is simultaneous closure and raising of the larynx. The latter results in compression in the oral cavity. Oral closure is then released, triggering a stop burst that is markedly louder and stronger than that found in other kinds of stops. The acoustic effect is of a loud pop on release.

A number of observations can be made about the distributional characteristics of ejectives in Waimoa. They are of relatively limited frequency, and occur almost always in word-initial position. They never appear before other consonants, unlike voiceless unaspirated stops, for example, krini 'dry' and klohi 'soft'. We have so far recorded only one example of an ejective stop appearing either word-medially or in post-consonantal position: namp'ita 'lightning'. The combination sa k'ie 'intestinal worm' with post-vocalic k' is analyzed as a generic-specific compound, where sa is a generic term referring to insects and k'ie denotes an intestinal worm in particular (cf. sa p'au 'mosquito'). One final phonotactic trait of ejectives, shared also by voiceless aspirates, is that they can appear only once in a word: p'obo 'wet' and k'akan 'sago' in contrast to other stops: bobo 'grandfather' (voc.), and koko 'to try'.

From a typological perspective, voiceless ejective stops and fricatives appear relatively frequently in the world's languages. Maddieson (1984) found them to occur in 18 percent of his large cross-linguistic sample, spread across a wide and diverse area from the Americas, across parts of Africa to the Caucasus, and beyond. What is striking is the marked absence of ejectives from the Austronesian-speaking area. According to most recent estimates (Grimes 2000), there are some 1,262 Austronesian languages...