Ingressive lateral as a challenge of Umbule to the IPA

By | December 24, 2013

1. Ingressives: implosives and ingressive lateral in Umbule

The linguistic feature that strikes the attention of the Umbule language is its set of ingressive sounds. There are only six language using ingressive sounds in all over South Asia. The other languages that use this phonetic feature are the Indo-Aryan Sindhi and Saraiki in India and Pakistan; and Bahing, Sunuwar and Surel, the neighboring Kiranti languages in the Okhaldhunga and the Dolakha districts of Nepal. However, the ingressive lateral consonant in Umbule Rai stands out, because this phonetic feature is not attested in any language of the world and this unique sound cannot be written with the existing IPA symbols.


2. Umbule habitats and population estimates

Following the personal communications with Nabaraj Rai (Umbu VDC-4, Okhaldhunga) and Bajjaraj Rai (Umbu-9, Okhaldhunga) the Umbule Rai language is spoken by the largest number of speakers in Umbu VDC (about 900 families) and Mane Bhanjyang (about 900 families). Other villages in the Okhaldhunga district where the language is spoken are Thakle (700), Waksa (400), Madappur (200), Kettuke (100) and Moli (100). According to the informants, the language is also spoken in Chesmitar (100) and Bahunidhara (50) in the Khotang district of eastern Nepal. On this basis, the rough estimate of the total number of Umbule speakers is about 18,000. According to Hansson (1991), the language is also spoken in Udayapur, Bhojpur, Dhankuta, Terathum and Panchthar districts.


3. Earlier studies and the issue of Umbule or Wambule

Hodgson (1857:333-349) has published a wordlist of Umbule Rai, but he has called the language Chaurasya. Hansson (1991) records other names of the language as Chaurase, Chaurasya, Umbule, Ombule and Ambule. Opgenort (2002) calls the language Wambule, because some of the native speakers of the language are happy with this name, but I think this name comes from the village name Umbu [u͂bu] where the largest numbers of speakers of the language live. The Nepali suffix <le> which is used after the place names also support my hypothesis. Opgenort has identified Jiro or Jerong as a dialect of the language.


4. Phonetic definitions: ingressive, egressive and implosive

Sounds of human languages can be classified with respect to the direction or the air in that the sound that is produced by the outward direction of the air is called egressive while the one which is produced by the inward direction of the air is called ingressive. Umbule Rai uses both the ingressive and egressive directions of the airstream to produce two different types of bilabial and alveolar voiced plosives and alveolar lateral. It means, in addition to the commonly found egressive bilabial and alveolar voiced plosives [b] and [d], Umbule has corresponding ingressive bilabial and alveolar implosives [ɓ], [ɗ]. Similarly, the language has both ingressive and egressive lateral. It means, in addition to the outward [l] Umbule has an inward lateral which is transcribed in this paper as [L] for the lack of any standard IPA transcription.


5. Phonemic and allophonic status of ingressives in Umbule

Both the bilabial and alveolar plosive and implosive are phonemic in Umbule, which means, they are functional to change meaning, but since the ingressive and egressive laterals do not occur in the contrastive environment and have complementary distribution, they are the allophones of the same phoneme /l/.


6. Notice of Toba and Opgenort

Opgenort (2002) has not mentioned the occurrence of this ingressive lateral in his PhD dissertation, because his dissertation is based on the Hilepani dialect rather than the Umbu dialect. The ingressive lateral in Umbule was called to my notice by Sueyoshi Toba about 20 years ago.


7. Ingressive as a sub-areal feature of South Asia

Ingressive sound in the geographically contiguous Kiranti languages Umbule, Bahing, Sunuwar and Surel give the impression of an areal feature. It is a matter of further inquiry as to how this feature originated; which was the first language to innovate this feature and what was the direction of the diffusion of this feature. It is interesting to note that the other two Indo-Aryan languages, namely, Sindhi and Saraiki are also found to be spoken in geographical contiguity; however, both the patches of ingressive areas are far away from each other and cannot be analyzed as an influence of one over another.


8. Phonemicity of implosives in Umbule

The phonemicity of the two pairs of plosive and implosive [b] and [ɓ] on the one hand and [d] and [ɗ] on the other can be established by the following minimal pairs:


a.      1. [bitsam] ‘to agree’              [ɓitsam] ˈto peel off the tree skinˈ

2. [bwaktsam] ‘to pay off’      [ɓwaktsam] ‘to finish’

3. [bwaltsam] ‘to buzz’          [ɓwaltsam] ‘to mix’

4. [bwamtsam] ‘to swell’        [ɓwamtsam] ‘to be covert/ to                                                                                      experience’

5. [bwartsam] ‘to grow’                   [ɓwartsam] ‘to take out’

b.      7. [dwamtsam] ‘to weigh’      [ɗwam] ‘sun’

8. [di] ‘liver’                             [ɗi] ‘name’


These two ingressive stops are phonemic on the basis of the given minimal pairs.

9. Complementary distribution of ingressive lateral in Umbule

However, such a minimal contrast cannot be established between ingressive [L] and egressive [l] laterals. The ingressive lateral occurs only in the word initial position while in other contexts there is only egressive lateral.


c-1.   9. [Lu] ‘leg’                              10. [Laktsam] ‘to step over’

11. [Lattsam] ‘to beget’                   12. [Latsi] ‘vagina’

13. [Ljakku] ‘earthquake’      14. [Lakatsim] ‘red’

15. [Leitsam] ‘to repeat’        16. [wa Leitsam] ‘to change dress’

17. [Likkhi] ‘bow’                    18. [La] ‘hand’

19. [Lima] ‘to tell a lie’            20. [Limtsam] ‘to return’ (intr)

21. [Liptsam] ‘to return’ (tr)    22. [Lotsam] ‘to wait’

23. [Lɔktsam] ‘to lick’             24. [Ljam] ‘tongue’

25. [Lam] ‘road’

c-2    26. [kwal] ‘one’                       27. [khɔlbɔ] ‘big’

28. [mɔl] ‘stomach’                29. [waltsam] ‘to fly’

30. [haltsam] ‘to walk’           31. [phutsul] ‘ash’

32. [tsali] ‘dog’                        33. [bulum] ‘tail’

34. [duli] ‘mouth’

c-3    35. [klidzi] ‘throat’                   36. [ɓapkhljam] ‘feather’

37. [glumglumpɔtsɔ] ‘warm’


In these examples all the words in (c-1) have ingressive lateral [L] in the word initial position. Laterals in (c-2) are all in the syllable final position and the examples in (c-3) are in the intervocalic position.

10. Umbule dialects with ingressive lateral

On the basis of the ingressive lateral, Umbule can be described to have three dialects: the dialect spoken in Umbu has this sound; the Udayapur dialect uses preglottalized [l] like [ʔl] (Opgenort, personal communication) and the Hilepani dialect has neither.


11. Conclusion

In sum, Umbule Rai is the only language in the world that uses ingressive lateral which is a sound that cannot be transcribed in the existing framework provided by the IPA and this sound needs further study. 



Hansson, Gerd (1991). The Rai of Eastern Nepal: Ethnic and Linguistic Grouping. Findings of the Linguistic Survey of Nepal. Kathmandu: LSN&CNAS.


Hodgson, Brian H. (1857). Comparative vocabulary of the Kiranti languages. Journal of the Asiatic Society of Bengal 26:333-349.


Michaelovsky, Boyd (1988). Phonological typology of Nepalese languages. Linguistics of the Tibeto-Burman Area


Opgenort, Jean Robert (2002). The Wambule Language. Ph.D. thesis: Leiden University.


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