Phoneme inventory arguments and tone

Peter Bakker linpb at HUM.AU.DK
Wed Jun 1 18:37:21 UTC 2011

Don Killian <donald.killian at HELSINKI.FI> writes:

Dear Don Killian, 

I agree that it is not fair that tones are not included in phoneme inventories.
On the other hand, tone is only one of a set of properties that vowels can have (and 
sometimes consonants as well). Often in segmental inventories only the points of articulation
are given, whereas tone, length, glottalization and "breathyness" vs. plain (and this is 
not an exhaustive list of ways in which vowels with the same place of articulation can be modified) 
may increase the number of  vocalic contrasts enormously, especially when several of these 
can be used with  the "same" vowel. If one only adds tone to segmental inventories (as Atkinson did),
one does not grab all possible contrasts that change the meaning of words.

Peter Bakker

>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

Peter Bakker                                                                     email:  linpb at
Department of Linguistics                                                 tel. (45) 8942.6553
Inst. for Anthropology, Archaeology and Linguistics       
Aarhus University                                                             tel. institute: (0045)8942.6562 
Nordre Ringgade, buiding 1410                                         fax institute:  (0045)8942.6570
DK - 8000 Aarhus C                                                          room 340   

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