Phoneme inventory

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The phoneme inventory (also: phonological inventory ) of a natural language is made up of the set of phonemes used by the language . Phonemes are the smallest meaningful units of a spoken language. Each language has its own phoneme inventory. Every phoneme inventory is based on a phoneme system that can be determined on the basis of the phonological characteristics of the phonemes.

All languages ​​have both consonants and vowels in their phoneme inventory. These are accordingly referred to as consonant phonemes and vowel phonemes .

Phoneme inventory size

The size of the phoneme inventories of the known languages ​​is very different.

Consonant inventories range in size from six in Rotokas (a Papua New Guinean language ) to 122 consonants in ǃXóõ (a Khoisan language ). The average consonant inventory is 22.7 phonemes. Particularly small consonant inventories can be found in languages ​​from New Guinea and the Amazon Basin , particularly large inventories are found primarily in languages ​​of Africa south of the equator and in languages spoken in northwestern North America .

Vowel inventories range in size from just two vowels in Yimas (also a Papua-New Guinean language) to 14 in German . On average, a vowel inventory contains about eight phonemes. In American languages are found more often than average small vowel inventories of three or four phonemes, and Australian languages are often limited to a small inventory. Large vowel inventories dominate in African languages (this seems to be related to the preference for vowel harmony in the Niger-Congo , Nilo -Saharan and Afro-Asian languages ). There is also an above-average number of vowel phonemes in the languages ​​of Southeast Asia and the European languages. The large number of vowels in German is explained by the fact that contrasts in vowel length have changed into contrasts in vowel quality .

The size of phoneme inventories tends to decrease with increasing distance from Africa; this is interpreted as a founder effect and seen as confirmation of the out-of-Africa hypothesis , which locates the origin of mankind in Africa.

Isolation procedure

The determination and isolation of the individual phonemes is the task of phoneme analysis . It determines the phonemes in the phonetics laboratory by means of classification and segmentation . In Europe, the method of the Prague School is mainly used , in which phonetic minimal pairs are formed. The distinguishing features of the individual phonemes are analyzed by the opposition . American taxonomic linguistics mainly uses the commutation test to determine connections and differences between the phonemes in word formation ( syntagmatic and paradigmatic variations of the phonemes) and thus to isolate them.


The phoneme inventories have been collected in the UCLA Phonological Segment Inventory Database (UPSID) since 1984 . So far the phonetic inventories of 451 individual languages ​​are listed in the database. It contains 921 different phonemes, 652 consonants and 269 vowels. These are weighted with regard to their linguistic relationship to one another. So are z. B. the differences of a single West Germanic subfamily compared to the Indo-European language family can be evaluated. The founding father of UPSID is the phonetician Ian Maddieson from the University of California, Los Angeles (UCLA).

Another database is the Stanford Phonological Archive (SPA), which makes 196 individual languages ​​available.

Phonetic system - phoneme system / inventory

The sound systems are the subject of phonetics ; they have to be distinguished from the phoneme systems / inventories. Not all speech sounds and not all of their phonetic properties are phonologically significant. In German, for example, the aspiration of the plosives is phonetically important, but not phonologically. The same applies to the so-called crackling sound , which in German is regarded as a purely phonetic phenomenon, but which is not phonologically relevant.


  • Charles F. Hockett: A Course of Modern Linguistics. Macmillan, New York et al. 1958
  • Ian Maddieson: Patterns of Sounds. With a chapter contributed by Sandra Ferrari Disner. Cambridge University Press, Cambridge et al. 1984, ISBN 0-521-26536-3 .
  • Helmut Glück (Ed.), With the collaboration of Friederike Schmöe : Metzler-Lexikon Sprache. 3rd, revised edition. Metzler, Stuttgart et al. 2005, ISBN 3-476-02056-8 .

Individual evidence

  1. Abigail Cohn: Phonology. In: Mark Aronoff , Janie Rees-Miller (Eds.): The Handbook of Linguistics. Blackwell, Malden MA et al. 2003, ISBN 0-631-20497-0 , Chapter 8, pp. 180-212.
  2. ^ Ian Maddieson: Consonant Inventories. In: Matthew S. Dryer, Martin Haspelmath (Eds.): The World Atlas of Language Structures Online. Max Planck Digital Library, Munich 2011, Chapter 1 .
  3. ^ A b Ian Maddieson: Vowel Inventories. In: Matthew S. Dryer, Martin Haspelmath (Eds.): The World Atlas of Language Structures Online. Max Planck Digital Library, Munich 2011, Chapter 2 .
  4. ^ T. Alan Hall: Phonology. An introduction . Walter de Gruyter, Berlin et al. 2000, ISBN 3-11-015641-5 .
  5. Quentin D. Atkinson: Phonemic Diversity Supports a Serial Founder Effect Model of Language Expansion from Africa. In: Science . Bd. 332 = No. 6027, 2011, pp. 346-349, doi : 10.1126 / science.1199295 .

Web links

Wiktionary: Phoneme inventory  - explanations of meanings, word origins, synonyms, translations
Wiktionary: Phoneme system  - explanations of meanings, word origins, synonyms, translations