I'm curious about languages with many phonemes and loose phonotactic rules (perhaps some Caucasian languages) versus those with only a few phonemes and strict phonotactics (like Hawaiian). I think the former would have a lot of sound combinations that are permissible, but aren't actual words in that language, while the later would be more likely to have random sound combinations correspond to actual words.

Are there any studies out there looking at the density of possible encodings (given available phones and phonotactic rules) between languages? Is there a name for this sub-field or this kind of analysis? Thanks.

  • If you look at any language in the Northwest Coast Sprachbund, you'll find a polysynthetic language with a large number of consonants but few vowels. Extremely complex consonant clusters are common -- t̓qt̓qʔats, for example, is the Lushootseed name for the vine maple (Acer circinatum); the initial cluster is a reduced augmentative reduplication of the root t̓əq 'split', and the suffix -ats marks a tree or shrub name. Vine maples have many trunks and fan-shaped maple leaves with many points to them, so it's a good name. But hard to pronounce, with five stops at the beginning.
    – jlawler
    Jan 2, 2017 at 16:29
  • Unfortunately, we have no way of telling if [qʷɬəd] is a word of Lushootseed, although it is phonotactically possible. Its not in the dictionary, but it's a miracle that they got that much out.
    – user6726
    Jan 3, 2017 at 23:47
  • There is a trade-off between syllable complexity and speech rate, see, e.g., this question and its answers: linguistics.stackexchange.com/q/612/9781 May 9, 2019 at 13:41

1 Answer 1


"Phonotactics" should probably be divided into syllable structure (and contact), plus syllable-count, since you would get different results if a language was Hawaiian with only 2 and 3 syllable words, versus Hawaiian with 2-12 syllable words. Looking at "words" is also somewhat problematic, since words may have a range of inflections, and so-called phonotactic restrictions might actually be broken by inflectional endings (as is the case with English monoconsonantal inflections). It would probably be more productive to look at phoneme combinatorics of stems rather than words, though "stem" is not a totally trouble-free concept.

This hasn't been done systematically (so it isn't a named sub-field), but it might yield interesting results. There certainly has been a history of making claims about gaps in the lexicon, which rise to the level of being a possibly publishable result in case someone discovers an interesting pattern. The main problem is locating comprehensive electronic dictionaries with interpretable phonetic data in a decent range of languages. The runner-up impediment is lack of knowledge of combinatoric possibilities in an interesting range of languages.

Theoretically, you could do this right now, using the CMU English dictionary, as long as you can compute all of the possible 1-syllable, 2-syllable up to ??12-syllable words of English, and see how many and what type are actually attested in English. I don't know of any large-inventory (Taa) or small-inventory (Austronesian) languages for which there are comprehensive computer-friendly dictionaries.

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