Phoneme inventory arguments and tone

Post, Mark at JCU.EDU.AU
Fri Jun 3 00:37:04 UTC 2011

Dear All,

Exactly. There are two questions here. One: are tones important elements of phonological "toolboxes". Two: can tones be treated as categorically analogous to segments when developing a quantitative representation of a phonological "toolboxes" (as for cross-linguistic comparison). 

The answer to the first question is obviously yes, but I don't see how the second question could be answered in a way we'd all agree upon, and as David points out, the same applies to many other more or less suprasegmental features. Part of the problem, I think, stems from using the term "inventory", which implies a list of like elements which we can simply tally up. But there's diversity, and complexity, in the ways that prosodic features map onto segmental features which is hard to quantify in terms of "items in an inventory". For better or for worse, I think that's why it's common for people to try to siphon the prosody out.


Mark W. Post, PhD
Postdoctoral Research Fellow in Anthropological Linguistics
The Cairns Institute
James Cook University
Smithfield, QLD 4878

Tel: +61-7-4042-1898
Eml: at

-----Original Message-----
From: Discussion List for ALT [mailto:LINGTYP at LISTSERV.LINGUISTLIST.ORG] On Behalf Of David Gil
Sent: Thursday, 2 June 2011 6:24 PM
Subject: Re: Phoneme inventory arguments and tone

Dear all,

Re Don's last two paragraphs below.  At the risk of stating the obvious, 
it should be pointed out that the results depend hugely on how 
"combinatorial" your analysis is.  For example, if a language has 7 
vowels (without tone) and 3 tones freely combining, does this give us 
7x3=21 phonemes (as Don seems to be assuming) or just 7+3=10, as is, 
prima facie, equally reasonable to assume.

Analogous issues arise also in other domains, such as nasalized vowels, 
and, perhaps most dramatically, with regard to the various combinations 
of "ordinary" and click elements in the consonant inventories of Khoisan 


> Dear Peter and the rest,
> I would say these should be included as well, of course!  Anything 
> which functions contrastively should be considered part of the 
> language's phonology.  Atkinson does look at tone levels but did not 
> add tone in his segmental count, as far as I'm aware. If someone knows 
> better, please correct me.  WALS only mentions complexity or tone 
> levels, not number of contrastive tones and how they function in a 
> language.  As Larry mentioned, UPSID does include breathy vowels, 
> creaky voice, nasalization, etc.. it is only tone, stress, and length 
> which are excluded.
> I don't view this as a fault of UPSID.. it was originally created to 
> look at relations and patterns of segments in language, and was not 
> intended to make broad generalizations based on the number of phonemes 
> of a language.  I don't feel that that is an appropriate use of the 
> database.
> However, if people are intending to write articles as such, we should 
> try to have a database which does account for all contrastive aspects 
> in a language and include these.  Including tone, length, and all 
> types of vocal modifications could increase the phoneme count of some 
> languages quite substantially. In Agar Dinka, for instance, Andersen 
> suggests 88 or 84 contrastive vowels, including length, creaky voice, 
> breathy voice, etc, but not tones.  If tones would be included in his 
> count, this would increase the language to something rivaling !Xoo's 
> current phoneme count.
> Making sure that tone (and all other distinctive aspects) are included 
> in all the current referenced databases could also help combat against 
> the notion that tone is expendable.
> I'd like to also mention one additional thing which Harald Hammarström 
> pointed out to me in a personal email. Mark Donohue has a phonological 
> inventory database of about 1200 languages, and he does include tone. 
> Using segmental inventories alone from the database, Harald got the 
> same correlation everyone else is talking about.
> However, when including tone (by multiplying the number vowels by the 
> contrastive tones), he found no correlation between speaker size and 
> inventory.  This is not necessarily the best method; it was done 
> informally, and Mark does not include what the TBUs are or what 
> combinations of tones are possible. Still, it does give an indication 
> that tone is important enough to not be dismissed lightly, and it 
> could potentially ruin many of the current studies' conclusions.
> Best Regards,
> Don
> On 06/01/2011 09:37 PM, Peter Bakker wrote:
>> *Don Killian <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
>> -- 
>> 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 <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:

David Gil

Department of Linguistics
Max Planck Institute for Evolutionary Anthropology
Deutscher Platz 6, D-04103 Leipzig, Germany

Telephone: 49-341-3550321 Fax: 49-341-3550119
Email: gil at

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