Atkinson on phoneme inventories in Science

Søren Wichmann wichmann at EVA.MPG.DE
Wed Jun 1 21:28:28 UTC 2011

Sorry, I know that this is getting close to spamming, but I wanted to 
tell you that there was a problem with the numbering of references in 
the paper that I announced below. The problem is fixed now in the 
uploaded version:


Søren Wichmann wrote:
> Dear Typologists,
> prompted by the Atkinson paper colleagues and I set out to check the 
> out-of-Africa correlation on a different dataset. We also checked the 
> correlation between phoneme inventory and population sizes. In addition, 
> we checked a third correlation which is also relevant, although it is 
> neither mentioned by Hay & Bauer nor by Atkinson, namely the inverse 
> relation between average word length and phoneme inventory sizes claimed 
> to hold by Nettle.
> The data we used were more than 3000 word lists of the ASJP project:
> We first made sure 
> that the number of different segments contained in a 40-item word list 
> can meaningfully be used as a proxy for segment inventory sizes.
> All the correlations proposed were supported, including the reduction in 
> segment inventory sizes as the distance from Africa increases 
> (controlling for population size, which also decreases).
> To account for the out-of-Africa correlation we prefer a different 
> explanation which does not rely on population sizes at all, however. 
> There are two reasons for this. One is that the relation between 
> population size and segment inventory size seems to actually be a 
> secondary effect of a relationship between population size and mean word 
> length (shorter words in larger populations). So if population size is 
> the ultimate driving force mean word length should also correlate with 
> the distance from Africa, but it doesn't. Another reason is that 
> populations in prehistory would mostly have been small, whether or not 
> they went through bottlenecks. We believe that a viable different 
> explanation could be successive events of language contact whose effects 
> would accumulate with the distance from Africa. But that doesn't detract 
> from the value of Atkinson's basic observation.
> We intend to submit the paper to a special issue of Advances in Complex 
> Systems, and invite your comments. I've attached the paper, but in case 
> the attachment gets stripped you can also get it here:
> The data are here:
> If you would like to have them in Excel you can download them from here:
> Søren.

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