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 Post subject: Vowel Systems
PostPosted: Thu Feb 14, 2013 9:27 pm 
Sumerul
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This thread is intended to be a resource for...anyone, really, who wants to make a realistic vowel system. There are a couple of overviews elsewhere on the interwobz- I think WeepingElf has one?- but as far as I've seen them they're relics of an internet past. (I'm thinking in particular of a page with no Unicode that had to write ɨ as <i-> and had a garish pink background- ah, others have informed me it's run by whatever Bricka goes by now.) I'll run through it by numbers of vowels, like those other pages, and point out interesting deviations.

Edit: in the interests of attribution, much of this was from this page by an unknown author, Wikipedia, or Bricka's page on vowel systems.

I am stealing a classification system I found on one of those pages. It is as follows:


T indicates a triangular vowel system, by far the most common.
S indicates a square vowel system.
V indicates a vertical vowel system.
C indicates a "cubic" vowel system.

This is followed by the number of vowels, and:
C indicates that the system mostly has central vowels as its "extras".
R indicates that the system mostly has front rounded vowels as its "extras".
U indicates that the system mostly has back unrounded vowels as its "extras".
F means it has extra front unrounded vowels as its "extras".
B means it has extra back rounded vowels as its "extras."
L means it has extra laxed vowels as its "extras".

This is by no means hard and fast, but it is useful.

For the sake of easy analysis, I'll not analyze pure length, tone or nasalization, just vowel quality. I will also not include diphthongs.

One Vowel
There are no modern languages with just one vowel, with the very, very possible exception of Nuxalk (see below). One or two restructions of Proto-Indo-European have just /e/, but this is somewhat untenable, given that all of its daughters have at least three vowels (I think), many of its daughters have at least four or five, and you'd be hard-pressed to explain ablaut that way.

You could write the phonemic status of a conlang with just one vowel as probably just about anything you want, although it would probably have a most common vowel of a centralized vowel like [ə].

1
Code:
ə


The Salish language Nuxálk has the system T3 (see the section on three vowels) below, but can be analyzed as having just /a/, with /i u/ analyzed as syllabic /j w/, since /n m/ also have syllabic forms. This would be 1a:

1a
Code:
a


Two Vowels

This too is rare. Some other reconstructions of PIE have given it two vowels, /e o/:

S2
Code:
e     o


Several Northwest Caucasian languages have two central vowels, one low, one mid. An example is Ubykh, which also holds the world record for most consonants outside of a click language:
V2
Code:
ə
a


The claim that Ubykh has only these two vowels is however a bit dubious, as a much wider range of vowels appears phonetically, influenced by the surrounding consonants.
There are also several analyses of Mandarin Chinese that analyze it as having a V2 system, with the extra vowel phones coming from sequences of vowel and approximant. The Australian language Arrernte also has a V2 system, and the Ndu languages of New Guinea are rumored to have a V2 system as well. (The Ndu claim is particularly suspect; although they can all theoretically be analyzed as having a V2 system, at least one linguist has analyzed the Ndu language Iatmül as having twelve phonemic vowels. This is par for the course with strange little vowel systems.)

Because the only thing differentiating the two phonemes in a V2 system is height, they tend to have very wide ranges of allophones. In Arrernte, for example, /ə/ has the range [ɪ ~ e ~ ə ~ ʊ], with little regard for context.

Three Vowels
This is where we really get started; almost all languages have at least three vowels. Usually, this is the T3 system, as seen in Quechua, Inuktitut, Classical Arabic, most Australian languages, and Aleut:

T3
Code:
i     u
   
   a


A few languages have T3b, the same as above, but with no high vowels. An example is the /a e o/ system of Yanesha' (also known as Amuesha) and Cheyenne:

T3b
Code:
e     o
   a


There is a final variation T3c, too, where /u/ is lowered. It's found in Pirahã and the short vowel system of Ojibwe:
T3c
Code:
i
      o
  a


Presumably something out there is best analyzed as having /ə i u/ (a theoretical T3d), with no low vowels, but I don't know of one.

Beyond this, there is the system V3, which is found in the Sepik family (of which Ndu is a subfamily) of New Guinea:

V3
Code:
ɨ
ə
a


Like V2 systems, allophony will be rampant, and you're likely to have many more phonetic vowels than just these three. Some researchers analyze Irish as basically having a V3 system in its short vowels:
Code:
ɪ~ʊ
ɛ~ɔ
 a


A variant of V3, V3F, is found in the Caddoan language Wichita:

V3F
Code:
i
  ɛ
       a


In other words, you have a high front vowel, a mid front vowel, and a front to back low vowel. Again, allophony is rampant.

Four Vowels
Here, we start to see that a language can have a triangular system, or a square one. The triangular-central-square analysis starts to lose its accuracy after about six vowels, but it's still useful for classificatory purposes.

Most languages with four vowels have some variant of T4, of course, since most languages have triangular systems. Usually this is T3 with some sort of addition:

Central Alaskan Yup'ik (in the short vowels only) and the Taiwanese language Rukai have T4C, which we'll refer to as just T4:

T4
Code:
i     u
   ə
   a


Presumably there is a language with /i ɨ u a/ (*T4C), but I can't find one (although there are apparently some analyses of Rukai as having /ɪ ɨ u a/, which is similar). /i u ə a/ fills out the space pretty well, which is important- vowels, like gases, tend to spread out to fill their container (the mouth space) so that they're maximally distinct.

There is also the vowel system /i e a u/, which can be analyzed as being the square S4:

S4
Code:
i   u
e   a


Or as a triangular variation T4F:
Code:
i     u
  e
    a


In T4Fb, /u/ is lowered to /o/. It's common in North America: Nahuatl, Navajo, Proto-Algonquian and a slew of its descendents all have T4Fb:

T4Fb
Code:
i
  e   o
    a


Regardless, S4 is found in Akkadian, Hittite (...maybe), Malagasy, and Proto-Slavic. I wouldn't be surprised if there were a language with a true S4 system /i u æ ɑ/, but I don't know of one. I also believe there is at least one language with /i u e o/, IE S4 with no low vowels at all, but I can't remember what it is.

Finally, there is the V4 system, found only in the bizarre Marshallese language of Micronesia:

V4
Code:
ɨ
ɘ
ɜ
a


The problem, as I said, is that Marshallese is batshit, and no fewer than twelve phonemic vowels will pop out of the woodwork if you only look for minimal pairs. The proof of the pudding is that, under such an analysis, Marshallese's glides /j w/ will have a very uneven distribution, and that eight of these vowels are best analyzed as a central vowel with a glide tacked on.

V4 is basically the largest vertical vowel system that you'd ever see in nature. Past this point, the square-vertical-triangular split begins to become less and less useful.

Five Vowels

Here we find the most common vowel system, T5, found in Classical Latin, Modern Greek, Spanish, Hebrew, Japanese, Swahili, the Polynesian languages, and Basque:

T5
Code:
i     u
  e   o
    a


There are a few variants on this. Lokono Arawak, spoken in Suriname, is rumored to have T5C:

T5C
Code:
i   ɨ  u
  e   
    a


The mirror image of T5C, with /o/ instead of /e/, was the vowel system of Proto-Uto-Aztecan, and is still found in some of its daughters. We'll call it T5B:

T5B
Code:
i  ɨ  u
      o
   a


And S5 is the vowel system of the Vanuatuan language Big Nambas:

S5
Code:
i    u
   ə
e    a


Six Vowels

Most of the systems I could find were just T5 with an extra vowel.

T6C, with /ə/ added, is found in Nepali and Armenian, as well as Southern Welsh (in a pinch):

T6C
Code:
i      u
  e ə  o
    a


T6Cb adds /ɨ/ instead, and is found in many Slavic languages, as well as Guaraní and Comanche.

T6Cb
Code:
i   ɨ   u
  e   o
    a


T6F adds /æ/ or /ɛ/, and is found in Chamorro, Menominee, Persian, Forest Nenets and pre-umlaut Old English. You could refer to it as S6 if you wanted, even, and that's what we'll do.

S6
Code:
i    u
 e   o
  æ  a


In S6, /a/ is not uncommonly /ɑ/. I don't know of any language which adds /ɔ/ or /ɑ/ instead of /ɛ/ or /æ/, and there probably isn't one, since having significantly more back vowels than front vowels like that is almost unheard of.

Common among conlangers, I think, is T6R:

T6R
Code:
i y   u
 e    o
    a


I don't know of any languages where this appears in nature; however, the rather strange S6R appears in the Uto-Aztecan language Hopi, thus being the only North American languge to my knowledge to natively possess a front rounded vowel of any sort:

S6R
Code:
i  ɨ
 ø   o
  ɛ  a


Also bizarre is the system T6Rc, which is the system in the Chapacuran language Wari', spoken along the Bolivian-Brazilian border:

T6Rc
Code:
i y
 e ø  o
   a


Seven Vowels

Almost all systems past this point will be using T5 as a base.

In plain T7L, usually, /ɛ ɔ/ is added. This is the vowel system of Vulgar Latin, Italian, Bengali, Brazilian Portuguese, and Yoruba:

T7L
Code:
i   u
e   o
ɛ   ɔ
  a


T7R, found in Hungarian, adds front rounded vowels instead:

T7R
Code:
i y    u
e ø    o
    a


In T7C, found in Northern Welsh, Kashmiri, and Romanian, the additions are central vowels:

T7C
Code:
i ɨ u
e ə o
  a


With /y/ instead of /ɨ/, we get T7Cb, the vowel system of Albanian.

T7Rc was found in Occitan, after a chain shift of VL ɔ -> o -> u -> y:

T7Rc
Code:
i y  u
e    o
ɛ
   a


It was also, with /æ/ instead of /ɛ/, the vowel system of West Saxon Old English (S7R).

Finally, there is T7Cb, found in Amharic:
T7Cb
Code:
i    u
e    o
ɛ  ə
   a


Eight Vowels

Many of these are extended versions of T7L.

In T8C, found in Javanese, Catalan, São Tomean Creole, Lo-Toga (with fronting of /u/ to /ʉ/) and Slovene, /ə/ is added:

T8C
Code:
i    u
e    o
ɛ  ə ɔ
   a


Presumably there is a language which adds /ɨ/ instead of /ə/, but I don't know of one.

Here is T8F, found in Finnish:

T8F
Code:
i y  u
e ø  o
æ    ɑ


A variant is T8B, Legion's dialect of French (disregarding nasalization) (thanks, Legion):

T8B
Code:
i y  u
e ø  o
     ɔ
   a


Note that Finnish's system is a product of vowel harmony; a word can either have /y ø æ/, or it can have /u o ɑ/, but (except in compounds) it can't have both. Without the vowel harmony, this was also the system of some dialects of Old English.

T8R is the usual analysis- er, or a more usual analysis- of Mandarin:

T8R
Code:
i y     u
    ɪ
  e  ə  o
     a


Here, in C8, found in Igbo, we get our first "cubic" vowel system, which is just a square vowel system with an additional variable, like laxness or roundedness.
C8
Code:
i u
ɪ ʊ
e o
a ɔ


This is the result of vowel harmony: /ɪ ʊ ɔ/ are one set of vowels, /a e i o u/ another.

Turkish has another system, C8R:
C8R
Code:
i y    ɯ u
e ø    a o


If it looks like I've shoehorned it into a cube when it shouldn't be there, that's not true; Turkish morphology fits the vowels neatly like this.

My own dialect of American English would probably be S8L:

S8L
Code:
i     u
 ɪ   ʊ
ɛ  ʌ   
æ     ɑ


Nine vowels
By now we're well past the usual number of vowels for natural languages. The systems will start getting increasingly more baroque, but also much less common.

T9L is found in Maasai; it's T7L with lax variants of /i u/:

T9L
Code:
i   u
ɪ   ʊ
e   o
ɛ   ɔ
  a


S9C adds /ɨ ə/ to T7L instead. It's found in European Portuguese and Thai:

S9C
Code:
i  ɨ  u
e  ə  o
ɛ     ɔ
   a


Some analyses of European Portuguese have /ə ɐ/ instead of /ɨ ə/, however, which would be T9C instead. With /ɯ ɤ/ instead of /ɨ ə/ [S9U] we have Lao.

S9R is- in a pinch- standard French (kudos to Legion):

S9R
Code:
i y  u
e ø  o
ɛ    ɔ
   a


A variety of S9R is found in Southern Sami:
S9Rb
Code:
i y  ɨ ʉ  u
e         o
ɛ        ɑ


S9L is standard American English:

S9L
Code:
i     u
 ɪ   ʊ
ɛ   ʌ ɔ
æ     ɑ


T9F is the vowel system of Estonian and Meadow Mari; it takes Finnish and adds /ɤ/. (Estonian has lost vowel length, but /ɤ/ is a retention from Proto-Finnic, I believe.)

T9F
Code:
i y     u
e ø   ɤ o
æ       ɑ


T9Fb adds /ʉ/ instead of /ɤ/, and is Swedish without vowel length or reduction to schwa factored in. You could put in /ɨ/ instead, however.

T9Fb
Code:
i y  ʉ  u
e ø     o
ɛ       ɑ


T9Fc is found in Korean:

T9Fb
Code:
i    ɯ u
e ø    o
  ɛ  ʌ
   a


Past this point, really, your imagination's the limit; many large vowel systems will have weird outliers in an otherwise symmetrical or ordered system, like baby gamma in Estonian. But we'll keep going...

Ten Vowels

T10L is found in Hindi and Panjabi, and I believe several African languages with vowel harmony, where /ɪ ʊ ɛ ɔ a/ alternate with /i u e o ə/:

T10L
Code:
i   u
 ɪ ʊ
e   o
ɛ ə ɔ
  a


T10R is found in Breton, adding front rounded vowels to T10L:

T10R
Code:
i y  u
e ø  o
ɛ œ  ɔ
   a


S10C, found in Khmer, adds central vowels to a variant of C8:

S10C
Code:
i ɨ u
e   o
ɛ ə ɔ
a   ɑ


S10R is found in Skolt Sami:

S10R
Code:
i   u
e ɘ o
ɛ ɐ ɔ
a   ɑ


Eleven Vowels
Past this point, almost everything you'll see is from Northwest Europe.

T11R takes T10R and adds a back variant to /a/. It's found in a language of Vanuatu called Sakao:

T11R
Code:
i y  u
e ø  o
ɛ œ  ɔ
a    ɑ 


Switch out the low vowels and you get T11Rb, standard Danish (sort of; Danish phonology is a complete clusterfuck):

T11Rb
Code:
i y   u
e ø   o
ɛ œ ə ɔ
  a   


T11C is found in Vietnamese:

T11C
Code:
i   u
 ɪ ʊ
e ɘ o
ɛ ɐ ɔ
 a


Twelve Vowels

Nothing major here, except for Selkup. At this point categorization starts to become an exercise in extremely iffy pedentry, so I'll stop:

Selkup
Code:
i y  ɨ   u
ɪ
e ø  ɘ   o
ɛ        ɔ
æ    a


Received Pronounciation
Code:
i       u
 ɪ   ʊ
   ə
ɛ  ɜ    ɔ
æ  ʌ  ɑ ɒ


More than Thirteen Vowels
Everything on this list is a Germanic language.

Dutch
Code:
i y       u
  ɪ ʏ     o
e ø   ə   ɔ
ɛ     
a       ɑ


Danish again, according to Routledge:
Code:
i y    u   
e ø ə  o
ɛ œ ɐ  ɔ
a      ɑ


German
Code:
i y    u
  ɪ ʏ  ʊ 
e ø ə  o
ɛ œ ɐ  ɔ
    a     


Swedish is probably the all-time record-keeper for number of phonemic qualities, although Danish probably has it beat on phonetics. By this analysis we have 16 vowel qualities.
Code:
i y ʉ  u
  ɪ ʏ  ʊ 
e ø ɵ  o
ɛ œ    ɔ
a      ɑ 


Well that's great and all, but how do I make a realistic vowel system?

Don't necessarily just copy a vowel system from this list.

You've probably noticed by now that certain patterns tend to recur. In particular, there are a lot of "base" vowel systems (/i a u/ (T3), /i e a o u/ (T5), and /i e ɛ a ɔ o u/ (T7L) in particular) to which languages add one or two "outliers". French and Hungarian, for example, add /y ø/ to T5 and T7L respectively.

Often you'll want to take a vowel system and add an extra dimension to it, like throwing in some central vowels, or a lax set of vowels.

For small vowel systems, most of the possible bases are covered in the overview- there simply aren't very many options. As I noted, vowels are kind of like a gas; they usually spread out to fill the vowel space very well. As a result, having a handful of vowels that are relatively close together is really only an option once you've already filled the space; a vowel system like /a ɑ ə/ is basically impossible, as is /i ɨ u/. (However, if your vowel system is very small, the vowels often will centralize a bit. Modern Quechua, for example, has /i a u/, but before the Spanish arrived it was more like /ɪ æ ʊ/.) Throwing in a random vowel often is justified when you're just one more than a "standard" system- I can't find a language that has /i y e a o u/, for example, but it wouldn't surprise me in the least if there was one, and it's certainly fair game for your conlangs.

"Filling the available space" is generally a good strategy in larger systems as well. E.g. I'd question the realism of a vowel system
Code:
i ɨ ʉ u
e ə ɵ o
   a


because distinctions between rounded and unrounded vowels simply aren't as audible towards the center of the board. (But note Southern Sami under the section about languages with nine vowels.) I'd expect this to shift very quickly to

Code:
i y ɨ  u
e ø ə  o
    a


which does fill out the available space pretty well.

As your vowel system gets larger, you'll start to run out of places to put your vowels, and will generally want to play with things like roundedness. Germanic languages are so large in part because they have roundedness distinctions in a lot of vowels.

As it gets larger, too, it will get easier to throw in random vowels- there's nothing very symmetrical-looking about English, for example. It will also get a lot more unstable. Diphthongization is a classic way to deal with this; indeed it's one of the reasons English sounds so distinctive- it cleared off several vowels by making them diphthongs. Even so, there are universals that will pretty much be followed at any size: you're not going to have very many more back than front vowels (so /i a u o/ is- probably- a no-no; but then it's just Proto-Uto-Aztecan without /ɨ/, so that's what you get for following universals too heavily); vertical vowel systems aside, vowels generally like to spread out to the margins (so a system like /i ɨ u ə ɐ a/ is very unlikely); a system tends to be higher than it is wide (so a system /i ɨ u e ə o/ is also probably not possible). There are other universals about vowel systems too, I'm sure, but the relevant PDF seems to have 404ed in the mists of time.

You can often create a distinctive-looking vowel system by taking a more boring one and putting in some sound changes. Occitan, for example, underwent a chain shift in the Vulgar Latin back vowels. The English Great Vowel Shift is another example. (Or take a distinctive vowel system and make it boring...Modern Greek's /i e a o u/ is the descendent of /i y e ɛ a ɔ o/.)
----------------
Phew, that's it. That took me a while...hope it's appreciated! Glad I didn't also do a post on consonant systems like I thought, that would be much harder...


Last edited by dhok on Sun Feb 17, 2013 3:45 pm, edited 5 times in total.

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PostPosted: Thu Feb 14, 2013 9:45 pm 
Avisaru
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Quote:
More than Thirteen Vowels
Everything on this list is a Germanic language.


Kensiu has 14:

http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Kensiu_language#Vowels

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PostPosted: Thu Feb 14, 2013 10:05 pm 
Avisaru
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I'll need to digest this.

I have also seen: http://gesc19764.pwp.blueyonder.co.uk/v ... stems.html.

Which is pretty good imo.

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PostPosted: Thu Feb 14, 2013 10:12 pm 
Sumerul
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2+3 clusivity wrote:
I'll need to digest this.

I have also seen: http://gesc19764.pwp.blueyonder.co.uk/v ... stems.html.

Which is pretty good imo.


That's where I got a lot of this, yes.


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PostPosted: Thu Feb 14, 2013 10:53 pm 
Sumerul
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An interesting post. I understood the basic principles, but it is nice to see so many concrete examples. Good work.

Analyzing my own language, Himmaswa, I realize it has a base system that is not on your list:

Code:
i     u
e ø ə o
    a


Do you know of any natural languages with this system?


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PostPosted: Fri Feb 15, 2013 4:55 am 
Smeric
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FearfulJesuit wrote:
One Vowel
There are no modern languages with just one vowel, with the very, very possible exception of Nuxalk (see below). One or two restructions of Proto-Indo-European have just /e/, but this is somewhat untenable, given that all of its daughters have at least three vowels (I think), many of its daughters have at least four or five, and you'd be hard-pressed to explain ablaut that way.

[...]

Two Vowels

This too is rare. Some other reconstructions of PIE have given it two vowels, /e o/:

S2
Code:
e     o


Fwiw, in both cases, I think you only get reconstructions of PIE with one or two vowels if you define vowels as segments which are underlyingly specified as syllabic (rather than gaining syllabic status through phonotactic rules/whatever), and if you do that then suddenly lots of these vowel systems look totally different (lots of them lack /i u/, for example).
/nitpicking

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PostPosted: Fri Feb 15, 2013 6:33 am 
Avisaru
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FearfulJesuit wrote:
I also believe there is at least one language with /i u e o/, IE S4 with no low vowels at all, but I can't remember what it is.

Arapaho has /ɪ ʊ ɛ ɔ/ according to the Wikipedia.


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PostPosted: Fri Feb 15, 2013 6:37 am 
Šriftom
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TzirTzi: That's not a nitpick, it's a weak point in the post. Specifically, when talking about phonological systems in so much detail, it's important to be clear exactly what you're talking about when you say something.

For example, Fearful, your strange claim that Ubykh's having two vowels is "dubious" arises from a lack of initial clarity in what it means to "have" a "vowel". Vowel charts like the above are not normally meant to list the phones found in the language. The facts about Ubykh in this matter are pretty much known, and the remaining argument over whether it might have a third "vowel" centers on whether long /a:/ might contrast with short /a/, not over how to describe the other vowel qualities found. Frontness and backness are induced by adjacent consonants in a predictable way.


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PostPosted: Fri Feb 15, 2013 6:47 am 
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Why didn't you include Hungarian /Q/ and /E/? They're quality differences too.


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PostPosted: Fri Feb 15, 2013 6:56 am 
Šriftom
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clawgrip wrote:
Code:
i     u
e ø ə o
    a


Do you know of any natural languages with this system?

I don't, and it breaks a universal. Of course not all "universals" are truly universal, but as far as I can remember I've never heard of this one being broken in a natural language: that, disregarding schwa, no height row on the chart has a greater number of distinct vowels than the row above it. (Edit: except in Germanic. But there it's probably licensed by the large number of vowels - things get more free when that happens.)

Also /ø/ is virtually never found without /y/ - which follows from the universal, unless there's some other gap in its row. But that isn't the case here.

Still, it's not a fatal flaw or anything. I could certainly see a language arriving at that vowel set by perfectly normal sound changes. I just wouldn't be very confident that the /ø/ would stay stable for long.


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PostPosted: Fri Feb 15, 2013 7:12 am 
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I think my reasoning for having /ø/ by itself when back-inventing sound changes was that /u/ began to become more open, and /o/ got fronted rather than opening further. Anyway, including diphthongs and phonation there are 38 distinct vowels in Himmaswa, so I think basically the entire vowel system is unstable. I imagine a highly variable dialect continuum would exist. I also imagine that the schwa could easily be raised in some dialects. Anyway thanks for the comment, it is helpful.


Last edited by clawgrip on Fri Feb 15, 2013 7:16 am, edited 1 time in total.

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PostPosted: Fri Feb 15, 2013 7:13 am 
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Radius Solis wrote:
TzirTzi: That's not a nitpick, it's a weak point in the post. Specifically, when talking about phonological systems in so much detail, it's important to be clear exactly what you're talking about when you say something.

For example, Fearful, your strange claim that Ubykh's having two vowels is "dubious" arises from a lack of initial clarity in what it means to "have" a "vowel". Vowel charts like the above are not normally meant to list the phones found in the language. The facts about Ubykh in this matter are pretty much known, and the remaining argument over whether it might have a third "vowel" centers on whether long /a:/ might contrast with short /a/, not over how to describe the other vowel qualities found. Frontness and backness are induced by adjacent consonants in a predictable way.


I'd also question the distinction geoff makes (and hence dhok slavishly copies without adequate attribution) between monophthongs and diphthongs. I prefer the WALS system, where they count the number of vowel qualities that actually appear - it seems kind of arbitrary to not count /e/ in English just because most dialects give it a slight raising-centralising finish.


Not sure why dhok thinks that a post on a forum is somehow more accessible than a pink webpage, or indeed a white webpage with proper diagrams on it.


Anyway, the real take-home lesson: most languages have five vowels. Some have three vowels instead. More than five vowels is usually a modification of a simpler system, which occurs in one of two ways: allowing in a new distinction, like rounding or centralisation, due to surrounding consonants, or syllable structure, or vowel harmony, or turning a non-quality distinction (most often length) into a quality distinction. Or sometimes by monophthongising diphthongs.
Very large vowels systems are extremely typologically unusual. Germanic is a massive outlier, thangs to widespread qualitisation of its length distinctions.

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PostPosted: Fri Feb 15, 2013 7:25 am 
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One last comment for Fearful:

The classic Uto-Aztecan system is probably better described as:
Code:
i  ɨ  u
 a    ɔ


The internal logic of the native UA vowel system is that height is a binary feature, [+high] for /i ɨ u/ and [-high] for /a ɔ/. Each set conditioned various sound changes across the daughter languages. It does break the tendency of vowel systems to be higher than they are wide, but that is only a tendency, and the vowel system is plenty well attested in UA languages.


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PostPosted: Fri Feb 15, 2013 8:12 am 
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FearfulJesuit wrote:
(Estonian has lost vowel length, but /ɤ/ is a retention from Proto-Finnic, I believe.)


A minor correction is in order, it's actually quite the opposite. Estonian sure has kept vowel length and has in fact gone to develop a three way length distinction. /ɤ/ on the other hand is only a south Finnic innovation.


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PostPosted: Fri Feb 15, 2013 10:46 am 
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Salmoneus wrote:
Radius Solis wrote:
TzirTzi: That's not a nitpick, it's a weak point in the post. Specifically, when talking about phonological systems in so much detail, it's important to be clear exactly what you're talking about when you say something.

For example, Fearful, your strange claim that Ubykh's having two vowels is "dubious" arises from a lack of initial clarity in what it means to "have" a "vowel". Vowel charts like the above are not normally meant to list the phones found in the language. The facts about Ubykh in this matter are pretty much known, and the remaining argument over whether it might have a third "vowel" centers on whether long /a:/ might contrast with short /a/, not over how to describe the other vowel qualities found. Frontness and backness are induced by adjacent consonants in a predictable way.


I'd also question the distinction geoff makes (and hence dhok slavishly copies without adequate attribution) between monophthongs and diphthongs. I prefer the WALS system, where they count the number of vowel qualities that actually appear - it seems kind of arbitrary to not count /e/ in English just because most dialects give it a slight raising-centralising finish.

It's not just them. I think Geoff probably got it from David Crystal or someone else who's done real published versions of these. (Crystal's Encyclopedia of language has a page of them) It is indeed incredibly suspect and disingenuous. Like it makes Mandarin look like it has a five vowel system of /i y u ɤ a/... which it doesn't.


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PostPosted: Fri Feb 15, 2013 1:08 pm 
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gach wrote:
FearfulJesuit wrote:
(Estonian has lost vowel length, but /ɤ/ is a retention from Proto-Finnic, I believe.)


A minor correction is in order, it's actually quite the opposite. Estonian sure has kept vowel length and has in fact gone to develop a three way length distinction. /ɤ/ on the other hand is only a south Finnic innovation.


A typo! I meant vowel harmony.

Thanks for the notes, all...y'all are probably right about the diphthong-monophthong division...I'll think about putting some touches on a few of those vowel systems.

I also didn't attribute enough, and I ought to have. Sorry.


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PostPosted: Sat Feb 16, 2013 2:04 am 
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Radius Solis wrote:
I don't, and it breaks a universal. Of course not all "universals" are truly universal, but as far as I can remember I've never heard of this one being broken in a natural language: that, disregarding schwa, no height row on the chart has a greater number of distinct vowels than the row above it. (Edit: except in Germanic. But there it's probably licensed by the large number of vowels - things get more free when that happens.)

The Formosan language Saisiyat has the rather odd six-vowel system
Code:
i     
ø ə o
 æ a

[ø æ] have been described as allophonic variants of /o a/, though I'm pretty sure I've seen near-minimal pairs contrasting them. Depending on their phonemic status, this could break the universal (which doesn't make it not a "universal," since what makes a universal in a phonology is kinda fuzzy; I just read a paper arguing for the existence of moraic onset geminates, which are so rare as to have been prohibited in mainstream prosodic theory for decades). Especially if a universal is grounded in articulation or acoustics, the translation to phonology makes it hard to banish all exceptions. Also, the points Radius brings up are instructive: phonology doesn't really deal in discrete phonemes so much as in features, with phonemes being a shorthand for distinctive feature trees organized into a segment (sorry if this is incoherent, my brain is tired).

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PostPosted: Sat Feb 16, 2013 2:52 am 
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Radius Solis wrote:
Of course not all "universals" are truly universal, but as far as I can remember I've never heard of this one being broken in a natural language: that, disregarding schwa, no height row on the chart has a greater number of distinct vowels than the row above it.


Isn't /a e i o/ pretty common in North America? Navajo has it.


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PostPosted: Sat Feb 16, 2013 3:54 am 
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cromulant wrote:
Radius Solis wrote:
Of course not all "universals" are truly universal, but as far as I can remember I've never heard of this one being broken in a natural language: that, disregarding schwa, no height row on the chart has a greater number of distinct vowels than the row above it.


Isn't /a e i o/ pretty common in North America? Navajo has it.

Yes, but don't assume it means the /e/ and /o/ are the same height. They usually aren't, the /e/ goes with /a/ and the /i/ with /o/, the whole system forming a tilted square:
Code:
i
      o
ɛ
      a


Whereas kode's example probably does break the universal. So there's that.


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PostPosted: Sun Feb 17, 2013 3:19 am 
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There's a fellow who's apparently been working really hard to catalog American English dialects and he suggests anywhere from 13-16 contrastive vowels for American speakers:

http://aschmann.net/AmEng/#Vowels

What would this system be classified as, something like T16?

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PostPosted: Sun Feb 17, 2013 3:43 am 
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Ok I was going through the OP to count how many different classifications there, were reached some double-digit number, looked over at the scroll bar on the posting box and it wasn't even 1/4 of the way down. I stopped.

TAKE BEGINNERS OUT OF THE THREAD TITLE

No way in shit this is solely for beginners. Probably useful, but yeah no. Maybe Shittons of Vowel Systems or Compendium of many Vowel Systems, but please take beginners out.


(This started as wanting to respond to the T16? question post as 'Surely it would merely be T10+, a classification system for beginners wouldn't go higher than that...', then deciding to check before I did so. Holy fuck am I glad I did)

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 Post subject: Re: Vowel Systems
PostPosted: Sun Feb 17, 2013 5:08 pm 
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This probably should be a wiki entry, so as not to be dependant on one person. E.g. what I think this entire topic seriously needs is a featural analysis over the impressionistic "triangle"/"square"/"vertical" stuff. That would actually help people in making the vowel system "work" in a natural way (ie. with respect to phonological processes).

For an example, "S4" and "TF4" can be distinguished by how they encode /e/. You could have this:
/i/ [+front] [+high]
/u/ [+high]
/e/
/a/ [+low]
This would make it basically "T4" with the frontness of /e/ as a phonetical detail. Alternately:
/i/ [+front] [+high]
/u/ [+high]
/e/ [+front]
/a/ [+low]
This makes a "true" triangle where /e/ patterns with /i/ but not /a/. Simpler yet however is the "square" approach, which only takes two features:
/i/ [+front] [+high]
/u/ [+high]
/e/ [+front]
/a/
Different choices of active features could be used to switch whichever vowel is "default" — if we'd use [+back] rather than [+front], then /e/ would be the least marked, not /a/.

Also some addenda:
— The opposite of the Big Nambas system, /i ə a o u/ is found in Monguor and some related languages.
— I'm pretty sure I've seen /i e a ɔ o u/ described from a couple places. Also, /i ɨ u ə a/.
— A very back-heavy /i e~ə u ʊ o ɔ ɑ/ can be found in several Mongolian languages. A couple varieties add front vowels like /y ʏ ø e ɛ œ/ (anywhere from one to six of them).
— Vowel length provides some hard-to-analyze systems. Northern Mansi has the short vowels /i ɑ o u/, long vowels /eː ɑː oː uː/. Far Eastern Khanty has four short vowels /ĕ ø̆ ă ŏ/ versus 11 full vowels /i y ɯ u e ø o œ ɔ æ ɑ/.
— So does diphthongization. The Samic vowel systems are fairly diphthong-dominated, and listing their monophthongs is not going to be an adequate picture of what's going on.

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 Post subject: Re: Vowel Systems
PostPosted: Mon Feb 18, 2013 4:10 pm 
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If you have an unstable vowel system can you tell how it's going to collapse (roughly)


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 Post subject: Re: Vowel Systems
PostPosted: Mon Feb 18, 2013 4:45 pm 
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Does Ubykh really have a two-vowel system? Most claims I've heard say three, but one is longer than the other. One of those languages has an I think unambiguously two-vowel system though. Adyghe, I think.

Seri has a true S4 system.

Marshallese is merging (has merged?) its mid vowels, so it's not as batshit as it looks.

I've seen /a e ø o i u/ before. Not sure where. It's been claimed, in a slightly modified form, for British English. Some dialects of Basque have /a e o i y u/.

There was an analysis of British English a while back that said the long vowels were actually diphthongs.

If you think large vowel systems are hardly found outside Western Europe, you aren't looking hard enough.
http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Kensiu_language#Vowels
http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Hiw_language#Phonology
http://alex.francois.free.fr/data/AlexF ... OL44-2.pdf

clawgrip wrote:
An interesting post. I understood the basic principles, but it is nice to see so many concrete examples. Good work.

Analyzing my own language, Himmaswa, I realize it has a base system that is not on your list:

Code:
i     u
e ø ə o
    a


Do you know of any natural languages with this system?

I think I've seen this before, but I'm not sure where. I'm certain that /a e ø o i u/ is attested though.

Also, two of my conlangs have vowel systems that aren't on here: Insular Kett has /a e/ and Arve has /a ɛ ɞ ʌ ɔ e ø i y u/.

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 Post subject: Re: Vowel Systems
PostPosted: Mon Feb 18, 2013 6:44 pm 
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One of my langs, Classical Minva, has six short vowels
/e ə i~ɪ ɔ ʊ u/
Colors indicate vowel harmony class, with blue being neutral.
In words with /ɔ ʊ/ /e/ merges with /i~ɪ/ as [ɪ], while in words with /e u/, /ɔ ʊ/ correspond to /u/. I know several Indian languages have short vowel systems which replace T5 /a/ with /ə/, so is this a tenable variation on that?


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