The “Slater Method” of Linguistic Fieldwork—H.D. Onesimus SpecGram Vol CLXIV, No 1 Contents The Collected Wisdom of Linguists, Part Α—The SpecGram Council of Sages

Rotokan Revelations

Franny Irchow
A.R. McHair Institute for Armchair Linguistics, South Carolina

Rotokas is a Papuan language of New Guinea known for its very small and not particularly distinctive phoneme set. The wide variation in pronunciation has led to not-so-specific descriptions, such as declaring the voiced consonants (commonly written as V/v, R/r, and G/g in the Rotokas alphabet) to be “allophonic sets”: [β, b, m], [ɾ, n, l, d], and [ɡ, ɣ, ŋ].

Also of note, while Rotokas has a vowel-length distinction, it has (or is claimed to havewe shall see!) no other suprasegmental distinctions.

Finally, early investigators (Firchow & Firchow, 1969no relation) noted an unusual conditioning environment for nasal allophones.

[In the Central Rotokas dialect] ... nasals are rarely heard except when a native speaker is trying to imitate a foreigner’s attempt to speak Rotokas. In this case the nasals are used in the mimicry whether they were pronounced by the foreign speaker or not.

All of these facts are interesting in and of themselves, but for a while now I have been Sitting and Thinking™ in our offices at the A.R. McHair Institute, waiting for a single unified theory to explain these disparate facts. Finally, it came to me. The key to unlocking the mystery lies in the phrase “nasals are used in the mimicry whether they were pronounced by the foreign speaker or not.”


If one is not particularly forgiving of foreigners’ generally feeble attempts to speak one’s language, what is the defining characteristic of such speech? Simple: foreigners generally do not speak one’s language very well.

If one is not particularly forgiving of those who do not speak a language “properly”, what characteristics are generally attributed to such people? Simple: stupidity, laziness, or ineptitude.

So, why would a speaker of Rotokas use nasals in the mimicry of foreign speakers? For the same reason that a rude Northerner in the U.S. might use exaggeratedly slurred pronunciation and non-standard grammar in an incorrect and absurdist dialect mélange when mimicking a Southerner. (“Ah cain’t unnerstan nuthin’ y’all done been sayin cuz y’all might ought to be speakin’ funneh.”) The reason? Simple: mockery.

My conclusion? Simple: manner of articulation in Rotokas is a suprasegmental feature, with nasality indicating sarcasm or mockery.

Discerning the meaning of fricativization or liquefaction of voiced consonants will have to be left to another scholar, though introspection on this matter suggests that likely candidates include indicating anger, doubt, irrealis, teleology, contempt, sluggishness, or the need for pizza.

Note: Many apologies to my colleagues at A.R. McHair for the excess tardiness of this articleit is two years late! I was unable to conclude my Sitting and Thinking™ in the usual 30-year span allotted for such activities, due to unforeseen circumstances. In particular, ABBA winning the 1974 Eurovision Song Contest, Kīlauea beginning to erupt in 1983, and Sinéad O’Connor ripping up a photo of Pope John Paul II on Saturday Night Live in 1992 all caused significant delays. Again, many apologies.


Firchow, I. & J., 1969. “An abbreviated phonemic inventory”. In Anthropological Linguistics, Vol. 11 No. 9.

The “Slater Method” of Linguistic FieldworkH.D. Onesimus
The Collected Wisdom of Linguists, Part ΑThe SpecGram Council of Sages
SpecGram Vol CLXIV, No 1 Contents