Phoneme inventory arguments and tone

Wed Jun 1 21:38:51 UTC 2011

I agree with what others have said. Pike treated tones similarly to other segments and was a pioneer in this (though he did refer to "tonemes").

I have said on occasion that Piraha has 11 phonemes for men and 10 for women. But it also has two tones so, unless I use Pike's terminology, it has 13/12 phonemes. Guess we should be consistent.


Sent from my iPhone

On 1 Jun 2011, at 14:44, "Peter Bakker" <linpb at HUM.AU.DK<mailto:linpb at HUM.AU.DK>> wrote:

Don Killian <<mailto:donald.killian at HELSINKI.FI>donald.killian at HELSINKI.FI<mailto: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:  <mailto:linpb at> linpb at<mailto: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

home page: <>

-------------- next part --------------
An HTML attachment was scrubbed...
URL: <>

More information about the Lingtyp mailing list