A guide to small consonant inventories

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Nortaneous
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A guide to small consonant inventories

Post by Nortaneous » Sat 14 Dec 2013, 17:02

...mostly in the form of an inventory dump. By 'small' I mean 12 or fewer consonants, which isn't completely arbitrary since the smallest consonant inventory in Europe (Finnish) has 13, if you ignore the glottal stop and all the loan phonemes.

Inventory dump:

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Rotokas     p   b t d           k g                                           6   
Iau             b t d           k          f     s                            6
Buin        p     t             k g                        m   n       r      7
Puinave     p     t             k                s       h m   n              7
Hawaiian    p                   k        ʔ               h m   n     l     w  8
I'saka      p   b t d           k                s                       j w  8     
Nasioi      p   b t d           k        ʔ                 m   n              8
Piraha      p   b t             k g      ʔ       s       h                    8     
Taoripi     p     t             k          f     s       h m         l        8
Abau        p                   k                s       h m   n       r j w  9
AitaRotokas p   b t d           k g                        m   n   ŋ          9
C.Miyako    p     t             k          f     s         m   n       r   ʋ  9   
Gadsup      p     t d           k        ʔ                 m   n         j β  9     
Onondaga          t           ʤ k        ʔ       s       h     n         j w  9
Pawnee      p     t     ʦ       k        ʔ       s       h             r   w  9
Rapoisi     p     t             k        ʔ       s     ɣ h             r   β  9
Roro        p   b t             k        ʔ               h m   n       r      9
Tahitian    p     t                      ʔ f             h m   n       r   v  9
Bari            b t d           k                s       h m         ɾ r j    10
Cheyenne    p     t             k        ʔ       s ʃ     h m   n           v  10
Crow        p     t         ʧ   k                s ʃ x   h m   n              10
Ekari       p   b t d           k                          m   n     gʟ  j w  10
Gilbertese  p pˠ  t             k                          m mˠn   ŋ   r   βˠ 10
Keuw        p   b t d           k g              s                   l   j w  10
Iñapari     p     t                      ʔ       s       h m   n       r j w  10
Mandan      p     t             k        ʔ       s ʃ x   h             r   w  10
Maori       p     t             k          f             h m   n   ŋ   r   w  10
Maxakali    p   b t d           k g      ʔ         ʃ     h               j    10
Mekeo       p     t             k        ʔ f     s         m   n   ŋ l        10
NaskapiCree p     t        ʧ    k                s       h m   n         j w  10
Niuean      p     t             k          f             h m   n   ŋ l     v  10
Palauan         b t d           k        ʔ       s         m       ŋ l r      10
Samoan      p                   k        ʔ f     s       h m       ŋ l     v  10
Sentani     p     t             k          f             h m   n     l   j w  10
S.Barasano      b t d           k g              s       h             r j w  10
Tinputz     p     t             k        ʔ       s       h m   n       r   β  10
Tiriyo      p     t             k                s       h m   n       r j w  10
Warao       p     t             k   kʷ           s       h m   n       r j w  10
Wichita           t     ʦ       k   kʷ   ʔ       s       h     n         j w  10
Xavante     p   b t d       ʧ ʤ          ʔ               h             r   w  10
Ache        p   b t d       ʧ ʤ k g                        m         l     v  11
Ainu        p     t     ʦ       k                s       h m   n       r j w  11
Angaataha   p     t             k        ʔ         ʃ       m   n   ŋ   r j w  11
Arabela     p     t             k                s ʃ     h m   n       r j w  11
Arikapu     p     t         ʧ   k                        h m   n       r j w  11
Asmat       p     t         ʧ   k          f     s         m   n       r j w  11
Auca        p   b t d           k g                        m   n ɲ ŋ       w  11
BarasanaEd. p   b t d       c ɟ k g                      h             r   w  11
Cayuga            t     ʦ       k   kʷ   ʔ       s       h     n       r j w  11
Cherokee          t     ʦ       k        ʔ       s       h m   n     l   j ɰ  11
Cubeo       p   b t d       ʧ   k              ð         h             r j w  11
Dera        p   b t d           k g                        m   n   ŋ     j w  11
Fasu        p     t             k          ɸ     s       h m   n       r j w  11
Karitiana   p     t             k                s       h m   n   ŋ   r j w  11
Koiari          b t d           k g        f   ð         h m   n       r      11
Irantxe     p     t             k        ʔ       s       h m   n     l   j w  11
Iwam        p     t             k                s       h m   n   ŋ   r j w  11
Maranao     p     t             k        ʔ                 m   n   ŋ l r j w  11
Menominee   p     t         ʧ   k        ʔ       s       h m   n         j w  11
MiamiIll    p     t         ʧ   k                s ʃ     h m   n         j w  11
Mohawk            t     ʦ       k   kʷ   ʔ       s       h     n       r j w  11
Nukak       p   b t d       ʧ ʤ k g      ʔ               h             r      11
Oneida            t     ʦ       k   kʷ   ʔ       s       h     n     l   j w  11
Seneca            t       ʣ   ʤ k        ʔ       s ʃ     h     n         j w  11
Shawnee     p     t         ʧ   k        ʔ   θ     ʃ       m   n         j w  11
Tigak       p   b t             k g              s         m   n   ŋ l r      11
Tuscarora         t         ʧ   k        ʔ   θ   s       h     n       r j w  11
Tuyuca      p   b t d           k g              s       h             r j w  11
Yagua       p     t     ʦ   ʧ   k                        h m   n       r j w  11
Arapaho         b t         ʧ   k        ʔ   θ   s   x   h     n         j w  12
Awa         p   b t             k g      ʔ       s         m   n       r j w  12
Bandjalang  p     t         c   k                          m   n ɲ ŋ l r j w  12
Cacua       p     t         ʧ   k        ʔ ʍ             h m   n   ŋ l     w  12
Chuave          b t d           k g        f     s         m   n       r j w  12
Comanche    p     t     ʦ       k   kʷ   ʔ       s       h m   n         j w  12
Cree        p     t         ʧ   k                s ʃ     h m   n       r j w  12
Djeoromitxi p     t         ʧ ʤ k                        h m   n       r   w  12
Huaorani    p   b t d         ɟ k g                        m   n ɲ ŋ       w  12
Ikpeng      p     t         ʧ   k g                        m   n   ŋ l r j w  12
Irarutu         b t d           k g        ɸ     s         m   n       r j w  12
Jamamadi        b t           ɟ k        ʔ ɸ     s       h̃ m   n       r   w  12
Karaja          b   d ɗ     ʧ ʤ k            θ     ʃ     h           l r   w  12
Ket             b t d           k      q         s ç     h m   n   ŋ ɮ        12
Nagovisi    p   b t d           k g      ʔ       s         m   n       r   β  12
Nimboran    p   b t d           k g              s       h m   n   ŋ   r      12
Rarotongan  p     t             k        ʔ f     s       h m   n   ŋ   r   v  12
S. Kiwai    p   b t d           k g      ʔ       s         m   n       r   w  12
Tifal           b t d           k          f     s         m   n   ŋ l   j w  12
Tongan      p     t             k        ʔ f     s       h m   n   ŋ l     v  12
There are a number of things you can do in small consonant inventories.

Voicing in plosives:
May be totally absent, as in the Polynesian languages (sometimes they have /v/ but I grouped that as a form of /w/).
May be fully present, as in Xavante or Rotokas.
May be present for only some of the plosives. Note that you can eliminate voicing contrasts for any one POA, though if you eliminate it only in the labials, you'll end up with /b/, not /p/. Piraha, Awa, and Tigak have /p b t k g/ with no /d/; I'm guessing it became /r/. (Iau /d/ is notable within the Lakes-Plain languages for *not* allowing flapping of /d/ -- most of them do.)
Some of these languages have /g/ with no /b d/; this seems to come from lenition processes, where either p t k or b d g > w r g -- so g fails to lenite but the other plosives do. This happened in Ikpeng (where lenition applied intervocalically and /k/ redeveloped through cluster loss) and also in Rotokas though it doesn't show up on the chart -- /b d/ are usually [β ɾ] but I don't know if /g/ lenites.)

POAs:
May have no labials, as with Oneida and Tuscarora. Comanche is the only language here to have both labials and /kʷ/, but it's spoken in the general vicinity of languages with /kʷ/ and no labials.
Xavante and Tahitian have no velars. I'm guessing /k/ backed to /ʔ/ in Tahitian and /k g/ fronted in Xavante, but I don't know.
It is not necessarily the case that you need three stop POAs. Abau only has /p k/.
Samoan merged its alveolars into velars, except /l/. Chain shift in the stops: t :> k > ʔ. It already had /ŋ/ when /n/ merged into it though.
Affricates only appear in American languages in this sample. Most of the American languages made it onto the list by having no labials.
Maximum of three non-glottal POAs except in Bandjalang, which is the only Australian language here.

Fricatives:
Bandjalang has the largest inventory here with no fricatives, and it's Australian.
The presence of fricatives usually implies /h/, but some have /s/ as their only fricative. If there's a fricative that isn't /s/, there's also /h/ -- except in Cubeo, which only has /x/. If there's /f/, there's usually /s h/; the only exceptions are Polynesian, except Sentani, which is Papuan, and Koiari, which for some bizarre reason has /ð/.
None of these languages has more than three fricatives, unless you count Polynesian /v/ as a fricative. Tuscarora has /θ s h/, Seneca has /s ʃ h/, and Koiari has /f ð h/, but the most common three-fricative inventory by far is /f s h/. /x/ doesn't appear in any of these languages except Cubeo.

The glottal stop:
Not as necessary as you might think: about a third of the languages here don't have it. Of the ones that do, some (Polynesian) got it through debuccalization of another plosive.

Nasals:
Nasals actually do not imply /n/. Samoan is not anymore the only language here to have nasals without /n/, and it merged its alveolars into velars.
/ŋ/ implies /m/. /p n/ also imply /m/.
Many of the languages here with missing nasals are Amazonian languages with a full inventory of nasal vowels -- nasals are allophones of voiced stops around nasal vowels. In Piraha, nasals [m n] are allophones of /b g/ word-initially. In Keuw, voiced stops vary freely with nasals, and voiceless stops can be freely prenasalized. Rotokas and Iau really do have no nasals.

Liquids:
Surprisingly, /w/ (or /v/) is more common than /j/ -- the only language with /j/ and no /w/ is Maxakali.
Ekari has a velar lateral affricate /gʟ/.
/l r/ contrast is more common than you might think, even in these small inventories. It's really not that European a feature.

Iau:
...is worthy of special mention here for being probably the most phonologically bizarre language on the planet. It has six consonants, /b t d k f s/. /f/ is [ɸ~h] word-initially, but is [x] preceding /i/; word-medially it's [h]; and word-finally (/f/ is the only consonant that can occur word-finally) it's an unreleased stop [p]. /b d/ vary with nasals, and can be implosive before /ã/; /d/ can also be [l], but is never flapped.
There are eight vowels: /ã æ~ɛ ɪ i ɔ ʊ u/ and a fricated vowel /i̝/. /ã/ is always nasalized.
Despite all this, most words are monosyllabic -- and the reason Iau can pull this off is that, well, not only does it have eight tones (two level and six contour), it has tone clusters -- more than one tone can appear on a word. There is an extensive system of tone-based verbal derivation:
tai2 'pull'
tai3 'has been pulled off'
tai21 'might pull'
tai43 'land on'
tai24 'fell to ground'
tai23 'fall to ground (incompletive)'
tai34 'pull off'
tai243 'falling to ground (durative)'
tai21-34 'pull on, shake' (nb: two *different* contour tones)
tai21-3 'have pulled on, have shaken'
Last edited by Nortaneous on Mon 20 Jan 2014, 08:28, edited 1 time in total.
Plusquamperfekt
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Re: A guide to small consonant inventories

Post by Plusquamperfekt » Sat 14 Dec 2013, 17:38

I have a question... how is it possible to get the standard size of a European vocabulary with only 6-12 consonants, 5 vowels and only CV-structures?! Since I do not speak any Polynesian language, I've really always wondered if words are either incredibely long or super ambiguous... let's imagine I have /p t k s h m n l r w j/, then there would be only 55 possible syllables in my language? This is just like baking bread with only a tea spoon of flour, it simply doesn't work... well obviously it does, but how?!
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Re: A guide to small consonant inventories

Post by Click » Sat 14 Dec 2013, 17:48

Well, it does work if you use longer words, but even these do not need to be very long at all. Actually, with 55 possible syllables, you can have a whopping total of 166375 trisyllabic words. With monosyllables and disyllables added, there are 169455 words. More than enough, innit? [;)]
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Re: A guide to small consonant inventories

Post by Plusquamperfekt » Sat 14 Dec 2013, 18:22

I have a perfect example for a conlang with a very small consonant inventory... OK, it's not a conlang, but only a bunch of syllables with no meaning, but maybe we could make it a conlang?!

http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=RRQlsvWMWBo

Code: Select all

a e i o u

p t k
m n
s h
l r 
I don't know if I missed any consonant...
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Re: A guide to small consonant inventories

Post by Ambrisio » Sat 14 Dec 2013, 23:06

Sanomi Helé
Manilla Keranu
Aliya Irema Nia Lago
Ture Madilé

Sanomi Helé
Manilla Keranu
Aliya Irema Nia Madilé

Kenatu Narilé
Lakenatu Narilé
Pasema Niamo Ture Saro
Delamaoré
There's <d> and <g>. Otherwise, the 'language' has a nice Austronesian feel to it
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Re: A guide to small consonant inventories

Post by Nortaneous » Sun 15 Dec 2013, 00:07

Plusquamperfekt wrote:I have a question... how is it possible to get the standard size of a European vocabulary with only 6-12 consonants, 5 vowels and only CV-structures?! Since I do not speak any Polynesian language, I've really always wondered if words are either incredibely long or super ambiguous... let's imagine I have /p t k s h m n l r w j/, then there would be only 55 possible syllables in my language? This is just like baking bread with only a tea spoon of flour, it simply doesn't work... well obviously it does, but how?!
Rotokas has very long words:

osirei-toarei avuka-va iava ururupa-vira tou-pa-si-veira
eye-MASC.DL old-FEM.SG POST closed-ADV be-PROG-2.DL.MASC-HABITUAL

As for Iau, it's mostly monosyllabic (though there are a few hundred disyllabic words), but it still has a larger number of possible syllables than Mandarin: though it has only six consonants, and the only possible final (uncommon as it is) is -f (realized [p]), it has eight vowels, eleven diphthongs, two triphthongs, and eight tones -- and more than one tone can appear per word. Most of those tone clusters only appear on derived verbs, but three can appear on roots. I don't know much about Iau beyond the phonology but it looks like they use a lot of compounds.
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Re: A guide to small consonant inventories

Post by Plusquamperfekt » Sun 15 Dec 2013, 00:44

Ambrisio wrote:
Sanomi Helé
Manilla Keranu
Aliya Irema Nia Lago
Ture Madilé

Sanomi Helé
Manilla Keranu
Aliya Irema Nia Madilé

Kenatu Narilé
Lakenatu Narilé
Pasema Niamo Ture Saro
Delamaoré
There's <d> and <g>. Otherwise, the 'language' has a nice Austronesian feel to it

Code: Select all

p t d k g
m n
s h
l r j 
Hmmmm, for some reason I can't get rid of the suspicion that "sanomi" means "woman" and "keranu" means "man" and "hele" means "love"... :/
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Re: A guide to small consonant inventories

Post by gach » Sun 15 Dec 2013, 02:27

Plusquamperfekt wrote:I have a question... how is it possible to get the standard size of a European vocabulary with only 6-12 consonants, 5 vowels and only CV-structures?! Since I do not speak any Polynesian language, I've really always wondered if words are either incredibely long or super ambiguous... let's imagine I have /p t k s h m n l r w j/, then there would be only 55 possible syllables in my language? This is just like baking bread with only a tea spoon of flour, it simply doesn't work... well obviously it does, but how?!
Longer words aren't even needed that acutely. With 55 allowed syllables you already have 3025 disyllabic words. This starts to be more than enough to cover the basic underived vocabulary. Most words will be longer due to being derivations or having inflectional morphology stacked on top of them but there's little need for long roots.
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Re: A guide to small consonant inventories

Post by Ànradh » Sun 15 Dec 2013, 11:25

Finally had a chance to read this, there's some cool stuff in here.
It's nice to see that when I began trimming Iriex's inventory down, I chose the most likely culprits to go.
Sin ar Pàrras agus nì sinne mar a thogras sinn. Choisinn sinn e agus ’s urrainn dhuinn ga loisgeadh.
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Re: A guide to small consonant inventories

Post by Chagen » Fri 20 Dec 2013, 21:36

I find it interesting how dental fricatives are rare phonemes yet they appear in even these tiny invenstories. Especially that one that has only /ð h/--I didn't even know that was possible.
Nūdenku waga honji ma naku honyasi ne ika-ika ichamase!
female-appearance=despite boy-voice=PAT hold boy-youth=TOP very be.cute-3PL
Honyasi zō honyasi ma naidasu.
boy-youth=AGT boy-youth=PAT love.romantically-3S
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Re: A guide to small consonant inventories

Post by Nortaneous » Sun 22 Dec 2013, 19:49

What, Cubeo? It's marginal there: IIRC it's an allophone of /j/, but it can't be substituted with /j/ in about twelve words so it's analyzed as phonemic.
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Re: A guide to small consonant inventories

Post by Shrdlu » Sun 22 Dec 2013, 19:53

Chagen wrote:I find it interesting how dental fricatives are rare phonemes yet they appear in even these tiny invenstories. Especially that one that has only /ð h/--I didn't even know that was possible.
Maybe because the fricative inventory was more expansive in the past but then suffered a number of mergers?
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Re: A guide to small consonant inventories

Post by Avo » Mon 23 Dec 2013, 00:05

Shrdlu wrote:
Chagen wrote:I find it interesting how dental fricatives are rare phonemes yet they appear in even these tiny invenstories. Especially that one that has only /ð h/--I didn't even know that was possible.
Maybe because the fricative inventory was more expansive in the past but then suffered a number of mergers?
Or maybe /ð/ here is an approximant? /h/ as only fricative isn't unheared of, especially in the area where Cubeo is spoken.
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Re: A guide to small consonant inventories

Post by Shrdlu » Mon 23 Dec 2013, 01:22

It's a fair guesses as far as I'm concerned because it all boils down to that we don't know.
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Re: A guide to small consonant inventories

Post by Ceresz » Mon 23 Dec 2013, 02:16

Nortaneous wrote:What, Cubeo? It's marginal there: IIRC it's an allophone of /j/, but it can't be substituted with /j/ in about twelve words so it's analyzed as phonemic.
According to Gramátic del cubeo /j/ has eight allophones: [j j̃ ð ð̃ dʒ ɲ nnj].
  • • [j] occurs between /i ĩ/ and a following oral vowel: /bĩˈbĩjo/ → [mĩˈmĩjo]
    • [j̃] also occurs between /i ĩ/ and a following nasal vowel: /ĩˈjõrɨ̃/ → [ĩˈj̃õrɨ̃]
    • [ð] occurs after /ɑ ɑ̃ e ẽ o õ/ if the second vowel is oral: /dõˈjobo/ → [dõˈðobo]
    • [ð̃] occurs between non-high nasalized vowels: /ɑ̃ˈjɑ̃/ → [ɑ̃ˈð̃ɑ̃]
    • [dʒ] occurs after /u ũ ɨ ɨ̃/, and before an oral vowel: /ɑˈbukuja/ → [ɑˈbukudʒa]
    • [ɲ] occurs after /u ũ ɨ ɨ̃/, and before a nasalized vowel: /jɑ̃ˈbĩ/ → [ɲɑ̃ˈbĩ]
    • [ndʒ] and [nj] occur in free variation at the beginning of a word if the following vowel is oral: /jɨí/ → [ndʒɨí] ~ [nj]ɨí]
My Spanish is terrible so I might've missed some finer details. Those of you who know Spanish can find the PDF here.
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Re: A guide to small consonant inventories

Post by jimydog000 » Fri 28 Jul 2017, 08:33

Chagen wrote:I find it interesting how dental fricatives are rare phonemes yet they appear in even these tiny invenstories. Especially that one that has only /ð h/--I didn't even know that was possible.
It seems to check out for me. 6.7% of the languages on the list have dental fricatives and WALS says 7.6% of it's recorded languages have dental fricatives. http://wals.info/chapter/19

Also I'd imagine if a language with a small inventory developed dental fricatives it wouldn't want to get rid of it's allophonic dental fricatives because of the small amount of consonants and then additionally (over time) because of it became a phoneme ... I'm not sure if this argument holds up at all with no evidence, but I did notice Arapaho, and it's other sister langs had a lot of phoneme changes but kept the /θ/.

Sorry for necroing.
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Re: A guide to small consonant inventories

Post by Iyionaku » Fri 28 Jul 2017, 09:48

jimydog000 wrote: Sorry for necroing.
This topic is super interesting and I'd've never found it. So... thanks, I guess.
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Re: A guide to small consonant inventories

Post by DesEsseintes » Fri 28 Jul 2017, 11:51

I've been using this thread over on the ZBB for years and never had a clue it existed over here as well! Well necroed. :mrgreen:
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Re: A guide to small consonant inventories

Post by gach » Fri 28 Jul 2017, 13:47

jimydog000 wrote:Also I'd imagine if a language with a small inventory developed dental fricatives it wouldn't want to get rid of it's allophonic dental fricatives because of the small amount of consonants and then additionally (over time) because of it became a phoneme ... I'm not sure if this argument holds up at all with no evidence, but I did notice Arapaho, and it's other sister langs had a lot of phoneme changes but kept the /θ/.
Unusual phonemes certainly find their way into smaller consonant inventories. Check for example Ekari (TNG > Painiai Lakes) that's on the list with 10 consonant phonemes and has a laterally released voiced velar stop (though admittedly doesn't contrast that to a non-lateral voiced velar) or several languages of the Chimbu–Wahgi family (TNG) that also have velar laterals in only somewhat richer consonant inventories (e.g. Kuman with /p t k b d g s m n ɾ l ʟ j/).

There's also Gimi (TNG > Kainantu–Goroka) that was brough up by Joseph Windsor in his recent LCC7 talk. The language only has 12 consonant phonemes, /p t ʔ b d ʔ̰ s h z m n ɾ/, but is the only place in the world where a phonemic contrast between a glottal stop /ʔ/ and a creaky-voiced glottal approximant /ʔ̰/ is attested. These have a simple explanation, they are due to a not too ancient sound change /k g/ > /ʔ ʔ̰/ and correspond regularly to /k g/ in the closely related languages. In fact, they are also orthographically represented as <k g> in Gimi. It's simply that with enough languages around, you expect curiosities like this to pop up in phoneme rich and phoneme poor languages alike.
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