Rotokas Language: The Shortest Alphabet in the World

Location of Boungainville Island on a map
Location of Bougainville Island on a map


Rotokas is a language (part of the Phylum East Papuan languages) spoken by about 4,000 people on Bougainville, an island east of New Guinea, in the province of Papua New Guinea. The language is only one of the 18 languages spoken in Bougainville, with just four languages in decline.

Bougainville and Buka, or the North Solomons, Melanesia.
Bougainville and Buka, or the North Solomons, Melanesia.

Aita Rotokas, Pipipaia, and Central Rotokas are all varieties of the same language. In Central Rotokas, the alphabet is arguably the smallest in the contemporary era.

Rotokas is one of the easiest languages to learn anywhere in the world. The core dialect of Rotokas has one of the world’s lowest stockpiles of phonemes (only the Pirahã language has been claimed to have fewer).

Rotokas Language is believed to have the smallest or shortest alphabet of any known language, consisting of only 12 letters and 11 sounds (two of the 12 letters share one sound).

Typologically, Rotokas is a rather typical verb-final language, with adjectives and demonstrative pronouns preceding the nouns they modify, followed by postpositions.

The Central Rotokas dialect, according to one source, only has 11 segmental phonemes (five vowels and six consonants). Unlike the Aita dialect, which uses nasals instead of voiced stops, this one does not.


Rotokas’ phoneme inventory is among the world’s most miniature, and its alphabet is among the world’s shortest currently in use. Although the Pirah language is not written, it has been suggested that it contains fewer speaking sounds.

Eleven phonemes are represented by the alphabet’s twelve letters. “A E G I K O P R S T U V” is the alphabet letters. Phoneme “t” is written as “S” before an “I” and as “T” in the name ‘Rotokas,’ whereas /t/ is spelt as ‘T’ elsewhere. The “V” can be written as “B” sometimes. There is a distinction between the lengths of vowels (that is, each vowel has a short and long counterpart). However, no other consonant and vowel elements can be identified in the language (i.e., no tone and no contrastive stress).

Phonology - Rotokas Language
Phonology – Rotokas Language

Each of the three voiced components of the inventory of consonant phonemes found in the Central Rotokas dialect exhibit an extensive range of allophonic variation. As a result, a non-misleading set of IPA symbols is difficult to come by. The whole inventory of consonants includes the three locations of articulation: bilabial, alveolar, and velar. Each place of expression can produce either a voiced or an unvoiced phoneme. Alveolar allophones of the voiceless consonants are straightforward [p, t, k]. However, they only occur before [i]. The allophonic sets IPA| [β, b, m], IPA| [ɾ, n, l, d], and IPA| [g, ɣ, ŋ] contain the voiced consonants.

Nasal phonemes are not common in languages. According to Firchow and Firchow (1969), who refer to the Central Rotokas dialect as “Rotokas Proper,” there are no nasal phonemes in that variety of the language.

As Robinson (2006) demonstrates, in the Aita dialect of Rotokas, voiced, voiceless, and nasal consonants are differentiated by a three-way differentiation. As a result, compared to Rotokas Proper’s six consonant phonemes, this dialect has nine. It is possible to predict the form of Central Rotokas from Aita Rotokas, but it is impossible to predict the formation of Aita from the Central structure. This is because the voiced and nasal consonants in Aita are collapsed in Central Rotokas. In other words, the small phoneme inventory in “Rotokas Proper” is relatively recent compared to the large phoneme inventory in Aita and Central Rotokas’ progenitor languages.

In Central Rotokas, there does not appear to be any justification for postulating phonological modes of articulation (also known as “fricative,” “approximant,” “tap,” “stop,” and “lateral”) in the language. Instead, a simple binary distinction between “voice” and “not voice” is all that is required.

When a [l] and [r] are presented as different sounds without being determined by their surroundings, it is highly likely that they are either a lateral flap, IPA| [ɺ], or a flap that is phonologically nonspecific as to centrality (that is, neither exactly IPA| [ɾ] nor IPA| [ɺ] as in Japanese), and that the linguist has mistranslated the sound. This is because the Japanese do not have a distinction between

To distinguish between the two dialects of Rotokas, the symbols for voiced stops can be used: [b], [d], [g] for Central Rotokas, and [m], [n], [ŋ] for the Aita dialect. (In the planned Central Rotokas orthography, these are spelt “v, r, g”). There is no need to include the letters “b, d, g.” The phonemes in the following chart are represented by the most common allophones, with no thought given to the flap’s laterality.

Evolution of Language - Phonemes and complexity
Evolution of Language – Phonemes and Complexity

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