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The phonemic inventory of Maldivian consists of 29 consonants and 10 vowels. Like other modern Indo-Aryan languages the Maldivian phonemic inventory shows an opposition of long and short vowels, of dental and retroflex consonants as well as single and geminate consonants.
|t ||d |
|ʈ ||ɖ |
|c ||ɟ ||k ||ɡ |
Dental and retroflex stops are contrastive in Maldivian. For example: maḍun means ‘quietly’ madun means ‘seldom’. The segments /t/ and /d/ are articulated just behind the front teeth. The Maldivian segments /ʈ/, /ɖ/, /ʂ/, and /ɭ/ are not truly retroflex, but apical, produced at the very rear part of the alveolar ridge.
Maldivian has the prenasalized stops /ᵐb/, /ⁿd/, /ᶯɖ/, and /ᵑɡ/. These segments occur only intervocalically: /haⁿdu/ ('moon') /haᶯɖuː/ ('uncooked rice') and /aᵑɡa/ ('mouth'). Maldivian and Sinhalese are the only Indo-Aryan languages that have prenasalized stops.
The influence of other languages has played a great role in Maldivian phonology. For example, the phoneme /z/ comes entirely from foreign influence: /ɡaːziː/ ('judge') is from Persian, /maːziː/ ('past') is from Urdu.
The phoneme /p/ also occurs only in borrowed words in Modern Standard Maldivian: /ripoːtu/ ('report'). At one point, Maldivian did not have the phoneme /f/, and /p/ occurred in the language without contrastive aspiration. Some time in the 17th century, word initial and intervocalic /p/ changed to /f/. Historical documents from the 11th century, for example, show 'five' rendered as /pas/ whereas today it is pronounced /fas/.
In standard Maldivian when the phoneme /s/ occurs in the final position of a word it changes to [h] intervocalically when inflected. For example, /bas/ ('word' or 'language') becomes /bahek/ ('a word' or 'a language') and /mas/ ('fish') becomes /mahek/ ('a fish'). /s/ and /h/ still contrastive, though: initially /hiᵑɡaː/ ('operating') and /siᵑɡaː/ ('lion') and intervocalically /aharu/ ('year') and /asaru/ ('effect').
/r/, a voiceless alveolar flap or trill, is peculiar to Maldivian among the Indo-Aryan languages. But some people pronounce it as [ʂ] a retroflex grooved fricative.
Modern Standard Maldivian has borrowed many phonemes from Arabic. These phonemes are used exclusively in loan words from Arabic, for example, the phoneme /x/ in words such as /xaːdim/ ('male servant'). The following table shows the phonemes that have been borrowed from Arabic/Persian together with their transliteration into Tāna.
|Tāna||Arabic / Persian||SAMT||IPA|
Native Maldivian words do not allow initial consonant clusters; the syllable structure is (C)V(C) (i.e. one vowel with the option of a consonant in the onset and/or coda). This affects the introduction of loanwords, such as /is.kuːl/ from English school.