I'm curious why every language I've heard of has back or central vowels. Are there any languages that exclusively uses front vowels (say the phonemes /a/, /e/, /i/, /y/)? I want to know this more or less because I'm making a simple conlang that I want to only use front vowels - would this in real life be unstable and lead to language evolution that generates back vowels?

Interestingly, shouting and screaming generally involve front vowels. Is there some natural vocalization resulting in back vowel sounds, which would lead to inclusion in language?

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    I've certainly never heard of any. It's like asking whether any mammals have asymmetric right and left sides; I've never heard of any of those, either (though flatfish appear to be asymmetric vertebrates). It's a truism in phonology that similar things tend to happen to back and to front vowels, and that having two such series increases bandwidth and opportunities for communication enormously. Why would anybody limit their productivity so seriously? Except for a joke, of course -- google "eeples and baneenees" to see what I mean. – jlawler May 8 '13 at 17:16
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    I suppose it's possible that there may be a language where frontness/backness is not significant for vowel differentiation if all vowels have differences on the other dimensions such as open/close, roundedness, tone, etc. – hippietrail May 9 '13 at 4:09
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    @jlawler: All mammals are asymmetric left to right, it's only superficially that we seem symmetric, internally there are many many differences. Start by looking for your heartbeat. – hippietrail May 27 '13 at 2:22
  • That's interesting; I'm making a conlang where I'm trying to avoid front vowels and only use back vowels. I don't think it would be realistic to do away with either, though; so I've still included three front vowels (ɪ ɛ æ) out of 8, and the schwa. – Lou Jun 14 '16 at 17:34
up vote 11 down vote accepted

Regarding "why", it's believed that most languages will go for "maximal dispersion" and try to have vowels as acoustically distinct as possible (or, as easily learnable as possible). So if they choose three vowels, it will very often be /a,i,u/ ; /i,u/ are easier to distinguish than /y,ɯ/ or /u,o/ (ref).

Of course, there are always oddities; Ubykh had just /ə,a/ (and 84 consonants!). But, querying UPSID (a database of 451 languages) for languages with no back vowels return 0 results.

In my opinion your language would be highly unusual, and yes I find it likely that over time it would change into an easier system, but that doesn't mean it's necessarily impossible to occur. Schwarts et al (cited above) remark that

in both primary and secondary [vowel] systems , the sounds are mainly concentrated at the periphery [i.e. both front and back, high and low] […] if there is an asymmetry (around 30% of the cases) , the number of front vowels is likely to be greater than the number of back vowels (3 times more likely in primary systems, 2 times more in secondary systems).

Wals claims there are at least 4 known languages which use only two vowels, /i/ and /a/, and would therefore make no distinction based on backness. But I find this hard to believe. The only example they give is that of Yimas. But Yimas has 4 vowels /i ɨ u/ and /a/ if William A Foley is to be believed.

So the evidence for a language that doesn't have at least those 3 vowels /i a u/ (maximally front, maximally open, maximally back) seems quite flimsy to me.

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    Abkhaz is another such language with two vowels, and one Pama-Nyungan language, Arrernte, has 3 vowel height distinctions, as does one Austronesian language, Marshalese. – Ghoti657 May 9 '17 at 3:01

No, at least no documented languages have only front vowels. The general explanation for this is given by various theories for vowel dispersion.

Schwartz, Boë, and Abry (1997) summarise one of these theories pretty well. Basically, there is a strong tendency for languages to spread their vowels evenly. Most theorise that this is because of learnability, others because of articulatory economy (Lindblom, 1975), others because they think systems self-organise in nature (de Boer, 2000).

In 3 vowel systems, the most common vowels are /a/ /i/ /u/ with lots of speaker variation. In 5 vowel systems it tends to add in /e/ and /o/, 6 vowel systems most often add in a mid vowel like schwa.

7 or higher start getting rounding contrasts.

There are languages with asymmetric vowel inventories. Many dialects of Danish have a highly asymmetric vowel inventory, with about twice as many front vowels as back vowels.

Australian English also has a slightly asymmetric vowel inventory, with only 3 back vowels out of 11 monophongal minimal pairs.

Screenshotted from Wikipedia

One language I speak, Polish, has a fairly asymmetric vowel inventory despite having only 9* vowel phonemes (if you count the nasal diphthongs as vowels, that is) /i/ /ɪ/ /ɛ/ /ɛ̃ w/ /ɔ/ /ɔ̃ w/ a/

(The vowel [e] occurs as an allophone before /j/ or a palatalised consonant, the and /ɔ/ occurs as [o] before /w/ or /l/)

There are two high front vowels, and the default tends to be +lax/-tense, rather than +tense/-lax (which is fairly unexpected).

So there are languages with asymmetric vowel inventories, but none as extreme as only having front vowels.

There are many reasons why this wouldn't happen, or would be highly improbable. For example, there is a tendency for languages to end up with an asymmetric inventory if [u] shifts forward to [y] or [ʉ], and sometimes to even shift forward to [y] and then un-round to [i].

Usually, what happens though, is the vowel does not shift forward before [k] [x] or another velar consonant, and then they wind up in allophonic variation, or over time, even in phonemic variation.

Another tendency is for [o] to raise and fill the place of where [u] used to be.

So let's say a 5 vowel inventory language has:

/i/ /u/

/e/ /o/

/a/

It shifts:

/i/ /y/~/u/

/e/ /o/

/a/

Then, a few generations later we have:

/i//y/ /u/ (o shifted up)

/e/

/a/

Or even:

/i//y/ /u/ (the vowel became contrastive)

/e/ /o/

/a/

*There is debate on even this in Polish, sadly. The controversy is over the front vowels, and whether the contrastive vowel is [ɪ] or [ɨ].

In many Slavic languages, such as Russian, there are two vowels in allophonic distribution: one occurs after palatalised consonants and /k/ [i], the other after non-palatalised consonants [ɨ].

Sanders (2003) identified the Polish vowel as [ɪ], at least in Warsaw Polish.

In Polish, the only consonants with a palatalisation contrast are the bilabials, and before a back vowel. Some Slavicists like to transcribe the bilabials before /i/ as being something like [mʲ] instead of [m].

If you don't do this for pure consistency-with-other-Slavic-languages concerns, it is fairly obvious that /ɪ/ and /i/ are minimal pairs:

/mi/ 1sg-DAT /mɪ/ 'we' /bitɕ/ 'to beat' /bɪtɕ/ 'to be'

They are phonemic at least in the environment of bilabials.

References:

De Boer, B. (2000). Self-organization in vowel systems. Journal of phonetics, 28(4), 441-465.

Lindblom, B. (1986). Phonetic universals in vowel systems. Experimental phonology, 13-44.

Sanders, R. N. (2003). Opacity and sound change in the Polish lexicon (Doctoral dissertation, UNIVERSITY OF CALIFORNIA SANTA CRUZ).

Schwartz, J. L., Boë, L. J., Vallée, N., & Abry, C. (1997). The dispersion-focalization theory of vowel systems. Journal of phonetics, 25(3), 255-286.

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