Kelabit language

Region Borneo
Native speakers
5,000 (2000–2011)[1]
Language codes
ISO 639-3 kzi
Glottolog kela1258[2]

Kelabit is one of the most remote languages of Borneo, on the SarawakKalimantan border. It is spoken by one of the smallest ethnicities in Borneo, the Kelabit people.


Vowels are /ə, a, e, i, o, u/. All consonants but the aspirated voiced stops are lengthened after stressed /ə/. Stress generally occurs on the penultimate syllable.

Kelabit is notable for having "a typologically rare series of true voiced aspirates" (that is, not breathy voice/murmured consonants; for some speakers they are prevoiced) along with modally voiced and tenuis consonants but without an accompanying series of voiceless aspirates. It is the only language known to have voiced aspirates or murmured consonants without also having voiceless aspirated consonants, a situation that has been reconstructed for Proto-Indo-European.[3] (See glottalic theory.)

Kelabit consonants[4]
Bilabial Dental Alveolar Postalveolar
Velar Glottal
Nasal m n ŋ
Stop tenuis p k ʔ
modally voiced b () ɡ
aspirated voiced
b͡pʰ ~ b͡p d͇͡t͇ʃʰ ~ d͇͡t͇ ɡ͡kʰ ~ ɡ͡k
Fricative s h
Sonorant l, ɾ͇ j w

At the end of a word, /t/ is pronounced [θ]. For some speakers, /d͇͡t͇ʰ/ is affricated; in neighboring Lun Dayeh, the reflex of this consonant is an unaspirated affricate [d͡tʃ]. /dʒ/ is rare, and is not attested from all dialects.

The flap is alveolar. It's not clear if /n/ and the other coronal sonorants are alveolar like /d/ or dental like /t/.

The aspirated voiced series only occurs intervocalicly, and may have arisen from geminate consonants. They are at least impressionistically twice as long as other stops. They vary with /b d͇ ɡ/ under suffixation, with /b͡pʰ d͇͡t͇ʰ ɡ͡kʰ/ occurring where other consonants would be allophonically geminated:

  • /təb͡pʰəŋ/ [ˈtəb͡pʰəŋ] 'to fell' > /təbəŋ-ən/ [təˈbəŋːən] 'fell it!'
  • /kətəd/ [ˈkətːəd] 'back (n)' > /kətəd͇͡t͇ʰ-ən/ [kəˈtəd͇͡t͇ʰən] 'to be left behind'

There are several arguments for analyzing the aspirated voiced consonants as segments rather than as consonant clusters:

  • There are no (other) clusters allowed in the language. Some languages allow only geminate consonants as clusters, but there are no (other) phonemic geminates in Kelabit. In some related languages, such as Ida'an, the reflexes of these sounds clearly do behave as clusters.
  • The syllable break occurs before the consonants (that is, [a.bpa], and not in the middle ([]), which is the behaviour of consonant clusters (including geminates) in related languages that allow them. /i, u/ lower to [ɪ, ʊ] before any non-glottal coda consonant. They do not lower before the aspirated voiced consonants, again suggesting they are not consonant clusters.

The aspirated voiced series does not appear in all dialects of Kelabit or Lun Dayeh:

Reflexes in Kelabit and Lun Dayeh dialects[5]
b͡p⁽ʰ⁾d͡t⁽ʰ⁾ɡ͡k⁽ʰ⁾Bario, Pa' Omor, Long Lellang, Lun Dayeh: Long Semado
ptkPa' Mada
pkLong Terawan Tring
pskBatu Patung, Pa' Dalih, Sa'ban
fkLun Dayeh: Long Pala
fskLong Napir, Long Seridan


  1. Kelabit at Ethnologue (18th ed., 2015)
  2. Hammarström, Harald; Forkel, Robert; Haspelmath, Martin, eds. (2017). "Kelabit". Glottolog 3.0. Jena, Germany: Max Planck Institute for the Science of Human History.
  3. Robert Blust, 1974. A double counter-universal in Kelabit. Papers in Linguistics :309-24.
  4. Robert Blust, 2006, "The Origin of the Kelabit Voiced Aspirates: A Historical Hypothesis Revisited", Oceanic Linguistics 45:311
  5. Robert Blust, 2006, "The Origin of the Kelabit Voiced Aspirates: A Historical Hypothesis Revisited", Oceanic Linguistics 45:311

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