Palatalized consonants usually seem to exist as part of a larger system: if, for example, a language has a contrast between [k] and [kj] then it will probably also contrast [p] and [pj], [t] and [tj], and likewise for all other widely-occurring consonants in its inventory.

Are there any known cases in which a language only has a palatal/non-palatal contrast for one (or some other limited number) of the consonants in its inventory? For example, a language with [k] and [kj] but only non-palatal [p] and [t]?


  • The closest case that I know of may be dialectal Arabic: e.g. Sudanese apparently has voiced palatal stops [ɟ] coexisting non-allophonically with voiced velar stops [g], but does not have palatal [t], [b], etc. On the other hand, palatal stops are not strictly the same thing as palatalized velar stops.
    – user8017
    Mar 12 '17 at 14:52
  • According to some descriptions (though not all that I've seen), the Kwak'wala language of British Columbia has palatalized velars, but only non-palatal alveolars and labials. The same descriptions claim that Kwak'wala lacks non-palatalized velars: instead, the contrast is between palatalized velars, labiovelars and uvulars (where each of these categories includes voiced/voiceless/ejective stops, and a voiceless fricative).
    – user8017
    Mar 28 '17 at 10:20

First, you should keep palatal and palatalized separate. Norwegian has a palatalized fricative [ç] but doesn't have palatalized consonants, likewise Sanskrit, likewise, Hungarian and North Saami have palatals [c͡ç ɟ͡ʝ] or simply [c ɟ] but not palatalization (on labials, alveolars) – more on Saami belo. On the other hand, Russian hand Irish have a robust contrast between plain and palatalized consonants across places of articulation. It can be hard to tell if a sound is best represented as primitive palatal [c ɟ] vs. a palatalized velar [kʲ gʲ], and any proposal for a language as having only palatalization of velars (or palatalization of alveolars, though not both) can be suspected of maybe actually having palatal as an active place of articulation.

The second problem is that palatalization (and labialization) are often analytically interchangeable with consonant plus glide analysis. Hence Mandarin might have palatalized labials and linguals, or it might have C+glide onsets. The evidence for one analysis vs. the other typically involves a theoretical decision about the advisability of adding more phonemes vs. allowing more (any) consonant cluster.

If you are looking for languages with palatal as a place of articulation (but excluding the glide [j] which is real common), there are some: much of Nilotic, Akan, Basque, many Uralic languages. Languages with palatalization at a single place or articulation would probably have to be labial, to persuasively exclude a "palatal as primary place" analysis. UPSID reports the results of an old project on accumulating segment inventories, from which you can find languages said to have just palatalized labials. It reports Angas as having only palatalized labials: but, that is a matter of analysis. UPSID reports an analysis from a paper by Burquest with palatalized labials – which he treats as C+glide clusters in his dissertation. A good reason to go with the glide analysis is that palatalized (and labialized) consonants cannot appear syllable finally. I would say there is not any clear example attested of just a single place of articulation being palatalized.

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