Workshop: Establishing phoneme inventories: argumentation and cross-linguistic comparability (June 16–18, 2021)

Organisers: Renate Raffelsiefen (Leibniz-Institut für Deutsche Sprache, Mannheim and Freie Universität Berlin) and Stig Eliasson (Johannes Gutenberg-Universität Mainz)

Establishing phoneme inventories: argumentation and cross-linguistic comparability

There is a glaring discrepancy between the ubiquitous and often crucial reference to phonemes in various phonological studies (Becker-Crystal 2010, Papakyritsis & Granese 2013, Brown 2017) and the lack of recognition of the concept of a phoneme among theorists (Dresher 2011). The dismissal of phonemes as significant units in grammar can be traced back to the advent of Generative Phonology, constituting a remarkable shift from a singular focus on establishing phonemic structure, that had dominated phonological research for decades (cf. contributions in Joos 1957). A key idea of that work was that language-specific contrastiveness, based on the ability of sounds to distinguish lexical meaning, plays a key role in the symbolic representation of sound structure (Bloomfield 1933). The relevant inventories were considered systems organized as oppositions, where each item was defined by its relations to other items within that system (Trubetzkoy 1939). The problems wrestled with included diverse issues, such as determining phonemic versus subphonemic status of phonetic properties (e.g. subphonemic glottalization vs. recognition of the glottal stop as a phoneme as in German [ʔa̰st] Ast ‘branch’ : [hast] Hast ‘haste’), determining minimal contrast (e.g. mono- vs. biphonemicity in diphthongs, affricates), deciding on the phonemic status of non-segmental contrast (e.g. stress, tone), or assessing the role of morphological boundaries in potential minimal pairs (e.g. tonal differences associated with different morphemic structures as in Swedish 2ande+n vs. 1and+en). The demonstration of significant flaws in the specific Structuralist approaches to tackling these issues led to the rejection of the entire idea that language-specific contrastiveness plays a crucial role in phonological representation, and shifted the focus of phonological description from representation to derivational rules. The significance of language-specific contrast in phonological description has been revived in Optimality Theory, where, however, it has been claimed that the relevant facts can be expressed in terms of constraint ranking, regardless of which level of representation is intended (Prince & Smolensky 2004).

Reference to phoneme inventories (e.g. UPSID, PHOIBLE) in current studies often conveys a cavalier attitude towards issues concerning phonemic analysis, at times contrasting oddly with the care invested in sophisticated statistical modeling of the putative facts. Discussions about the role of inventory size (Hay & Bauer 2007, Donohue & Nichols 2011) tend to presuppose a consensus that simply does not exist. For instance, the vowel inventory posited for Standard Swedish varies between 9 vowels (Eliasson & La Pelle 1973) and 18 vowels (Malmberg 1971), for Standard German it varies between 8 (Vennemann 1991) and 23 vowels (DUDEN 2005). It is clear that the inferences drawn from studies based on some random choice of one result or another will be altogether meaningless, regardless of the soundness of the statistical evaluations.

The main goal of this workshop is to draw attention to these complex, still unresolved issues by discussing ways to establish phonemic status and the size and nature of resulting phoneme inventories.

Specific topics to be addressed include, but are not necessarily limited to:

• principled problems concerning the establishment of minimal pairs
• arguments concerning the status of the phoneme as such (e.g. abstract entity, “family of sounds”)
• role of phonemes in various generalizations (symmetry of inventories, phonotactic constraints, marginal vs. regular contrasts)
• relation of phonemic structure to physical phonetics
• relation between segmental and non-segmental (accentual, tonal) contrast
• potential of phonological theories to determine phoneme inventories in a principled fashion (e.g. via determination of proper degrees of abstractness, possibly at multiple levels (Kiparsky 2018))
• problems concerning the cross-linguistic comparability of phoneme inventories

Beside theoretical and methodological studies, we also welcome case studies highlighting specific difficulties in establishing phonemic status, in particular studies based on data from languages of the European north.



Becker-Kristal, Roy. 2010. Acoustic typology of vowel inventories and dispersion theory: Insights from a large cross-linguistic corpus. Ph.D. dissertation. University of California, Los Angeles.

Bloomfield, Leonard. 1933. Language. New York: Holt, Rinehart and Winston.

Brown, Simon. 2017. The distribution of phoneme inventory and language evolution. Cultural Anthropology and Ethnosemiotics 3 (1), 22–34.

Donohue, Mark & Johanna Nichols. 2011. Does phoneme inventory size correlate with population size? Linguistic Typology 15 (2), 161–170.

Dresher, B. Elan. 2011. The phoneme. In: Marc van Oostendorp et al. (eds.), The Blackwell companion to phonology, Vol. 2, 241–266. Malden, MA & Oxford: Wiley-Blackwell.

DUDEN 2005 = Duden Aussprachewörterbuch. (Duden Band 6.) 6th ed. Mannheim: Dudenverlag.

Eliasson, Stig & Nancy La Pelle. 1973. Generativa regler för svenskans kvantitet. Arkiv för nordisk filologi 88, 133–148.

Hay, Jennifer & Laurie Bauer. 2007. Phoneme inventory and population size. Language 83 (2), 388–400.

Joos, Martin (ed.). 1957. Readings in linguistics. New York: American Council of Learned Societies.

Kiparsky, Paul. 2018. Formal and empirical issues in phonological typology. In: Larry Hyman and Frans Plank (eds.), Phonological typology, 54–106. Berlin: Mouton de Gruyter.

Malmberg, Bertil. 1971. Svensk fonetik. 4th ed. Malmö: Gleerups.

Papakyritsis, Ioannis & Angela Granese. 2013. Cross-linguistic study of vowel systems. In: Martin J. Ball & Fiona E. Gibbon (eds.), Handbook of vowels and vowel disorders, 186–206. New York & London: Psychology Press.


Prince, Alan & Paul Smolensky. 2004. Optimality theory: Constraint interaction in generative grammar. Malden, MA & Oxford: Blackwell Publishing.

Trubetzkoy, Nikolai. 1939. Grundzüge der Phonologie. (Travaux du Cercle Linguistique de Prague 7.) Prague.


Vennemann, Theo. 1991. Skizze der deutschen Wortprosodie. Zeitschrift für Sprachwissenschaft 10, 86–111.

By Renate Raffelsiefen (Leibniz-Institut für Deutsche Sprache, Mannheim), Stig Eliasson (Johannes Gutenberg-Universität Mainz)
Published Nov. 29, 2019 9:08 PM - Last modified May 10, 2021 9:56 AM