given that: Hawaiian (H) Maori (M) Samoan (S) Tongan (T) /l/ in H S T = /r/ in M /t/ in M S T = /k/ in H

why do we find words with /l/ /r/ /n/ alternations instead of the common attested /l/ /r/ alternation, such as: H lima M rima S lima T nima - why /n/ instead of /l/?

a similar case can be found in the alternation between /t/ /k/ /s/ instead of common attestes /t/ /k/ alternation, such as: H kila M tira S tila T sila - why /s/ instead of /t/?


Tongan /s/ seems to be the regular reflex of *t before /i/. Wikipedia says

Tongan has retained the original proto-Polynesian *h, but has merged it with the original *s as /h/. (The /s/ found in modern Tongan derives from *t before high front vowels).

That article also says that as a general rule, Tongan retained a Proto-Polynesian phoneme reconstructed as *l but lost a different Proto-Polynesian phoneme reconstructed as *r. In fact, Tongan /l/ vs. ∅ is apparently the main criterion for reconstructing PP *l vs. *r, as they have merged reflexes in other Polynesian languages. So Tongan nima seems to be a real outlier, which is in agreement with the note on the Wiktionary page Reconstruction:Proto-Polynesian/rima:

If it were *rima, Tongan would be expected to have *ima, and if it were *lima, Tongan would be expected also to have *lima. No other Polynesian language fully distinguishes /ɾ/ and /l/. [The reconstruction *rima] assumes that nima evolved out of *ima, which may have been modified to avoid confusion with a common homophone.

Alternation between /n/ and /l/ or /n/ and /r/ (either sporadic, or as part of regular sound changes) is not that uncommon. There was a previous question about /n/~/l/ alternation in Asian languages.

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