Hwen iaai
RegionOuvéa Island, New Caledonia
Native speakers
4,100 (2009 census)[1]
Language codes
ISO 639-3iai
Iaai is not endangered according to the classification system of the UNESCO Atlas of the World's Languages in Danger
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Iaai (Iaai pronunciation: [jaːi] in English as /ˈj/ Y-EYE) is a language of Ouvéa Island (New Caledonia). It shares the island of Ouvéa with Fagauvea, a Polynesian outlier language.

Iaai is the sixth-most-spoken language of New Caledonia, with 4078 speakers as of 2009.[2] It is taught in schools in an effort to preserve it.

The language has been studied by linguists Françoise Ozanne-Rivierre and Anne-Laure Dotte.


Iaai is remarkable for its large inventory of unusual phonemes, in particular its consonants, with a rich variety of voiceless nasals and approximants.[3]


Monophthongs of Iaai on a vowel chart, from Maddieson & Anderson (1994:164)

Iaai has ten vowel qualities, all of which may occur long and short. There is little difference in quality depending on length.[4]

Front Central Back
Unrounded Rounded Unrounded Rounded
Close i y u
Close mid e ø øː ɤ ɤː o
Open mid [œ] [œː] ɔ ɔː
Open æ æː a

Iaai constitutes one of the few cases of front rounded vowels attested outside of their geographic stronghold in Eurasia,[5] even if other cases have since been reported in the Oceanic family.[6]

The vowel øː/ is only known to occur in six words. In all of these but /ɲ̊øːk/ "dedicate", it appears between a labial (b, m) and velar (k, ŋ) consonant.

After the non-labiovelarized labial consonants and the vowel /y yː/, the vowel ɔː/ is pronounced œː].

The open vowels only contrast in a few environments. æː/ only occurs after the plain labial consonants and the vowel /y yː/, the same environment that produces œː]. /a aː/ does not occur after ɥ̊ y yː/, but does occur elsewhere, so that there is a contrast between æː/ and /a aː/ after /b p m f/.

The vowels /i e ø a o u/ are written with their IPA letters. /y/ is written û, /æ/ is written ë, /ɔ/ is written â, and /ɤ/ is written ö. Long vowels, which are twice as long as short vowels, are written double.


Iaai has an unusual voicing distinction in its sonorants, as well as several coronal series. Unlike most languages of New Caledonia, voiced stops are not prenasalized.[4]

Labial Denti-
Alveolar Retroflex Pre-palatal Velar Glottal
plain / palatalized labiovelarized
Plosive voiceless p () ʈ (ʈ͡ʂ) c (c͡ç) k
voiced (b) () (bˠʷ) ɖ (ɖ͡ʐ) ɟ (ɟ͡ʝ) ɡ
Nasal voiceless (m̥ʲ) m̥ʷ (m̥ˠʷ) n̪̊ ɳ̊ ɲ̊ ŋ̊
voiced m () (mˠʷ) ɳ ɲ ŋ
Fricative voiceless f θ s ʃ x
voiced ð
Approximant voiceless ɥ̊ (ɸʲ) ʍ h
voiced ɥ (βʲ) w l
Flap ɽ

Unlike many languages with denti-alveolar stops, Iaai /t̪, d̪/ are released abruptly, and /t̪/ has a very short voice onset time. However, the apical post-alveolar and laminal palatal stops /ʈ, ɖ, c, ɟ/ have substantially fricated releases [ʈᶳ, ɖᶼ, cᶜ̧, ɟᶨ], and may be better described as sounds between proper stops and affricates.

The labial approximants are placed in their respective columns following their phonological behaviour (their effects on following vowels), but there is evidence that all members of these series are either labial-palatal or labial-velar. /ɥ̊, ɥ/ are sometimes pronounced as weak fricatives [ɸʲ, βʲ].

In many cases, words with voiced and voiceless approximants are morphologically related, such as /liʈ/ "night" and /l̥iʈ/ "black". /h/- and vowel-initial words have a similar relationship. The voiceless sonorant often marks object incorporation. However, many roots with voiceless sonorants have no voiced cognate.

The labialized labials are more precisely labio-velarized labials. There is evidence that non-labialized labial consonants such as /m/ are palatalized /pʲ/, /mʲ/, etc., but this is obscured before front vowels. If this turns out to be the situation, it would parallel Micronesian languages which have no plain labials.


  1. ^ Iaai at Ethnologue (18th ed., 2015) (subscription required)
  2. ^ Dotte 2013.
  3. ^ The main sources about the phonology of Iaai are Ozanne-Rivierre (1976); Maddieson and Anderson (1994).
  4. ^ a b See Maddieson & Anderson (1994).
  5. ^ Maddieson, Ian. Front Rounded Vowels, in Martin Haspelmath et al. (eds.) The World Atlas of Language Structures, pp. 50-53. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2005. ISBN 0-19-925591-1. (online version).
  6. ^ See for example Löyöp, Lemerig, Vurës of northern Vanuatu, p.194 of: François, Alexandre (2011), "Social ecology and language history in the northern Vanuatu linkage: A tale of divergence and convergence" (PDF), Journal of Historical Linguistics, 1 (2): 175–246, doi:10.1075/jhl.1.2.03fra, hdl:1885/29283, S2CID 42217419.