Xavante language

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Native to Brazil
Region Mato Grosso
Ethnicity Xavante people
Native speakers
9,600 (2006)[1]
Language codes
ISO 639-3 xav
Glottolog xava1240[2]
This article contains IPA phonetic symbols. Without proper rendering support, you may see question marks, boxes, or other symbols instead of Unicode characters.

The Xavante language is a Ge language spoken by the Xavante people in about 170 villages in the area surrounding Eastern Mato Grosso, Brazil. The Xavante language is unusual in its phonology, its ergative object–agent–verb word order, and its use of honorary and endearment terms in its morphology.


The phonology of Xavante is described by McLeod (1974).


Xavante has nine vowel qualities, long and short. Four occur nasalized, long and short.

Front Central Back
High i, ĩ ɨ u
Mid e ə o
Low ɛ, ɛ̃ a, ã ɔ, ɔ̃

/i/ is [iː] when long and [ɪ] when short. /e/ is raised after /r/ in a non-initial syllable. /a/ is a central vowel. It is a rounded [ɐ̹] in certain stylistic conventions. /ɔ/ is a mid vowel [ɔ̝ː] when long, and a more open [ɔ] when short. /u/ is [uː] when long and [u] or [ʊ] when short. /o/, /ɨ/, and /ɛ/ do not vary much. /ə/ is written ⟨ë⟩ in the orthography.


Xavante has ten consonants, /p t c ʔ b d j r w h/. They are realized as,

Labial Coronal Glottal
apical laminal
Obstruents Voiceless s ~ tʃʰ ʔ
Voiced b ~ m d ~ n z ~ dʒ ~ ɲ ~ j
Sonorants w ɾ h

(Placement is approximate; /j/ varies between obstruent and sonorant, alveolar and palatal.)

Xavante is highly unusual in lacking velar consonants, except for the labio-velar approximant /w/. At a phonemic level, it arguably also lacks nasal consonants, which is less unusual in the Amazon. The language however has a high degree of allophony, and nasal stops [m n ɲ] appear before nasal vowels.[3]


With so few phonemic contrasts, Xavante allows wide latitude in allophones of its consonants.

  • P and T: /p/, /t/ are aspirated [pʰ], [t̪ʰ] as syllable onsets (at the beginning of a word, between vowels, or before /r/), and unreleased [p̚], [t̪̚] as syllable codas (at the end of a word or before a consonant other than /r/).
  • C: /c/ freely varies among [tʃʰ, tsʰ, ʃ, s] as an onset, and [t̪ʲ, ʃ] as a coda (only preceding another /c/, as [tːʃ, ʃː]).
  • : /ʔ/ is a glottal stop [ʔ].
  • B: In a C or CC syllable onset before an oral vowel, /b/ is pronounced as a plain voiced stop [b] at the beginning of a phonological word, and as either [b] or as a prenasalized voiced stop [ᵐb in the middle of a word. Before nasal vowels, as C or CC, it is pronounced [m].
As a syllable coda, /b/ is pronounced [m] before /h/ regardless of the following vowel's nasality, and optionally also as [m] before the oral allophones of the other voiced obstruents, /d/ and /j/: [bd, bdʒ] or [md, mdʒ]. It is [m] before [ɲ].[4]
  • D: In a syllable onset before an oral vowel, /d/ is pronounced either as a plain voiced stop [d̪] or as prenasalized voiced stop [ⁿd̪]. Unlike /b/, it may be prenasalized at the beginning of a phonological word, not just as a syllable onset. Before a nasal vowel, it is pronounced [n̪].
As a syllable coda, /d/ is pronounced [d̪] before the oral allophone of a consonant, and as [n̪] before a nasal consonant.
  • J: In a syllable onset before an oral vowel, /j/ is pronounced [dz, z, dʒ, ʒ, j], in free variation. Before a nasal vowel, it is pronounced [ɲ].
As a syllable coda, /j/ is generally pronounced [j], and is nasalized to [ȷ̃] or [ɲ] after a nasal vowel.[5] It is also nasalized to [ȷ̃] before a prenasalized stop allophone. Between oral vowels, the sequence /jb/ optionally takes an epenthetic [d]: [jb] or [jdb]. When [ɲ] is followed by an /h/, a nasalized epenthetic schwa separates them.
  • R: /r/ is an alveolar flap, [ɾ], which is nasalized [ɾ̃] between nasal vowels.
  • W: /w/ is similar to English w, but not rounded before the vowel /i/.[6]
  • H: /h/ has no place of articulation, but is a voiceless transition between vowels.

Vowels do not become nasalized because of nasalized consonants, so the only consonants that become nasal are those in a cluster preceding a nasal vowel (and coda /j/ after a nasal vowel); a preceding oral vowel blocks the nasality from spreading to preceding syllables.


Xavante syllables are of the forms CV, CCV, CVC, CCVC, CV:, and CCV:; that is, all syllables begin with a consonant, sometimes two; they may optionally either end with a consonant or have a long vowel. Although a syllable may end in a consonant, a phonological word may not, apart from a few cases of word-final /j/.

The attested initial CC consonant clusters are:

/pr br ʔr ʔb ʔw/.

All seven obstruents occur in final position, but in a maximal CCVC syllable only /p b j/ are attested. Across two syllables, the following CC sequences are attested:

/pp, pt, pc, pʔ/
/ʔʔ ʔb/
/bb, bd, bj, br, bh/
/jp, jt, jʔ, jb, jj, jw, jr, jh/.

There are also CCC sequences such as /pʔr/ (coda /p/ followed by onset /ʔr/).

The vowels /o/ and /ɨ/ are rare, and not attested in maximal CCVC syllables.


  1. Xavante at Ethnologue (18th ed., 2015)
  2. Nordhoff, Sebastian; Hammarström, Harald; Forkel, Robert; Haspelmath, Martin, eds. (2013). "Xavante". Glottolog. Leipzig: Max Planck Institute for Evolutionary Anthropology.<templatestyles src="Module:Citation/CS1/styles.css"></templatestyles>
  3. It can be argued either that these are nasalized allophones of the voiced obstruents, that is, that /b/ or /mb/ is pronounced [m] before /ã/, or that the voiced obstruents are denasalized allophones of nasal stops before oral vowels, with /m/ pronounced [mb] or [b] before /a/. The key point is that nasality is determined by the vowels, not by the consonants.
  4. All voiced obstruents are presumably nasalized before all nasal allophones, though [mɲ] is the only sequence that is attested.
  5. It is not yet clear when it is [ȷ̃] and when [ɲ].
  6. As McLeod & Mitchell (2003:11) describe it,
    antes da letra ‘i’ é pronunciado como o ‘w’ inglês, sem arredondamento dos lábios e com um pouco de fricção. Em outros ambientes não há fricção e os lábios se arredondam mais
    "before the letter 'i' it's pronounced as the English 'w', without rounding of the lips and with a bit of friction. In other environments it doesn't have friction and the lips are more rounded"
    This would appear to mean that /w/ is a more-or-less typical labio-velar approximant [w] in most situations, with an unrounded semi-fricative allophone, approximately [ɣ˕], before the vowel /i/, though possibly a labially compressed velar [β̞ɣ˕] in that environment. McLeod (1974:4) had covered only the unrounded allophone:
    O fonema /w/ é um vocóide oral assilábico, não-arredondado posterior fechado alto sonoro.
    "The phoneme /w/ is an oral semivowel, unrounded high back [and] voiced."


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