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In my research online, I have found a truism that CV is the most basic syllable type cross-linguistically, and is in fact present in all languages. Other syllable types are not present in all languages. This raises the question: is there any language that uses only CV syllables?

I thought I had found my answer from the World Atlas of Language Structures, which states:

In a relatively small number of languages this [CV] is the only type of syllable permitted. Such languages include Hawaiian and Mba (Adamawa-Ubangian, Niger-Congo; Democratic Republic of Congo).

However, Wikipedia's article on Hawaiian phonology contradicts the claim that Hawaiian is strictly CV. It describes Hawaiian syllables as (C)V(V), and provides the following example: "/alo/ ('front') contrasts with /ʔalo/ ('to dodge')." It's clear that the first syllable of /alo/ is V, not CV.

Finding online information about Mba was harder, but here's a word list. It's possible that the transcription is incorrect or ignores glottal stops, but it certainly looks like plenty of words have V or CVV syllables: for example nuÍbebea, bia, and even u.

In another language, Mamara/Minyanka, most of the words starting with 'a' seem to be borrowings from European languages, but a couple seem to be native words beginning with V syllables: aa, ahayi.

So: are there actually any languages in which all syllables are CV, without any V, CVV, or other types?

Note: I'm particularly interested in languages that don't have diphthongs, as those could be considered sequences of two vowels or a vowel and a glide. However, I will also accept languages that are strictly CV where the V can include diphthongs.

  • Every reputed example that I haave heard of turns out to have been not an example. – user6726 Feb 20 '18 at 0:36
  • I realize there's a typology here 'For any given language, what are the allowable syllable shapes?'. And you want the simplest kind of syllables. But why on the insistence on exactly CV? Shouldn't (C)V be OK for simplicity? Or palatalized/velarized consonants (ie C[j/w]V)? Or diphthongs? Is there an application you have in mind or is this curiosity in labeling/systematizing? By the way, if Hawaiian doesn't work, maybe another Polynesian will. – Mitch Feb 20 '18 at 21:06
  • @Mitch Sure. It was partly because sources were identifying CV in particular as the most basic syllable type, and partly because I created a conlang where all the syllables were CV and then wondered how realistic that was. – DLosc Feb 21 '18 at 3:32
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    @DLosc Oh. If you're making up a conlang, then uniformity is what is implausible. So make your lang mostly CV and add in plausible little exceptions like those mentioned, some word initial V syllables. maybe even some V syllables that follow each other with or without glottal stops or glides between. – Mitch Feb 21 '18 at 4:00
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Good question! I wasn't able to find any unambiguous examples either with a short search, and I found one source that says there are no known examples of languages with only CV syllables.

Understanding Phonology (Fourth Edition), by Carlos Gussenhoven and Haike Jacobs, says:

The onset may be obligatory. Languages with obligatory onsets are not hard to find, like Arabic, Dyirbal, and Klamath, but languages that allow only CV, i.e. an obligatory onset followed by a monomoraic vowel, must be rare, to the extent that we have no example. Analytical issues may arise from phonetic onsets in onsetless syllables. Many languages, like German, regularly have a glottal stop in these contexts, as in [ˈafə], pronounced [ʔafə], 'monkey', while in Mba and Ndunga word-initial high vowels appear to be variably preceded by [ʔ], [ɦ] or a homorganic semivowel (Pasch 1986: 32, 91). Henan Mandarin has a homorganic semivowel preceding a non-low onsetless vowel, as in [i214], pronounced [ji], 'one, numeral'; [y41], pronounced [ɥy], 'fish'; [u341], pronounced [wu], 'house', [ɤ341], pronounced [ɰɤ], 'hungry'; and a glottal stop before low vowels, as in [æɛ341], [pronounced [ʔæɛ], 'love' (personal field notes, CG, 2014). Phonemic glottal stops are easily distinguished in languages like Hawaiian, where they contrast with empty onsets, as in [aa] 'jaw' and [ʔaa] 'fiery' (Elbert and Pukui 1979), or Arabic[*see my note below], which has the same contrast in the coda of the syllable and has the glottal stop in the onset within words, as in [lawʔa] 'sorrow' (Thelwall and Sa'adeddin 1990). German has none of these three properties.

(p. 38)

I think it will be hard to find clear answers to this question because for theoretical reasons, in ambiguous situations a CV analysis is often favored over an onsetless V analysis. (In fact, there is even a theoretical tradition of abstractly analyzing languages that appear to unambiguously have non-CV syllables as actually only having CV syllables with empty positions: "Strict CV phonology". So from a certain theoretical perspective, the answer to your question could actually be "all of them"!) This can sometimes lead to confusion when sources don't mention the theoretical basis of analyzing a certain language as having obligatory onsets. (User6726 brought up another theoretical point that can be tricky that I had forgetten about, the analysis of C + glide sequences (or C + coarticulated glide) as phonemes vs. consonant clusters.)

For example (this wouldn't even be a CV-only language anyway, as it allows coda consonants, but just to illustrate the point) Mandarin Chinese can be said to have obligatory onsets, from a certain point of view. But in fact, in Mandarin this is accomplished by analyzing what could be thought of as vowel-initial syllables as starting with a "zero onset" that has a variable realization, and can be [ʔ], [ŋ] or [ɣ]. This is mentioned in Syllable Structure: The Limits of Variation, by San Duanmu, 2008 (p. 73). In fact, Duanmu expresses doubt about this analysis and ends up saying "In summary, the zero onset effect in utterance-initial position is probably unintended, and in medial positions there is no evidence for the zero onset or for resyllabification across a word boundary" (p. 76).

I would imagine that in many languages that are said to have "obligatory" onsets, some of the onsets might be consonants that could be seen as epenthetic in at least some contexts, such as glottal stops or glides that are homorganic to the following or the preceding vowel.

Even the examples given by Gussenhoven and Jacobs of languages with obligatory onsets are not all entirely straightforward. Arabic has glottal stop onsets that can be analyzed as epenthetic at least some of the time (see the note below), as well as /ji/ and /wu/. Dyirbal has /ji/ and /wu/, and according to "Revisiting Phonological Generalizations in Australian Languages", by Emily Gasser and Claire Bowern, it is possible that "some writers of grammars [of Australian languages] may have analyzed /u-/ or /i-/ initial words as exhibiting an on-glide, because of the expectation that Australian languages tend to disprefer vowel-initial words. We have no way of investigating this problem with the current data" (p. 7). (I haven't been able to find any relevant further information about the phonology/phonotactics of Klamath.)

These complications certainly don't mean that it is invalid to describe these languages as having obligatory onsets, but they raise some questions about how simple it is to divide languages into two neat classes of "allow onsetless syllables" and "don't allow onsetless syllables" since languages that are often described as having V-initial syllables like English or German may also show similar kinds of epenthetic consonants in the onset of "vowel-initial" syllables in at least some contexts.

* my note: even in (Modern Standard**) Arabic, the situation is complicated in that words that are pronounced in isolation with an initial glottal stop don't all behave the same way in connected speech. There is a phonological distinction between words that start with 'weak' or 'elidable' glottal stop and 'strong' glottal stop.

** I don't know anything about the phonology of glottal stops in the various regional varieties of Arabic.


Some related questions:

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    I fail to see what Arabic has to do with this question. All forms of Arabic have frequent CVC and CVCC syllables. – fdb Feb 20 '18 at 14:31
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    @fdb: Arabic is mentioned in the quotation by Gussenhoven and Jacobs. It is relevant because for languages that only allow CV syllables to exist, languages that require onsets would have to exist. Arabic is supposed to be an example of such a language, but the fact that the situation is somewhat complicated suggests that, for at least some languages that are said to require onsets, that statement may mean something different from what somebody unfamilar with the language might expect. (I don't think CVCC syllables are very frequent in Arabic: AFAIK, they only occur word-finally in MSA.) – brass tacks Feb 20 '18 at 22:18
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Cayuvava, Hua (Yagaria), Hawaiian and Senufo are the languages most widely misbelieved in the literature to have only CV syllables. Key 1961 "Phonotactics of Cayuvava" (IJAL) clearly shows CVV and V syllables, so scratch that. Hua has ʔ and n as coda (I don't have access to the full grammar, but that is enough to answer the basic question). Hawaiian is dealt with in the OP. Senoufo is really a language family (Minyanka is an example), and individual languages differ somewhat. Senadi has V, CVV, NCV, CGV syllables, as do Supyire and Suchite. A common way of disposing of postconsonantal glides it to posit that the onsets have palatalization or rounding, and NC is often disposed of by calling the onset a "prenasalized consonant".

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