The phonology of Kusunda is, from a global perspective, segmentally uncomplicated and prosodically rich. From the perspective of the languages of northern South Asia and the Himalayas, Kusunda displays a number of unusual traits, none of which is unique, but the combination of which is unique.
Plosives contrasting only for voiceless and voiced manners is a modal property of languages, but is highly unusual for South Asia, and is attested in the Himalayas only in the far west and far east (see here, or here). The presence of a uvular stop contrasting with a velar stop is not unknown, but is again unusual in this part of the world. The use of a vowel-harmony system, such that three vowels are used in sets (i-ə-u or e-a-o) is not unlikely, except in a Eurasian context.
Similarly, the use of a suprasegmental system is not unusual for languages of the Himalayas; but one that does not include pitch specification (i.e., a tone system) is exceptional. The use of pharyngealisation is rare, and while nasalisation is less uncommon, and indeed to be expected in this part of South Asia, all evidence points to it being a recently acquired feature of Kusunda.
The segmental and prosodic system of Kusunda is described in the following tables.
|high||i, e||o, u|
|breathiness||Described earlier as a separate series of breathy consonants ('bh, dh' etc.), but attested on syllables with no consonants as well.|
|pharyngealisation||Described in Watters as a secondary effect from the voiced uvular consonants, with notes that 'ʕ is the most common phonetic realization of ɢ'; indeed, this phoneme 'never surfaces as an actual stop'. Watters notes that 'the sound is phonetically closer to (a voiced pharyngeal fricative) than anything else'|
|nasalisation||Watters (2006: 30) describes nasalisation as 'a new phenomenon in Kusunda, occurring either in Nepali loan words or in native words as compensation for a following lost velar or uvular nasal consonant'|
The different prosodies can co-occur on the same syllable, resulting in, for instance, pharyngealised-nasalised vowels, or breathy-nasalised vowels. All possible combinations are found.
Watters (2006) writes:
Phonologically, Kusunda possesses sounds that do not exist in other languages of the region – namely, uvular and pharyngealized consonants. Conversely, there are sounds found throughout the region, like retroflex consonants, that do not occur in Kusunda. Furthermore, the point of articulation in Kusunda is more-or-less immaterial, it is the active articulator that counts as contrastive.
The uvular consonants are accompanied by the concomitant features of pharyngeal stricture and lower fundamental frequencies on preceding vowels. Such features, in fact, are often the primary auditory cues to their presence.
The voicing contrast in Kusunda is neutralized in many consonants, having a lesser functional load than in surrounding languages.
Vowels in Kusunda occur partially in harmonic sets, an upper set comprising three vowels and a lower set comprising three vowels. There is considerable free variation between the two sets, and only in a few words can opposing vowels in upper and lower sets be shown to be contrastive. This suggests that Kusunda may have at one time had a simple, three vowel system – i, a, o.
Consonant sounds in Kusunda occur at many points of articulation – bilabial, dental, alveolar, palatal, retroflex, velar, uvular, pharyngeal, and glottal. Most of the points, however, are non-contrastive, and there can sometimes be considerable variation even in single words. What is more material for Kusunda, then, is to describe consonant sounds in terms of their active articulator – labial, apical, laminal, velar, and uvular/pharyngeal. An apical consonant, for example, can be dental, alveolar, or retroflex.
One of the most striking and unusual aspects of Kusunda grammar is the means by which “marked” structures are distinguished from “unmarked” ones. The “mark” is not an affix, as typical of the region or indeed of the languages of the world, but rather, a harmonic autosegmental process (which we will refer to as “mutation”) that spreads “retraction” across the entire word. Apical consonants become laminal, velar consonants become uvular, and vowels from the upper set shift to the lower set. The process appears to be very old, and occurs today only in a very small subset of high frequency verbs.
Vestiges of this striking morphophonological process are still apparent in several categories and may represent the morphologization of a single process in different contexts – all ‘marked’ categories. Thus, the marked modality is irrealis (while the unmarked category is realis); the marked polarity is negative; the marked transitivity is causative; and the marked dependency is dependent. All of these systems utilize mutation as a mark (at least to a partial extent).