Most phonemically diverse language?
May 6, 2010 11:14 PM   Subscribe

What language has the most phonemes?

I've seen some good discussions on individual languages and the range of phonemes within them (phonemes being, according to a definition I saw on a previous post, "the set of sounds used in a language"). So English has got a few ones that, say, Korean doesn't have: r, l, th, v, z, etc. But then Korean has a few that English doesn't have (ㅃ, ㅆ, ㅉ, etc.). Hebrew and Arabic have some gutturals that aren't present in either, Russian has the myakiy znak, and Japanese has the final nasal "n" consonant. It's like playing some Pokemon game where each has certain aspects but lacks others.

Anyway, my question is, what languages might one suggest are the MOST phonemically diverse?
posted by holterbarbour to Writing & Language (6 answers total) 12 users marked this as a favorite
The Taa language has somewhere between 89 and 120 phonemes, depending on whom you ask, which is probably double that of English.
posted by Dee Xtrovert at 11:25 PM on May 6, 2010

The Khoisan languages and the Northwest Caucasian family are the best places to look for huge inventories.

(The Taa language that Dee mentions is one of the Khoisan languages. The champion among the Northwest Caucasian family used to be Ubykh, with 86 or so phonemes, but it's no longer spoken — its last speakers died in the 1990s.)
posted by nebulawindphone at 11:33 PM on May 6, 2010

Er, make that "huge phoneme inventories."
posted by nebulawindphone at 11:36 PM on May 6, 2010

This question got me wondering about the "official" number of phonemes in English (though quite dubious about the reality of it) and was pleased to see little agreement, and numbers from the ridiculously small 38 to a more hefty 46. Clearly, a language like Taa is going to have loads that English doesn't (including so-called "clicks"), but I'd guess that English has a couple not found in Taa.

I don't speak any tonal languages, and I wonder how tonality is perceived in terms of phoneme count.
posted by Dee Xtrovert at 11:37 PM on May 6, 2010

The largest phoneme inventory in UPSID (the UCLA Phonological Segment Inventory Database) belongs to !Xũ, a Khoisan language, with 141 phonemes.

UPSID does not contain all known languages, but that's the number to beat. :)

As for tonal languages, the simplest method is to consider each tone as a phoneme.
posted by zompist at 11:56 PM on May 6, 2010 [1 favorite]

Mikael Parkvall, in Limits of Language, agrees about !Xũ, and adds that it also has the highest number of consonants (117) and clicks (48).
posted by languagehat at 12:55 PM on May 7, 2010

« Older Leash-crazy dog   |   Un 'tasty meal' s'il vous plaît Newer »
This thread is closed to new comments.