Adding apples and oranges?

Apr 25, 2011 by

In several earlier positngs (and also here), I discussed the research on the geographical origin of language by Dr. Atkinson recently published in Science. In those postings I identified several problems with Dr. Atkinson’s assumptions, data set, methodology and conclusions. An additional methodological problem in Atkinson’s study is that he adds up diversity of consonants, vowels and tones together (thanks to Rory van Tuyl for drawing my attention to this problem!)

The problem is that there is no strong correlation between the number of consonants, the number of vowels and the number of tones (if present at all) in a given language. In fact, there seems to be an inverse correlation: some languages like to play with consonants, others with vowels, yet others with tones. It’s as if a language uses a multitude of consonants to make up for a shortage of vowels (see Fig. 1 below), or tones to make up for a shortage of consonants and vowels (see Fig. 2 below).

Fig. 1: WALS map of languages with a high ratio of consonants to vowels
Fig. 2: WALS map of languages with a complex system of tones

There might even be a reason why. At least one theory on the rise of tones (in Asian languages) explains the phenomenon of tones as an aftereffect of the loss or merger of consonants (such trace effects of disappeared sounds have been nicknamed “Cheshirisation”, after the lingering smile of the disappearing Cheshire cat in Lewis Carroll’s Alice in Wonderland). As it turns out, in a non-tonal language (which is how tonal languages start out as) the pronunciation of consonants affects the pitch of preceding and/or following vowels. When such consonants disappear as a result of regular sound changes (such as lenition, for example), the distinction in pitch may be preserved and used to distinguish meanings formerly distinguished by the consonants. And voilà — a tonal system is created!

For example, in the development of Chinese languages final consonants, which affected the pitch of preceding vowels, weakened to /h/ and finally disappeared completely, but the difference in pitch -– now a true difference in tone, carried on instead of the disappeared consonants. Moreover, the nature of initial consonants also affected which tone a given vowel carried: when the consonants lost their voicing distinction, vowels preceding a voiceless consonant acquired a higher tone, while those preceding a voiced consonant acquired a lower tone. The same changes affected many other languages of eastern Asia, such as Thai, Vietnamese and the Lhasa dialect of Tibetan, and at around the same time (AD 1000–1500). As far as tonal systems are concerned, we do not know (and may never know) whether a tonal system first arose in one language and diffused to others, or whether tonal systems arose independently in different languages of the region.

Similarly, vowel phonemes may arise to compensate for a loss of a consonant (though in the example I discuss immediately below, the vowel phonemes arose to compensate not for the complete loss of a consonant phoneme but for a loss of a consonant in certain position only).

Take, for example, the list of vowel phonemes in British and American English.

Fig. 3: Vowel phonemes in British English
Fig. 4: Vowel phonemes in American English

As can be seen from comparing those two charts, British English has more vowel phonemes than American English (i.e., the vowel phonemes of beer, bare, byre and boor). These phonemes arose in British English when it lost its rhoticity, that is the pronunciation of the /r/ in coda (i.e., pos-vowel) positions.

The conclusion? Adding up consonants, vowels and tones, as Atkinson does, rather masks the fact that languages typically choose one area of diversity in the sound system. So in effect, adding consonants to vowels and tones is a bit like adding apples and oranges… and tomatoes.

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