There are 16 phonemic consonants in Cebuano. Their variations between dialects are discussed below. All these consonants are unaspirated.
They can occur in syllable-initial and final positions. They can also be found in all word positions-initial, medial and final. /h/ is almost always found only in the syllable-initial and word-medial and initial position though it can also occur in syllable and word-final position. According to Zorc, it is possible to have a final [h] as a convention but it is in free variation with a final zero (Zorc 1975). For this paper, the author decided to use the final zero instead of positing a final [h]. Only /l,r,w,j,s/ can occur in syllable-medial position as a member of a consonant cluster, though in the discussion of clusters below /s/ and /t/ can become clusters as [st].
There are seven stops: /p/, /b/, /t/, /d/, /k/, /g/ and /Ɂ/. /t/ and /d/ are dentals, not alveolars. Alveolars are articulated with the tongue touching or brought near the alveolar ridge which is a small ridge protruding just behind the upper front teeth within the oral cavity. However, in Cebuano, these segments are pronounced as dentals and are articulated with the tongue pushing against the back of the upper teeth.
The voiceless glottal stop /Ɂ/ is the conventional consonant onset of orthographically vowel-initial words. It appears in the middle between vowel sequences. It can occur in all positions. This is also called by Rodolfo Cabonce, S.J who wrote the An English-Cebuano Visayan Dictionary (p.17) as a sound stop. This phoneme causes a noticeable stop in articulation which was also noticed by the researcher in her informants. It happens most often in the middle of the word between vowel sequences (i.e [dʊˈɁɔl] ‘near’; [ˈdʌːɁʌn ‘old’] or a closed syllable followed by a vowel (i.e [ˈtʌnɁʌw] ‘look’; ˈlʊjɁʌ ‘ginger’).
There are three nasals: /m/, /n/ and /ŋ/.
There is one trill – the /r/. To produce a trill, the air is interrupted repeatedly by a vibrating articulator. Most Cebuano words (as seen in dictionaries) with an initial and final /r/ are borrowed words but these words are already incorporated in the Cebuano lexicon.
The Cebuano ‘r’ is originally a trill but there are people, as observed by the researcher, who pronounce the ‘r’ as the English ‘r’ which is an approximant. This is common among students who are exposed to English and their sound systems become interchanged. However, this does not cause any change in meaning. It would only sound different to one accustomed to hearing the ‘r’ as a trill, as it really is.
In some parts of Bohol, the letter “r” is replaced with “d” when it is found “inside” the word or in word-medial intervocalic position. Examples are [Ɂɪˈdɪŋ] for [Ɂɪˈrɪŋ] ‘cat’, and [ɁɪˈdɔɁ] for [ɁɪˈrɔɁ] ‘dog’. This may lead to the question whether /r/ is a separate phoneme or just an allophone of /d/. The author retains the position that /r/ is a separate phoneme. Although it is rarely found in native words and mostly in borrowed words, the sound is already incorporated in the language and the Cebuanos have used the words as their own. Also, words with the /r/, except in some places in Bohol, are considered wrong when they are pronounced using other phonemes, like /d/.
Cebuano has two fricatives, the alveolar /s/ and the glottal /h/. /s/ appears in all positions while /h/ can only be found in word-initial and medial positions. It does not necessarily mean that words can end in vowels. As explained above, it is possible to have a final [h] as a convention but it is in free variation with a final zero (Zorc 1975) and for this work, the author opted for a final zero.
Cebuano phonology consists of only one lateral approximant- the alveolar /l/. It occurs in word-initial, medial and final positions. Like the voiced alveolar trill /r/, it can also be used to form consonant clusters. This phoneme undergoes many changes.
In Bohol and in Cebu (Cebu City), this phoneme becomes the glide [w] in intervocalic position, between the vowels /ʊ/ and /ʌ/ and vice-versa. /w/, although it is a separate phoneme in other cases, is just an allophone of /l/ in this environment. It is only an allophone because it does not trigger meaning differences and a Cebuano speaker of Bohol can still understand it even if spoken in the Carcar-Cebu way. They are just alternative forms. After the change of /l/ to [w], the vowel which is after /l/ is deleted, but this is just an optional change. The researcher says that the vowel following /l/ which is now [w] is deleted because it can also have an alternative longer form. This is not a case of the diphthongization of the vowels [ʌ] and [ʊ], as in [lʌˈlʊm]à [ˈlʌʊm] à [ʌ] and [ʊ] joining together to form [ʌw], but [lʌˈlʊm] à [lʌˈwʊm]à[ˈlʌwm] ‘deep’
If /l/ is between [ʌ] and [ʊ], the second vowel, in this case [ʊ] can be deleted but if it is between [ʊ] and [ʌ], the vowel after /l/ which is [ʌ] cannot be erased; it is the vowel before which is deleted.
Ex. Between [ʌ] and [ʊ]
[Ɂɪˈlʌlʊm]à [Ɂɪˈlʌwʊm]à [Ɂɪˈlʌwm] ‘under’
[bʌˈlʊd] à [bʌˈwʊd] à [ˈbʌwd] ‘wave’
Between [ʊ] and [ʌ]
[pʊˈlʌ] à [pʊˈwʌ] à [ˈpwʌ] ‘red’
[bʊˈlʌn] à [bʊˈwʌn] à [ˈbwʌn] ‘moon, month’
Intervocalic /l/ can also be deleted between two like vowels. This is common in Cebuano-Cebu (Cebu City) and Bohol, but not in Southeastern Cebu though there are terms which are more commonly pronounced without the /l/ like [ˈwʌɁ] for [wʌˈlʌɁ] ‘none’ and [ˈbʌj] for [bʌˈlʌj] ‘house’. Orthographically, the vowel after it is not written but phonetically, it is accounted by the obligatory lengthening of the vowel left except in closed syllables or when the /l/ begins the antepenultima.
[ˈdʌlʌn] à [ˈdʌːn] ‘road’
[bʌˈlʌj]à [ˈbʌːj] ‘house’
[wʌˈlʌ]à [ˈwʌː] ‘left/left hand’
[wʌˈlʌɁ]à [ˈwʌːɁ] ‘none, nothing’
[kʌˈlʌjɔ] à [kʌːˈjɔ] ‘fire’
[ˈɁʊlʊ]à [ˈɁʊː] ‘head’
[kʌˈlʌtkʌt]à [ˈkʌtkʌt] ‘climb’
[kʌˌlʌˈmʊŋgʌj] à [kʌˈmʊŋgʌj] ‘malunggay (vegetable)’
In Cebuano-Davao, speakers are less inclined to dropping [l] or changing it to [w] except when they are immigrants from places in Cebu where the /l/ is dropped or changed to [w], but the informants for this paper tend to use the /l/.
Final /l/ also tends to be replaced with [w] in word-final position in Bohol, especially in Albuquerque.
[ˈtʌmbʌl]à [ˈtʌmbʌw] ‘medicine’
[ˈbʊnʌl] à [ˈbʊnʌw] ‘strike (usually with scolding)’
/l/ can also become /j/ in some places in Cebu.
[tɪˈŋʌlɪ]à [tɪˈŋʌjɪ] ‘maybe’
There are two glides- the voiced labial-velar /w/ and the voiced palatal /j/. Both occur in all word positions-initial, medial and final. When preceded by a vowel on the same syllable, both can be used to form diphthongs. Also, they can be used as the second member of a consonant cluster.
/j/ becomes the affricate [ʤ] in Bohol. This is the most evident sound that distinguishes Cebuano-Bohol from that of the other two. This is also the case with Southern Leyte. But this does not hold true for the whole of Bohol. Towns facing Cebu City (e.g Tubigon, Clarin, Sagbayan, etc.) do not use [ʤ] whereas those in the northeast (e.g Ubay, Talibon, etc.) use the sound. Tagbilaran does not use [ʤ]. The towns using [ʤ] are the ones facing the province of Southern Leyte where the use of [ʤ] is more pronounced and is used throughout the province. Southern Leyteños call their Cebuano dialect as Binul-anon or similar to that of Bohol. Also, younger generations tend to use [j] instead of [ʤ] when speaking. [ʤ] is just an allophone. People can use either of the two and it will not lead to a change in meaning.
/j/ cannot be [ʤ] in all environments. It has its rule. It can only become [ʤ] when it is in syllable-initial position.
[ˈjʊtʌ]à [ˈʤʊtʌ] ‘earth, soil’
[sɪˈjʌ]à [sɪˈʤʌ] ‘he/she (3rd person pronoun)’
[kʌˈlʌjʊ]à [ˈkʌjʊ] à [ˈkʌʤʊ] ‘fire’
When it is in syllable-final position, it can also become [ʤ] provided that an affix –a will be added. By then, it will move to a syllable-initial position. This is already a part of morphophonemics but it is discussed here to illustrate some changes.
[ˈbʌbɔj] +aà [bʌˈbɔʤʌ] as in Tamboka anang baboya[bʌˈbɔʤʌ] uy! ‘That pig is very fat.’
[bʌˈlʌj]à [ˈbʌːj] +a à [ˈbʌːʤʌ] as in Pagkadaku anang baya[ˈbʌːʤʌ]. ‘That house is very big.’
However, there are very few exceptions. Even though it is syllable-initial position, it cannot become [ʤ].
[bʌˈsɪjɔ]à *[bʌˈsɪʤɔ] ‘empty bottle’
[bʌˈbʌjɛ]à *[bʌˈbʌʤɛ] ‘woman’
Cebuano has three phonemic vowels- the high, back, rounded, lax /ʊ/, the high, front, unrounded, lax /ɪ/ and the open-mid, back, unrounded, lax /ʌ/. As can be noticed, all of these vowels are lax. The vowels do not occur in word-initial position because conventionally, a voiceless glottal stop /Ɂ/ precedes all words and syllables starting with a vowel. Though orthographically words can start with a vowel, this is not the case with phonology. Thus, vowels can only occur in word-medial and final positions.
/ɪ/ has the high, front, unrounded tense [i] and mid, front, unrounded lax [ɛ] as variations; /ʊ/ has the high, back, rounded tense [u] and mid, back, rounded lax [ɔ] as variants. These are all in free variation, pronouncing one with the use of its variant will not lead to meaning differences. There are only three phonemic vowels; the inclusion of [ɛ] and [ɔ] usually occurs with borrowed words and with certain phonological changes. [ɛ] is written as ‘e’ and [ɔ] as ‘o’, but their pronunciation still varies. According to Andrew Nelson (An Introduction to Cebuano, 1964, xvi), in Cebuano, the vowel sounds may vary from one speaker to another, from one place to another, but the tolerance to the variation is such that it does not cause meaning differences whatever vowel sound variant is used.
There is a tendency for the vowels to be pronounced longer when they appear in an open accented syllable (ˈCV) and shorter in unaccented open syllable (CV) and closed syllables (CVC).
The Cebuano U (orthographic) is pronounced between U and O. The lips are closer together and not as rounded as when one pronounces the Spanish U or English OO.
Rodolfo Cabonce, S.J. in his Cebuano Dictionary described the environments of the variations. [u] and [ʊ] are equivalent to the orthographic ‘u’ and [ɔ] to ‘o’. It is usually [u] or [u]: (1) In the first (and middle) syllables; (2) in closed syllables before the bilabials (he wrote labial) b, p, m ; (3) before the dentals [t] and [d] and the alveolar [s] which are stressed; (4) in duplicate syllables (words which have the same segments i.e kubkub, supsup) before b, m, p, k, g, l, d, s, t, and y; and (5) in syllables with juxtaposed vowels, (adjacent vowels- i.e luub, luuk ) before b, m, p, k, g, l, d, s, and t. They are juxtaposed orthographically but in phonology, a glottal stop precedes the second vowel.
1. [Ɂʊdtʊ] ‘noon’; [ˈbʊːhʌt] ‘work, chore’
2. [dʌˈkʊp] ‘catch, apprehend’; [kʊˈlʊb] ‘covered’
3. [tʌˈkʊs] ‘measure’; [kʌˈmʊt] ‘hand’
4. [ˈsʊpsʊp] ‘to sip, suck’; [ˈkʊbkub ] ‘to dig’
5. [tɪbʊˈɁʊk] ‘whole’; [dʊˈɁʊl ‘near’
[ɔ] is used in: (1) Monosyllabic words; (2) before k, g, ng(ŋ), n, l, and y; (3)before unstressed t, d, and s; and (4) in duplicate syllables before ng and n.
1. [ˈkɔ] ‘me, mine’; [ˈmɔ] ‘you, yours’
2. [ˈtʌmbɔk] ‘fat’ ; [dʌbɔŋ] ‘unripe’
3. [ˈtʊhɔd] ‘knee’
4. [ˈbɔŋbɔŋ], [ˈtɔntɔn] (these are names of persons)
For juxtaposed vowels before ng, n and y, he said that they use [ɔ] but through observations, the researcher thinks that [ʊ] is more often used.
[bɪˈtʊɁʊn] ‘star’ instead of [bɪ’tɔɁɔn]
[ˈlʊɁʊj] ‘pathetic, pitiful’ instead of [ˈlɔɁɔj]
[ɔ] is also often used in borrowed words. Bisaya Magasin retains the ‘o’ in the borrowed words instead of writing it as ‘u’, i.e polis instead of pulis for police.
The more general rule is that [ɔ] can replace /ʊ/ in any position but usually when it is the final segment of a word or when it is in the ultima. It is [u] or [ʊ] in open and stressed syllable which is not in the ultima. Despite all these rules, [ɔ], [ʊ] and [u] are in free variation. Mispronunciation will not lead to a change in meaning. It may sound weird but it is still understandable.
/ɪ/ is pronounced like the ‘I’ in ‘fish’ and ‘is’. It is in free variation with the high front unrounded tense [i] and the mid, front, unrounded lax [ɛ]. It has a tendency to be pronounced as the high front unrounded tense [i] when it appears at the beginning of a syllable orthographically. It is [i] or [ɪ] in stressed open syllables. It usually becomes [ɛ] in syllable final position.
[tɪˈnʌːɪ] à [tɪˈnʌːɛ] ‘intestine’
[pʊˈtɪɁ] à [pʊˈtɛɁ] ‘white’
Orthographically, the [ɛ] is retained in borrowed words with that sound. (ex. cake—keyk]
/ʌ/ is the only vowel with no variation, though as what was mentioned above, it is pronounced slightly higher in open syllables and lower in closed syllables. Before /w/, it is sometimes pronounced like [ɔ] [ˈlɔw] like in [wʌˈlɔ] becoming [wɔˈlɔ], [wʌˈlʌɁ] becoming [wɔˈlʌɁ], but it can also be pronounced openly as [ʌ]. This may be an effect of the phoneme /w/ which is labial-velar in articulation with the lips rounded. Therefore, the ‘a’ (orthographic) that follows /w/ assimilates with the rounding of the lips resulting to the use of a rounded vowel.
Orthographically, the phonemes are written as is with the exception of /ŋ/ which is written as ngand /j/ as y. The glottal stop is not written at all or is sometimes represented with a dash (-) in word-medial position or an apostrophe in the final position. The Bohol [ʤ] is sometimes written as j or as y. The vowels are written as a, i, and u. [ɛ] is written as e and [ɔ] as o. They are usually retained in borrowed words which are spelt with e and o.