User:Tepples/Extremes of phonology

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Inventory size

Perhaps the smallest possible phonemic inventory is the phonology of Jörg Rhiemeier's sketchlang Flafi, the language of small furry beings called "lilaf". Flafi has only four phonemes, in increasing sonority /f/, /l/, /i/, /a/. Its syllable structure is CVC, except /fl/ may be word-initial and /lf/ is forbidden within a word. Geminates /ff/ and /ll/ are allowed but not attested due to sketchlang status. No attested words contain long vowels /aa/ or /ii/; one contains /aia/ presumably pronounced as if /aja/. (The language is isolating and OSV with postpositions.)

The smallest inventories in natlangs are those of central Rotokas and Pirahã. Rotokas has voiceless /ptk/, voiced /vɾɣ/, and vowels /ieaou/, where /t/ becomes [ts] or [s] before /i/. The vowels often occur in pairs, as long vowels or diphthongs, but no consonant clusters. Pirahã has consonants /ptʔmnsh/, with /hi/ and /ʔ/ sometimes pronounced /k/, and vowels /aio/ in two tones that frequently form diphthongs, with antonyms occasionally distinguished by tones.

A large contrast between the sizes of consonant and vowel inventories occurs in North Caucasian languages, particularly Ubykh with 84 consonants and two vowels.


Many languages are tonal. This means they distinguish words, either lexically or grammatically, based on the pitch (F0) of a vowel or a voiced syllabic consonant in addition to its formants (F1, F2, F3). Most tonal natural languages have two or three contrasting pitches, though a few have up to five. Languages with register tone distinguish levels directly, and a low tone often causes middle and high tones to downstep for the rest of the breath. Other languages have contour tone, based more on shapes. Mandarin, for example, has three levels that form four contours (high, middle-high, middle-low-middle, high-low); other languages may have as many as ten contours.

A few languages have tone as the only contrasting feature. The constructed language Solresol can be "spoken" with seven register tones. Silbo Gomero, a whistled register of Spanish, has four register tones representing vowels, four contours represent, and interruption represents a voiced consonant. The talking drum of West Africa lets a drummer change the pitch. The drummer translates each word into a conventional phrase in the host language and plays the tone of that phrase's syllables on the drum, which may take eight times longer than speaking.

Morpheme length

Another extreme is monosyllabic morphemes, as found in the Sino-Tibetan and Austroasiatic families in the Sprachbund of continental southeast Asia. Most have phonemic tone (Mandarin, Cantonese) or a wide variety of sonority-be-damned initial clusters (Khmer) or both (Myanmar).

Sonja Lang's toki pona shows that roughly 120 morphemes are needed for a language, and Marq Thompson's Ta Ti[1] attempts to adapt the principles behind toki pona to monosyllables with CCV maximum inventory with seven vowels (/a/, /e/, /i/, /o/, /u/, /ai/, /ei/) where the second consonant is in /lrw/.


  1. Marq Thompson. "Ta Ti". 2009-05-02. Accessed 2020-07-18. Turn off script for this site.