question about phonemes

Dan Everett dan.everett at MAN.AC.UK
Wed Apr 2 18:32:57 UTC 2003

There are definitely formulas in information theory about syntagmatic
complexity being inversely proportionate to paradigmatic complexity, in
the sense that smaller inventories require larger words (George Miller
discusses this in a very accessible way in his Science of Words,
published by Scientific American).

I don't know about the largest inventory, but Piraha female speech seems
to have the smallest.
The phonemes of Piraha men are: p, t, k, ?, s, h, b, g, i, a, o. Piraha
women lack /s/, using /h/ where men have /s/ and where men have /h/.

Switching subjects briefly: small inventories like this are interesting
because if a language can get by on such a reduced number (to be fair,
Piraha has two tones as well), then early hominids, e.g. Homo
neanderthalis, could have had quite well-developed speech in spite of
the apparent (and this is quite dubious) limitation of their vocal
apparatus to a much smaller inventory of sounds that Homo sapiens
sapiens. (And no one can rule out the possibility that Neanderthals had
tone languages, which would have compensated considerably.)

-- Dan Everett

Dan Everett
Professor of Phonetics and Phonology
Department of Linguistics
Arts Building
University of Manchester
Oxford Road
M13 9PL
Manchester, UK
dan.everett at
Phone: 44-161-275-3158
Dept. Fax and Phone: 44-161-275-3187

-----Original Message-----
From: FUNKNET -- Discussion of issues in Functional Linguistics
[mailto:FUNKNET at LISTSERV.RICE.EDU] On Behalf Of John Kyle
Sent: Wednesday, April 02, 2003 7:15 PM
Subject: Re: question about phonemes

I find that 150 is a very high number for phonemes although I can't say
it's not possible.  Most languages that I've looked at have between 20
to 40 phonemes.  If anyone knows of languages with that many phonemes
(150), please post.  It would be interesting to see if there are any
effects on the morphology of the language such as word size, etc.

John Kyle
jkyle at
----- Original Message -----
From: "Suzette Haden Elgin" <ocls at MADISONCOUNTY.NET>
To: <FUNKNET at>
Sent: Wednesday, April 02, 2003 10:58 AM
Subject: question about phonemes

> April 2, 2003
> Could someone(s) on the list give me their opinion(s) on the maximum
> of phonemes in human languages? Long long ago I was taught that it was

> roughly 70; in recent years I've seen claims that it's roughly 150. I
> keep seeing different totals in different sources, and there's a lot
> of space between 70 and 150.  (It makes me wonder if it's analogous to

> deciding
> many languages exist" and showing a range from 5000 to 10,000 based on

> how one defines "language" and "dialect.") And -- if 150 is near the
> mark --
> that a rare extreme?
> Thanks for your help. I realize that it's not a profound question [at
> I don't _think_  it is, but I'm not a phonologist and may be wrong
> about that], but I'm not satisfied with the answers that I'm finding.
> Suzette Haden Elgin

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