Almost all languages of the world have more consonants than vowels. Are there some languages of the world with more vowel phonemes than consonants?
I have yet to see anyone bring up the Iau language of West Papua, Indonesia, which has only 6 phonemic consonants (not counting allophony) but 8 vowel qualities even before accounting for diphthongs and tones.
Probably the best-known and most often-cited example of this is Danish.
Danish is generally said to have around 17 or 18 consonant phonemes, a fairly invariant number. The number of vowel phonemes cited varies a lot more, because there’s some serious interplay going on between morphophonemes, phonemes and phones, but it’s very difficult to reduce the vowel system to less than 20 vowels – generally, around 20 or 21 morphophonemic vowels and around 25–28 vowel phonemes are cited.
The conventional understanding of "phoneme" is that it is a segment. There is vast disagreement over what constitutes a "segment". Given that, one example of a language with many more vowels than consonants is Vietnamese, which has 84 vowels and 19 consonants. To put the matter in more familiar terms, are [ɛ] and [ɛ̃] in French one vowel or two? Akan has a vowel distinction "Advanced Tongue Root" which is contrastive – are [e] and [e̟] two vowels or one? Various languages have two or three degrees of vowel length: are Estonian [a, a:, a::] one vowel or three?
There are various analytic methods for eliminating vowel from the list of phonemes, factoring out orthogonal properties that are available to vowels in general. Without systematic criteria for saying whether a vowel property is to be taken into consideration (and please note that all of my examples are phonemic), it is likely that "more vowels than consonants" is actually a very common feature of languages.
In general, languages with fewer consonants will have more vowels (and vice versa), so as to have as many unique syllables as possible and preserve redundancy. (Danish is an exception.)
- Hawaiian has eight consonant phonemes and twenty-five vowels (including diphthongs & long vowels). If you don't include diphthongs, it still has ten vowels, including the long vowels.
- Danish has around seventeen consonant phonemes and around twenty-six vowel phonemes.
- Apinayé is analyzed as having seventeen consonants and seventeen vowels.
- Finnish has fourteen native consonants (a few more are found in loanwords) and sixteen vowels (including long vowels). Edit: Including diphthongs, it has thirty-four vowels.
Other languages likely have more unbalanced ratios than this, but for interest' sake, the Tai-kadai languages (Thai, Lao, Shan, etc.) have a few more vowel phonemes than consonant phonemes. This is not true, however, of their graphemes, as many consonants have multiple grapheme representations.
Taking the Thai as the dominant example, we can represent its sounds as follows.
|Approximate Phoneme||Thai Grapheme(s)|
|ch||ช / ฉ / ฌ|
|d||ด / ฎ|
|dt||ต / ฏ|
|f||ฟ / ฝ|
|h||ห / ฮ|
|k||ค / ข / ฃ / ฅ / ฆ|
|l||ล / ฬ / ฦ|
|n||น / ณ|
|p||พ / ผ / ภ|
|r||ร / ฤ|
|s||ซ / ส / ษ / ศ|
|t||ท / ฑ / ธ / ฐ / ถ|
|y||ย / ญ|
NOTES: The "w" and "y", like in English, can also function as vowels, and the "r" also sometimes functions as a vowel in Thai. Lao lacks the "ch" and officially it lacks the "r" (which it had in the past, but officials have "simplified" the language, converting the "r" to either an "h" or an "l" in pronunciation), so it has even fewer consonants than Thai.
|Approximate Phoneme||Thai Grapheme(s)|
|ai||ไ- / ใ-|
NOTES: The dash/hyphen in the grapheme column represents a consonant. (Some will still show the hollow circle to indicate a missing grapheme.) No vowel in Thai or Lao can be written without a consonant to which it is attached (Shan is written in Burmese script, with similar rules). The "t" represents a shortened vowel in which the sound cuts off abruptly almost as if culminating in a "t" in English.
Adding them all up, the vowels (inclusive of diphthongs and long/short vowels--which are, to the speakers of the language, entirely different phonemes), vowels outnumber consonants by a small margin (about 25 to 20). In Lao, this margin is increased, as Lao lacks some of the consonants which Thai uses, and might be said (debatably) to have one or two vowels which Thai does not have.