Suppose I am given a vowel system (for example, 'i', 'upside down and then flipped e', 'a' and 'u'). How do I figure out the tendencies and universals manifested in the vowel system?

Based on my understanding, there are two types of universals: Absolute (structural traits that occur in all languages) and implicational (presence of one trait implies the presence of another). Tendencies are the same as universals except tendencies apply to most languages, not all (tendencies also have universal and implicational).

Examples of absolute tendencies are: - most commonly occuring vowel phoneme is 'a'. - Front vowel phonemes are generally unrounded, while non-low back vowel phonemes are generally rounded. - Low vowels are generally rounded.

Examples of implicational universals: - If a language has contrastive nasal vowels, it will also have constrastive oral vowels. - If a language has contrasting long vowels, then it will also have contrasting short vowels.

With that said, I do not know all the tendencies and universals (I only have the examples stated above). I'm just a student learning lingustics right now.

So my question is, given the vowel system above (or any vowel system), how do I figure out the tendencies and universals manifested in it?

  • Good question wrong forum. Commented Jan 11, 2016 at 1:48

2 Answers 2


Look here, On the natural phonology of vowels, for a comprehensive answer to your question.

The short answer: a vowel system is governed by those universal context-free vowel processes which did not have to be suppressed in order for children to learn to pronounce the language accurately (and the stages of acquisition track these process suppressions). These processes correspond to implicational universals: if A becomes B, then A implies B. If foreign words are borrowed into the language, they are subjected to these unsuppressed processes in the nativization of those words.


Your question seems to contain a number of false presuppositions which could be repaired by rewording. One is the distinction between absolute tendencies and implicational universals – the problem is the concept of an absolute tendency ("tendency" means that both outcomes happen, and one is more frequent, which contradicts the assumption of being absolute). The second is that properties can be manifested in a particular arrangement of vowel letters. Properties can be manifested in a language, and a language can have a particular collection of vowels, but tendencies are only latent in abstract vowel systems, so not all languages with the vowel system /a e o i u/ manifest the same properties.

One thing that you can do with the vowel system of a language that makes sense is ask whether there is any reason for that vowel system as opposed to come other vowel system. For example, if you have /i u a/, you could ask why the language doesn't instead have /i u a ə/. The typical answer is that the vowels [a] and [ə] are acoustically too similar, and it is hard to tell them apart. That in a nutshell is the prevailing explanatory force behind most questions about vowel systems.

Some of these supposed tendencies turn out to be tendencies about linguists, not languages. The real reason why there are no languages where all vowels are long is that length is not an absolute property, so however long a vowel is, a linguist will always call it a short vowel unless there is a contrasting vowel type that can be called long.

There are two main approaches to handling phonetic tendencies in language. One is the approach of Optimality Theory, which says that people are genetically encoded with specific prohibitions, for example there is a tendency that forbids nasal vowels, symbolized as *Ṽ, and language with no nasal vowels obey that constraint. Languages like French which have nasal vowels ignore the constraint. The set of constraints is universally predetermined, and by stipulating that there is no constraint forbidding oral vowels (in all contexts -- there is one forbidding oral vowels next to nasal consonants), OT can express the generalization that no language has only nasal vowels.

The alternative approach is the historical-evolutionary approach, where attention is paid to the phonetic structure of languages and inventory tendencies are attributed to different probabilities of people learning a given distinction, in the usual sub-optimal context where language is actually learned. For instance, you don't usually find vowel systems where all the vowels are significantly clustered around the center of the vowel space, instead they tend to maximize perceptual distinctness (Liljencrantz & Lindblom 1972 and much literature since). Nasalization in vowels does that sub-optimal thing -- it makes vowels acoustically closer to each other. Languages can tolerate vowel systems like /i e u o a ĩ ẽ ũ õ ã/ since ultimately people do have a remarkable ability to perceive subtle distinctions. But people also give in to perceptual expediency, and you often find that the number of nasal vowels is reduced relative to the oral set, because nasal vowels are the ones at a perceptual disadvantage. There would never be an advantage to having a set of vowels that are all nasal, hence ordinary linguistic evolutionary tendencies converge on the result that vowel systems are not all-nasal.

  • It's not just linguists who assume vowels are not long in the absence of contrast. It's people. Linguists didn't invent vowel phoneme systems -- they discovered them.
    – Greg Lee
    Commented Jan 13, 2016 at 19:07

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