Phoneme inventory arguments and tone

Larry M. Hyman hyman at BERKELEY.EDU
Wed Jun 1 16:58:30 UTC 2011

Don - Thanks for your email, which is not 
controversial, although it does raise an 
important question. In fact, it's not just in 
databases that tones are ignored, but in all 
kinds of studies. As I point out in my in-press 
Blackwell phonology handbook chapter ("Tone: Is 
it different?"), there are three persistent 
"myths" about tone:

1. Tone cannot be studied like segmental properties
2. Tone cannot express certain things (which segments can)
3. Tone is expendable

Re #3, many studies not only fail to transcribe 
tone, but even REMOVE tones from examples when 
they cite them, perhaps adding, "the tones have 
been removed because they are irrelevant". 
Important for phonologists is that tone is like 
segmental phonology in every way--only more so! 
It can do things that segmental phonology and 
stress can't, so if you want to know what the 
outer limits are of phonology, you have to study 

Luckily, there is a lot of renewed interest in 
tone (witness all of the conferences and 
workshops over the past decade or so).

Re your question, I don't know why tones are not 
included in some databases--some of the problem 
may be one of interpretation: I have what I call 
a "catalogue" of about 600 tone systems which I 
have found hard to "normalize" as UPSID had to do 
with the segmental inventories. It's not only 
hard, but it's hard to be consistent, 
particularly if the information is incomplete.

I think the person who can best answer is Ian 
Maddieson, who is looking at correlations between 
tone and other phonological properties.

Sorry not to be more helpful.

Best, Larry

At 7:37 PM +0300 6/1/11, Don Killian wrote:
>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 
>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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