Phoneme inventory arguments and tone

Don Killian donald.killian at HELSINKI.FI
Wed Jun 1 16:37:15 UTC 2011

Dear typologists,

I apologize for the potentially controversial email, but I was wondering 
one thing about the recent arguments with phoneme inventory sizes, and 
would like some thoughts.

Many of the arguments lately have been based off of databases such as 
WALS or UPSID, which mention inventory sizes of consonants and vowels. 
However, databases which include tones in phoneme inventories are 
lacking, and I really am wondering how much this is affecting these 
arguments.  My current thought is that almost every single study which 
has ignored tones in phoneme inventory questions has flawed enough 
methodology that the conclusions are invalid, irrelevant of whether they 
end up being true or not.

Why are tones rarely included anywhere, neither in phoneme databases nor 
arguments?  I can't imagine almost any modern linguist would argue that 
they are insignificant, but I also find that simply not mentioning tone 
at all, or the fact that the databases are heavily biased in favor of 
non-tonal languages, somewhat frustrating. If ka and ke are significant, 
why not ká and kà?  Adding tones to inventory sizes would radically 
change the number of phonemes in quite many languages.

I sent an email to Søren about his own article in particular, but I'd 
love to hear other comments or responses.

Best Regards,

Don Killian
Researcher in African Linguistics
Department of Modern Languages
PL 24 (Unioninkatu 40)
FI-00014 University of Helsinki
+358 (0)44 5016437

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