Which natural languages have the fewest phonemes?

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    By "distinct sounds" I assume you mean phonemes. – James Grossmann Sep 27 '13 at 3:07
  • Yes thats correct – ARi Sep 27 '13 at 10:57

Pirahã is claimed to have either ten or eleven phonemes (three vowels and either seven or eight consonants). If it has ten, that's one fewer than Central Rotokas.

  • Thanks. Would the average length of their sentences and words be much longer than that of a language which a much higher number of phonemes. – ARi Sep 27 '13 at 14:52
  • From glancing over some examples of Pirahã text (www.arthaey.com/conlang/papers/Piraha.pdf‎) it does look like most of the words contain more phonemes than their English glosses, but I haven't tried to calculate average lengths. – TKR Sep 27 '13 at 19:32
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    Also, Pirahã is a tone language, which means there are many more possible distinctive combinations. – jlawler Apr 9 '17 at 3:27
  • According to Everett the tones are important enough that most utterances can be understood "whistle speech" or "hum speech" form, in-context at least. Rotokas being atonal might be closer to the mark—though apparently vowel length may be distinctive in it. – melissa_boiko May 7 '17 at 21:35

Central Rotokas (https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Rotokas). It has five vowels (/a i u e o/) and three consonants (/p t k/), for a total of 8 phonemes.

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    According to the Wiki article there are 6 consonantal phonemes, not 3; /p t k/ have voiced counterparts. – TKR Sep 27 '13 at 0:58

Let's assume we count a phoneme as 1 sound and its allophones, and don't count tone and length differences as different phonemes. Then Rotokas (https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Rotokas_language) has 6 consonants and 5 vowels, for 11 total. Pirahã (https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Pirah%C3%A3_language#Phonology) has 10-12, depending on the source, under that definition. A commoner definition of phoneme would be a sound and its allophones, believing the ability to distinguish vowels with length and tone. That gives Pirahã 13-16 and Rotokas 14-16 A stingy definition, counting all occasional separate sounds, would give Pirahã 16 and Rotokas 19. Note: Hawaiian and other Polynesian languages often have limited inventories. For Hawai'ian, the common (middle) definition would give them 18 phonemes. Note: Conlangs, of course, have even fewer phonemes in some cases.

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    Why would one consider length or tone differences as not "counting", but then count voicing or palatalization differences? – user6726 May 7 '17 at 21:36
  • Because it could explain one reason for different counts – Benjamin McAvoy-Bickford May 7 '17 at 23:32

Keep in mind that tonal languages may have a relatively small number of phonemes, but that number is multiplied by a number of pitches or contours. Chinese languages/dialects are a prime example. [I should say: a relatively small number of vowels and consonants or other vocalizations, not a small number of phonemes.]

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    This is a very important point. It's not necessarily the product of the number of vowel phonemes and the number of tones though, since in Lao at least there are restrictions on which tones can occur with which types of syllables (long vs short vowel, "live" vs "dead"). Also, though this is important it's not an answer to the question so should've been a comment. It will probably get deleted or converted to a comment by the moderators. – hippietrail Oct 20 '13 at 16:02
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    So what do we called this (qualified) product of phonemes and 'contours' which gives us a different metric than just the set of phonemes. Is there is a word for this – ARi Oct 21 '13 at 8:28
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    Well, a phoneme is "The smallest contrastive linguistic unit which may bring about a change of meaning", so any vocalization plus pitch or contour information is all part of the phoneme. I realize that I made it sound like phonemes and tones are separate. – Ned Danison Oct 21 '13 at 11:12
  • If a sound can be broken down into parts then it cannot be "the smallest contrastive linguistic unit". Phonemes and tones are indeed separate. Of course any debate on the nature of phonemes will lead inevitably to the topic of whether or not they are even "real". – hippietrail Oct 21 '13 at 12:35
  • Then again the question title asks about "distinct sounds", so there's more than one way to interpret that within linguistics ... – hippietrail Oct 22 '13 at 5:41

Polynesian languages have very few phonemes (such as Hawaiian, which has about a dozen). On the other end of the scale are Northwest Caucasian languages (the now extinct Ubykh and a dialect of Abkhaz).

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    Do you think you could specify 'very few'? – robert Sep 27 '13 at 1:05

its between rotokas as and pirahã depending on how you count

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    Welcome to Linguistics! Here we prefer detailed answers that contain sufficient explanation and links to credible sources. Don't give just a one-line answer; they may be disputed and subsequently deleted. (I admit that the question is also a one-liner, too, so it invites for short answers) – bytebuster Apr 9 '17 at 13:15

I created a language with only 9 phonemes: 3 vowels: |e, a, o| and six consonants: |p t k m n s| with no tones and V or CV syllables. take-ka toke te toke teke? (Do you want to speak the easy language?)

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    This question is clearly asking about natural languages, not constructed ones. – curiousdannii Oct 1 '14 at 1:17
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    I agree with curiousdannii. One could construct a language that uses only three phonemes, let's say two vowels and a glottal stop. But ARi was asking about natlangs, so answers about conlangs are irrelevant here. – James Grossmann Oct 1 '14 at 4:47
  • @JamesGrossmann - but if there is only one consonantal "phoneme", then it doesn't contrast with other consonants, and consequently accounts for no minimal pairs. Is it still a phoneme in this case? – Luís Henrique Apr 11 '17 at 10:33
  • I can create a language with only 2 phonemes. – Mitch May 10 '17 at 13:19

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