In the English language, consonant clusters aren’t so much of a rare thing, like we have words like “strengthens”, in which “str”, “ngth” and “ns” are consonant clusters. In most of the Austronesian languages, however, consonant clusters are all but present. So let’s explore the languages which have some of the really insane consonant clusters that can technically be formed.
1. The Kartvelian Languages
The Kartvelian languages include Georgian (ქართული ენა), famous for its really unique script and notorious for its seemingly daunting consonant clusters. Clusters of 4, 5, and even 6 consonants aren’t even so much of a rare occurrence, and an 8 consonant cluster is possible in the word /ɡvbrdɣvnis/ (he’s plucking us), and yes this is a one syllable word. Other members of the Kartvelian language family include Svan, Laz and Mingrelian.
2. Some Slavic Languages
There’s this famous Czech and Slovak tongue twister that goes “strč prst skrz krk”, translated as “stick your finger through your throat”. And yes, that sentence is completely free of vowels. Some Slavic languages like Czech, Slovak and Slovene have this thing called fluid consonants, allowing l and r to function like vowels (but they actually aren’t). So we have words which have what it seems to be a really messed up bashing of the keyboard like štvrť (Slovak for quarter), žblnknutie (Slovak for flop) and skrbstvo (Slovene for welfare).
And then you have the real initial cluster as illustrated in Polish: źdźbło (a tiny leaf of grass). Which brings us to this Polish name which appeared in How I Unleashed World War II: Grzegorz Brzęczyszczykiewicz.
Armenian, even though technically an Indo-European language, does not have much link with many languages in its family. Famous for its unique script, Armenian also has some consonant clusters up its sleeve, as krt̕mndzhal and khghchmtank̕ of քրթմնջալ /kʰɾtʰmnd͡ʒɑl/ (to grumble) and խղճմտանք /χʁt͡ʃmtɑnkʰ/ (conscience) start with eight consonants. However, unlike Georgian, initial consonant clusters of 6 clusters or more are rare in Armenian.
4. Nuxalk and the Salishan Languages
Nuxalk, or otherwise known as Bella Coola, is a Salishan language known for long words with no vowels at all, so much so it puts linguists pondering on what makes a syllable in cases like these. For instance, we have
- [t͡sʰkʰtʰskʷʰt͡sʰ] ‘he arrived’
- [pʼχʷɬtʰ] ‘bunchberry’
- [kʼxɬɬtʰsxʷ sɬχʷtʰɬɬt͡s] ‘you had seen that I had gone through a passage’
And the most remarkable of all,
[xɬpʼχʷɬtʰɬpʰɬːskʷʰt͡sʼ] ‘he had had in his possession a bunchberry plant’
As you can infer, Nuxalk is an agglutinative language, putting together prefixes and suffixes around a root to make a word which would be translated into a sentence in many other languages. Other Salishan languages have such characteristics albeit not as remarkable as Nuxalk’s especially in terms of the clustering of consonants.