Volume 86 1977 > Volume 86, No. 1 > On the origins of the Sakao vowel system (New Hebrides), by J. B. M. Guy, p 97-104
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  • 1. The Sakao language (also known as Sakau, Hog Harbour, and Port Olry) is spoken by about 1000 people in Espiritu Santo (New Hebrides) in and north of the villages of Kole ([γœlœ]) and Lowerie ([lwrje]) up to Cape Queiros. It had long been recognised as an aberrant language, possibly non-Melanesian 1 until a recent study showed its Melanesian character, albeit obscured by its phonetic evolution and the innovation of holophrastic verbal forms. 2
  • 2. A striking feature of Sakao is its 12-vowel system, to which the Port Olry dialect further adds two diphthongs. The present paper aims at reconstructing the evolution of the five vowels generally postulated for Proto-Oceanic into the 12 of Sakao. For this purpose, Sakao and Tolomako, another language of Espiritu Santo, are compared.
  • 3. Tolomako is spoken along the eastern shore of Big Bay from Tourebiou or Jereviu ([tsureβiu]) to Malao, and by part of the population of Port-Olry, originally from the village of Tolomako, south of Tourebiou, and is the language of which Codrington and Ray have given grammatical sketches, referring to it as Marina 3 or the language spoken in the Bay of SS. Philip and James. 4 It has none of the aberrant features of Sakao, but it stands out from the rest of the West-Santo languages in having dental nasals and stops corresponding to the apico-labial nasals and stops of South-East Santo (Tangoa, Aore, Mafea) and the interlabials of North Malekula (Vao), for which the other languages of West Santo have bilabials, e.g.
  • Tolomako natsi, Mafea asi, Vao naas, Akei matsi “fish”.

The phonemic inventories of Sakao and Tolomako are shown below.

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6. As already stated above, stress in Sakao is not emic, and occurs on the last vowel of words, unless this be ∔, in which case it occurs on the penultimate. Stress in Tolomako, although emic, occurs on the penultimate vowel in the overwhelming majority of words. In the word lists hereafter, To. stands for Tolomako, Sa. for Sakao, and O.S. for Old Sakao, a tentative reconstruction of earlier states in the development of Sakao. Stress is shown by an acute accent in Old Sakao reconstructions, and is marked in Tolomako words only when occurring elsewhere than on the penultimate. Little reliable data being available on the Hog Harbour dialect, examples are drawn from the Port Olry dialect of Sakao. The following evidence for the treatment of Old Sakao tonic vowels is found:

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7. O.S. *á

  • To. na matsa
  • na natana
  • na para
  • na tsara
  • ate
  • vano
  • na lago
  • na natsi
  • To. vati
  • gani
  • na nataku
  • i tanaku
  • Sa. amas club
  • mðan his eyes
  • aβar spider
  • asar yard
  • jað to get killed
  • jan to go
  • alaγ fly
  • εnεs fish
  • Sa. ijεð four
  • γεn to eat
  • mðεγ my eyes
  • ðεnεγ my father

N.B. The initial n of the article has been lost in the Port Olry dialect in most words; it has been generally retained in the Hog Harbour dialect, e.g. nmas “club”, nmðεγ “my eyes”.

8. O.S. *é

  • To. na leta mud
  • na peta
  • nena ripe
  • na rena his head
  • na kere
  • na peke
  • nere
  • na pero
  • na eko
  • geli
  • na pesi
  • na teru
  • na kereku
  • na reku my head
  • Sa. œlð earth
  • œβð taro
  • nn dead (leaves)
  • œrn his crest
  • œγr behind of
  • œβγ owl
  • nr to urinate
  • œβr ears of
  • œjγ cabbage
  • γœl to dig
  • œpœs dog
  • œðœr post
  • œγœrœγ my behind
  • œrœγ my crest

9. O.S. *ó

  • To. na perona
  • na tora
  • na tsigona
  • na one
  • roro
  • rogo
  • goro
  • na goli
  • na gotoli
  • sori
  • koru
  • na moru
  • tolu
  • na peroku
  • Sa. βrn his ears
  • tr island teak
  • s ∔ ŋn his mouth
  • nn sand
  • rr to pelt fruit (game)
  • rγ to hear
  • γr to block
  • œγœl bud of
  • atœl egg of
  • hœr finished
  • γœr dry
  • œmœr oven
  • ðœl three
  • œβrœγ my ears
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10. O.S. *i

  • To. na gotolina
  • matsiga
  • tila
  • kile
  • na tsigo
  • kiri
  • tsitsi
  • na gotoliku
  • Sa. atœlœn her egg
  • mœrœŋ formerly
  • tœl to tread
  • kœl to look for
  • œsœŋ mouth of
  • kyr to scrape
  • sys to flay
  • at∔lyγ my egg

11. O.S. *ô

  • To. na vuluna
  • pula
  • na tsumuna
  • na sule
  • suli
  • suri
  • turi to stand
  • na vuluku
  • ruru
  • na tsumuku
  • uru
  • Sa. ulœn his hair
  • pœl to fish with a light
  • œrœmœn his noise
  • œhœl stone
  • hyl to burn (vt.)
  • hyr because
  • tyr to stand (in line)
  • ulyγ my hair
  • ryr to slough
  • œr∔myγ my noise
  • wyr to laugh

12. Judging from the above evidence, O.S. post-tonic vowels were lost and tonic vowels underwent the following changes:


13. Although the position of the stress in the words listed above is the same for Tolomako and Sakao, further examples point to the existence of other stress patterns in O.S., e.g.

  • To. na talume
  • na natui
  • na susu
  • Sa. εðεnm ghost
  • œnœð coconut
  • εssi breasts

The two pairs To. na toa, Sa. nð “fowl”, and To. na poe, Sa. nβ “pig” suggest the following evolution:

  • (a) assimilation of the vowel of the article to the first vowel of the noun,
  • (b) fusion of article and noun,
  • (c) innovation of a word stress.


  • Sa. nβ < O.S. *nópo(e) < *nopoe < *no poe
  • Sa. nð < O.S. *nóto(a) < *notoa < *no toa
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14. The three pairs To. na gutu, Sa. nøð “louse”, To. na vulu, Sa. nøl “hair of”, and To. na vitiu, Sa. neð “star” suggest:

  • (a) that the vowel of the article assimiliated only partially to high vowels, going to o before u, and to e before i;
  • (b) that fricatives were lost elsewhere than preceding a tonic vowel;
  • (c) that the resulting vowel clusters *óu and *éi went to Sa. ø and e respectively. Thus:
  • Sa. nøð < O.S. *nóγut(u) < *noγutu
  • Sa. nøl < O.S. *nóβul(u) < *noβulu
  • Sa. neð < O.S. *néβit(iu) < *neβitiu

15. The above hypotheses (14a, 14b, and 14c) are corroborated by:

  • To. na tei “water”
  • To. na gia “axe”
  • To. na novu “scorpion”
  • To. na tovu “sugar-cane”
  • Sa. εðe ‘dew’ < O.S. *netéi
  • Sa. ne < O.S. *néγi (a)
  • Sa. œnø < O.S. *nonóβu
  • Sa. œðø < O.S. *notóβu

16. Similarly, after the loss of the atonic fricatives, the clusters *ô + mid or low vowel and *í + mid or low vowel went to Sa. u and i respectively.

  • To. lua “to vomit”
  • Sa. lu < O.S. *lôa
  • To. rua “two”
  • To. vuge “to open the oven”
  • To. na tia “laplap”
  • To. na sigo “kingfisher”
  • To. ligo “to tether”
  • Sa. ru < O.S. *rôa
  • Sa. wu < O.S. *βôγe
  • Sa. εði < O.S. *netía
  • Sa. εhi < O.S. *nesíγo
  • Sa. li < O.S. *líγo

17. Other vowel clusters apparently evolved as shown in §12.

  • To. suvi “to blow”
  • To. tugi “to punch”
  • To. kau “to take”
  • To. mautu “slow”
  • To. na maso “sun”
  • To. na tasi “sea”
  • To. tagi “to cry”
  • Sa. hy < O.S. *sôβi
  • Sa. ty < O.S. *tôγi
  • Sa. Kε < O.S. *káu
  • Sa. mεt < O.S. *máut(u)
  • Sa. œmε < O.S. *namásu
  • Sa. εðε < O.S. *natási
  • Sa. tε < O.S. *táγi

18. Since the treatment of O.S. vowel clusters arising from the loss of fricatives is not different from that of original vowel clusters, O.S. can be assumed to have retained a five-vowel system, at least in tonic position, until well after the loss of the atonic fricatives. The loss of these fricatives is probably tied to a consonant shift

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A more recent stage of Old Sakao would then have shown the same consonants as modern Sakao, but a five-vowel system, reduced however to a binary contrast (high vs non-high, e.g. ∔˜∂) in post-tonic position. Thus:

  • To. na toa Sa. nβ < O.S.1 *nóβ∂ < O.S.2 *nópo(e)
  • To. na poe Sa. Nð < O.S.1 *nóð∂ < O.S.2 *nóto (a)
  • To. na gutu Sa. nøð < O.S.1 *nó∔ð < O.S.2 *nóγut(u)
  • To. na vulu Sa. nøl < O.S.1 *nó∔l < O.S.2 *nóβul(u)
  • To. na vitiu Sa. neð < O.S.1 *né∔ð < O.S.2 *néβit(iu)
  • To. na gia Sa. ne < O.S.1 *né∔ < O.S.2 *néγi(a)
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19. Owing to the fact that the stress in O.S.2 fell most often on the penultimate or the antepenultimate, evidence is short for the treatment of pretonic vowels. A few words, however, show that O.S.2 *o(F)u, *e(F)i, and *a(F)a (where F stands for fricative) went to Sa. u, i, and a respectively.

  • To. na vuluna “his hair”
  • To. na gutuna “his lice”
  • To. na sinaga “yam”
  • To. na gatani “sail”
  • To. na gatatia “moon”
  • To. na gotoli “egg of”
  • Sa. ulœn < O.S.2 *noβulôna
  • Sa. uðœn < O.S.2 *noγutôna
  • Sa. ina < O.S.2 *nesináγa
  • Sa. aðεn < O.S.2 *naγatáni
  • Sa. aðði < O.S.2 *naγatatía
  • Sa. atœl < O.S.2 *naγatóli

20. Comparative evidence seems to support the following hypothesis regarding the emergence of the phonology of Sakao:

  • (a) The vowel of the article goes
  • to a preceding a
  • to e preceding e or i
  • to o preceding o or u
  • (b) Article and noun fuse.
  • (c) Word stress is innovated.
  • (d) A consonant shift causes the loss of the fricatives other than those immediately preceding the stressed vowel.
  • (e) Vowels after the post-tonic vowel are lost.
  • (f) The contrast between post-tonic vowels is reduced to high vs non-high.
  • (g) All post-tonic vowels are lost as the twelve vowels of modern Sakao emerge.
  • N.B. The relative order of occurrence of events (d), (e), and (f) is still in doubt.

21. The relationship between the vowel systems of stage (f) and stage (g) above is shown in the tables hereunder.


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25. The Port Olry and Hog Harbour dialects of Sakao share about 95 percent cognates on a basic 300-word list. 5 They show, however, a divergent evolution in their vowel systems, e.g.

To. mule “to go south”, Port Olry mœl “to go back”, Hog Harbour møl <; *môl∂;

To. matsiga “formerly”, Port Olry mœrœŋ, Hog Harbour mRøŋ < *meRíŋe;

To. na vuluna “his hair”, Port Olry ulœn, Hog Harbour nuløn < *noulôn∂.

The present vowel system of Sakao must therefore be very recent.

  • CAPELL, A., 1962. A Linguistic Survey of the South-Western Pacific. Noumea, South Pacific Commission, Technical Paper no. 136.
  • CODRINGTON, R. H., 1885. The Melanesian Languages. Oxford, Clarendon Press.
  • RAY, S. H., 1926. A Comparative Study of the Melanesian Islands Language. Cambridge & Melbourne University Press.
  • TRYON, D. T., 1972. The Languages of the New Hebrides, a Checklist and General Survey. Canberra, Pacific Linguistics, series A, no. 35.

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1   Ray 1926; Capell 1962.
2   Guy 1974.
3   Codrington 1885:441-9.
4   Ray 1926:401-16.
5   Tryon 1972:82-4.