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Is there a language known to have no minimal pairs separating vowels, or in which only one vowel exists phonemically in the language, or whose speakers don't detect a difference between any two vowels when they appear in words in the language? (My knowledge of linguistics is poor enough that I'm not sure whether those three criteria are identical.)

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    @acattle, thanks. I don't know what you mean by "English has more vowel sounds than vowels": more phones than phonemes? Also (though less relevant to my question), I don't understand why you say a longest English word can't exist: English has been around a finite number of seconds, spoken by a finite number of people, so there've been finitely many words spoken; surely one of them is longest. – msh210 Jun 29 '12 at 6:07
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    @acattle, re vowels, thanks, but I wasn't referring in the question to orthography at all. Re longest word, we can discuss it, but it seems irrelevant to the question, so this is probably not the right place to do so. – msh210 Jun 29 '12 at 6:14
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    There is an analysis of Arrernte (Pama-Nyungan) which finds it to have only one phonemic vowel. I'll dig out the paper. – Gaston Ümlaut Jun 29 '12 at 7:16
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    According to the WALS chapter on vowel quality inventories, "the smallest vowel quality inventory recorded is 2 and the largest 14". – Otavio Macedo Jun 29 '12 at 15:58
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There's a famous 1960 book by Aert Kuipers called Phoneme and Morpheme in Kabardian (Eastern Adyghe), in which he argues that there is only one phonemic vowel in Kabardian, because it has so many distinctive phonemic consonants that their features determine the features of adjoining vowels. This produces a fairly normal profile of phonetic vowel variation ("normal", at least, for a NW Caucasian language), but only requires that the positions of the vowels be marked phonemically, since all their phonetic features are predictable from their position among surrounding consonants.

This is an extreme case, and there was a big debate on the subject; the final outcome seems to be that there are now three phonemic vowels recognized in Kabardian, sort of like PIE laryngeals. But there are still some afterthoughts.

Ergo this entry, from Jim McCawley's Days in the Month of May that are of Interest to Linguists:

  • May 13. Vowel Day. (Public holiday in Kabardian Autonomous Region). The ceremonial vowel is pronounced by all Kabardians as a symbol of brotherhood with all speakers of human languages.
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    The world needs more examples of such unity! Alas, consonantal politics are quite fragmented.... – Mark Beadles Jun 29 '12 at 17:26
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    Not to speak of ejective, at least in NW Caucasian. – jlawler Jun 29 '12 at 18:16
  • @msh210 Yes you can change your accepted answer, in case a better one is posted. – Alenanno Jul 1 '12 at 21:26

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