Uncountable Things You Didn’t Know You Didn’t Know—Madalena Cruz-Ferreira SpecGram Vol CLXXIV, No 1 Contents Notice of Services Offered—Advertisement

Introducing Sadian
Context, phoneme inventory and promissory notes

April Füller
Department of Linguistics, University of Moose Jaw*

1. Introduction

This paper is intended as the first of a series on the Sadian language. Desdashpvk <Десдашпвк> [d̠ə.ˈsad.ʃpvk] (the endonym for the language) is spoken by a community of about 350 people in three valleys of the central Caucasus.1 It is apparently a linguistic isolate, although Spume (2012) proposes a link to the Mongolic family. All speakers of Sadian speak at least two other languages; Georgian is the most popular second language for Sadophones, and is viewed as “easy to learn.”

1.1. Typological characteristics

Sadian has achieved a certain amount2 of notoriety among linguists for its extremely rich consonant and vowel inventory, complex interactions of lexical tone and stress, highly synthetic morphosyntax, OSV word order, unparalleled use of suppletion, and intricate lexico-semantic word choice paradigms: in fact, it has proven something of an embarrassment,3 as it is an apparent exception to the assumption that no language is intrinsically “more difficult” than another (Hamhand 2001). The speakers of Sadian are aware of this, and our consultant, Ms. Slkhtvchyes, has remarked that her compatriots take great pride in being the speakers of a language that almost no one else can learn. (She explained the universality of multilingualism among Sadian speakers by observing, “If you can learn Sadian, you can learn anything.”)

1.2. Status of the language

Despite the small number of speakers of Sadian, it cannot be characterized as endangered, as it is being acquired by almost all children of current speakers. This situation may be due to the fact that, as Mittenloop (1985) points out in Hunting the Mountain Octopus, his brilliant anthropological study of Sadian culture, virtually all Sadian speakers are members of the Brethren of Righteousness, an extremely dour sect of Calvinism, whose adherents feel that learning this excruciatingly complex language is a form of suffering that purifies the soul.4 Nevertheless, efforts by outsiders to learn Sadian tend to meet with reactions from native speakers ranging from scorn to incredulity. Foreign accents, in particular, receive hearty ridicule, an attitude that is particularly puzzling when compared with the commonly met opinion among Sadians that “there is no correct way to pronounce Sadian.”5

2. Phoneme inventory

Sadian’s large and complex inventory of phonemes has attracted the attention of numerous researchers.6

2.1. Consonants

Sadian has an inventory of 104 consonant phonemes (Table 1).

of Sadian
Plo­sives Vl. asp.t̪ʰ
Vd. asp.d̪ʱ
Vl. unasp.p
Vd. unasp.b
Vl. eject.p’t̪’ṯ’
Vd. eject.b’
Af­fri­cates Vl. asp.pɸʰpfʰtθʰ
Vd. asp.dðʱdʒʱ
Vl. unasp.pf
Vd. unasp.b̼v̼bvḏz
Vl. eject.pf’tʃ’
Vd. eject.bv’dz’
Fric­a­tives Vl.ɸfθsʃ
Vl. eject.ɸ’f’θ’
Na­sals Vl.n̪̊
Vl. eject.m’
Liq­uids Vl.ɬ
Ap­prox­imants Vl.ʍ
In­gres­sives ɓɗ
Co-ar­tic­u­lated k͡p
Table 1, part 1

of Sadian
Plo­sives Vl. asp.ʈʰʔʰ
Vd. asp.ɖʱɢʱ
Vl. unasp.ʈckʔ
Vd. unasp.ɖɟg
Vl. eject.c’k’
Vd. eject.ɖ’ɟ’g’
Af­fri­cates Vl. asp.cɕʰkxʰ
Vd. asp.ɖʐʱ
Vl. unasp.ʈʂʰkx
Vd. unasp.
Vl. eject.kx’qχ’
Vd. eject. 
Fric­a­tives Vl.ʂɕxħh
Vl. eject.x’
Na­sals Vl.ŋ̊
Vl. eject.ŋ’
Liq­uids Vl. 
Ap­prox­imants Vl. ɰ
In­gres­sives ʛ
Co-ar­tic­u­lated k͡c
Table 1, part 2

The aspirated plosives and affricates are generally pronounced with strong aspiration; in fact, Sadian children with loose teeth are traditionally told to repeat tongue-twisters replete with aspiration, to encourage the teeth to come out. The ejectives, on the other hand, are often articulated so lightly in initial or medial position as to resemble geminates; this may be confusing, as geminated consonants do exist in this language. Minimal pairs that often cause confusion include the following:

    1. /kœp’ʌ/ ‘why not’
    2. /kœppʌ/ ‘never’
    1. /kxɪmʼxʍuːn̥ŋ/ ‘she (over there) wants to be able to dance’
    2. /kxɪmmxʍuːn̥ŋ/ ‘half a butter knife’
    1. /ʔɑʔhætʼi/ ‘dinner theatre’
    2. /ʔɑʔhæti/ ‘ulcer on a puppy’
    3. /ʔɑʔhætti/ ‘trucker’s tan’

The dental, alveolar and retroflex stops are all laminally pronounced. In the case of the dental stops, this may be one reason many older Sadians have sharply protruding front teeth; however, it is difficult to separate cause from effect. The voiceless nasals, especially //, are pronounced with little or no pre-aspiration, and are often entirely inaudible without the aid of powerful amplifiers. (For this reason, we urge the serious student of Sadian to invest in high-quality stereo equipment before commencing field work. It is true that it is a non-trivial expense for many researchers; however, as the Sadian words for ‘morning’ and ‘afternoon’ consist solely of voiceless nasals, failing to equip properly may well result in missing all your appointments.)

Other allophony in Sadian depends largely upon phonetic space, and gaps in the phoneme inventory tend to be competently filledyea, packedwith allophones of nearby phonemes jostling for room. Thus the sound [], while non-existent as a Sadian phoneme, is one of the allophones of //, as well as of /t̪ʼ/, /d/, /t/ and //.

2.2 Vowels and other nuclei

Table 2 illustrates the segments that can act as syllabic nuclei.

Nucleus inventory of Sadian
Mon­oph­thongs i y ...
ɪ ʏ
e ø
ɛ œ
Diph­thongs ej ɛjœʉuj
eu ɑu
Triph­thongs ɛəu
Syl­lab­ic Con­so­nants ʂ
β v z ʐ
Table 2, part 1

Mon­oph­thongs ʉ u
ə o
ʌ ɔ
Diph­thongs ojɔjɑj
Triph­thongs yɑo
Syl­lab­ic Con­so­nants ʃ x χʷ
ʒ ɣ
Table 2, part 2

Sadian is remarkable for its large number of syllabic consonants. It has been postulated (by Turnpiker, 1997) that these segments arose historically from syncope of post-fricative schwa before a series of now-vanished voiced post-glottals.7 Asked for her opinion on the origin of the syllabic consonants, Ms. Slkhtvchyes replied “[ɡɣːd̪dzʼvm]” (‘it happened just because’).

There are seventeen Sadian monophthongs. Most of these exhibit a three-way length distinction (V/Vˑ/Vː). Swelton (1993) opines that this feature is a borrowing from Estonian, explaining the geographical distance involved by positing a borrowing date subsequent to the invention of television.8 This length distinction is, however, not present for the high tense vowels, which show a two-way distinction (V/Vˑ), with the exception of /y/, which shares with /ə/ the lack of any length distinction whatsoever.

The Sadian diphthongs are all falling, so much so that the second element is often auditorily imperceptible, so that they can sometimes be mistaken for monophthongs. This has given rise to tonogenesis; younger speakers especially tend to pronounce the diphthongs as monophthongs with a salient low tone. Those who might express a hope for this tendency to be exceptionless are obviously even more Pollyannish than Swelton. Indeed, the diphthong /œʉ/, when monophthongized, is generally realized as [a] with a salient high-falling tone, while /oj/ is realized as [oj], to be sure, but with a salient high-rising tone.9

The two triphthongs in the inventory are, according to Turnpiker (1997), modern reflexes of historical diphthongs that underwent a regular breaking process in word-final environments. This analysis is plausible but boring. For another view we can turn once again to Swelton (1993), who assumes a massive wave of Anglophone Australian immigrants in the late nineteenth century. The present researcher prefers the more conservative approach of ridiculing both Turnpiker and Swelton without suggesting any alternatives.10

Sadian vowels have no nasality distinction either phonemically or as a result of assimilatory processes.11 Returning reluctantly to the syllabic non-vowels, we find that they are all fricatives.12 An interesting feature of these phonemes is that there is partial but not total overlap with the purely consonantal fricatives. The syllabics /β z ʐ χʷ/ do not appear in the consonant inventory; furthermore, /χʷ/ is the only labialized fricative in the language.13 They are generally pronounced with a high-rising tone; this tone, however, is in younger speakers apparently subject to complex interactions with the diphthong tones. At least one of these interactions, by which the high-rising tone on the syllabics becomes a mid-rising tone when it adjoins the high-falling tone of the monophthongized /œʉ/, is characterized by many older Sadophones as “Satan’s pronunciation” <нноюст ннам> [n̪̊œs̠t n̪̊ʔʰɑm]. The other interactions are still imperfectly understood.

3. Future research

I intend to publish an overview of Sadian phonotactics as soon as my hard drive comes back from the recovery shop.14


Dillworm, O. (2011). Quantitative measures of linguistic interest. Proceedings of the 2011-09-07 Conference on Gratuitous Numeration, 1(2): 231(f.viii)-278(d.iii).
Füller, A. (in review, International Journal of Arcane Languages). Why Swelton is wrong about everything: An objective overview with some additional notes on Turnpiker 1997.
Hamhand, R. (2001). Why bother: attempts at second-language acquisition of Sadian. International Journal of Arcane Languages, 18(4), 91-118.
Mittenloop, L.V. (1985). Hunting the mountain octopus: The Sadian culture of the Caucasus. Brussels: Escalope de Mouton.
Rumour (2008). Jürgen Booti’s surprising change of career. Unconfirmed.
Spume, B. (2012). The Sadian-Kalmyk connection: Sadian nuclear consonant patterning as vowel harmony. MS., University of Southern North Dakota.
Swelton, D. (1993). Suppositions, speculations and musings on Sadian phonology. Linguistic Inquiry (rejected).
Swelton, D. (forthcoming). Consonantal diphthongs in Sadian. Journal of Polyphthongology, 2(1), 1-44.
Widdershins, A. A. (2004). Narrow transcriptions: an optimality-theoretic account of the realizations of a single Sadian phoneme. Unpublished Ph.D. dissertation, University of Southern North Dakota.

* It is with not unmixed gratitude that I acknowledge the contributions of my Sadian language consultant, Ms. Marina Slkhtvchyes; her belief that my devotion to the study of Sadian is God’s way of punishing me has restrained me from becoming overly buoyant. I must acknowledge the support of the Sadian Culture Centre, Trstryaochghk, Russia, for instructing the populace to exempt me from the usual reception afforded to non-Sadians (stoning). The Fund for Indefinite Studies promised support for this project; it was, however, held up in committee. Ultimately, the research was supported by a grant from my parents. My thanks are also due to my husband, Tohtel Füller, for keeping our children’s schmaltz-coated hands off the proofs.

1 Note that the official spelling for the name of the language has a non-straightforwardindeed, rather shiftyrelationship to its pronunciation.

2 6.7 kg, according to Dillworm (2011).

3 Jürgen Booti resigned his endowed chair in Comparative Philology at Freiburg shortly after being asked to review Hamhand’s (2001) paper on second-language acquisition of Sadian. Rumour (2008) has it that he is now employed in industrial plastic sales.

4 Obtaining copies of this important work is problematical today, as following a decree by the Elders of the Brethren of Righteousness, expatriate Sadians worldwide bought up copies in order to burn them. Ms. Slkhtvchyes has explained that Mittenloop’s offence lay in referring to Sadian as a “language” rather than an “ordeal”.

5 The Rev. Zhyireoum Dzhktsseou Qhyes, a minister of the Brethren, explained this situation as akin to that of original sin. Speakers are foreordained to err in pronouncing Sadian, and to be punished for their errors. When presented with the linguistic commonplace that all native speakers are competent in their own language, his response was to reach for his ritual bundle of birch twigs.

6 Apparently most of them have been stoned to death before being able to publish their results; see acknowledgements.*

7 The present researcher is sceptical of this claim, as I have calculated that these voiced post-glottals, if they existed, would have stressed the respiratory tract in a manner roughly equivalent to two cigarettes per utterance.

8 Certain other assumptions in Swelton’s paper imply a belief in the Tooth Fairy as well.

9 Widdershins (2004) devoted her Ph.D. dissertation to an attempt to explain this phenomenon. Judging by her recent e-mails (Widdershins, pc, 2005-6) her struggle for sanity has now become a desperate rearguard defence.

10 See Füller (in review) for a more complete presentation of this idea.

11 As Ms. Slkhtvchyes explains, [bvˈɑʍ ɦβt̠ɔˑ thyː ɣəɟˈɛʔɛ øˑtto ], ‘We keep our noses out of our speech and so should you.’

12 Researchers who wish to try to articulate a syllabic plosive will not meet with any opposition from this quarter. Indeed, the suffocation likely to ensue will reduce the current intense competition for grant money.

13 Ms. Slkhtvchyes characterized this sound as [ɓyɑok͜p], ‘punishment.’

14 So back off, Swelton.

Uncountable Things You Didn’t Know You Didn’t KnowMadalena Cruz-Ferreira
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SpecGram Vol CLXXIV, No 1 Contents