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Almost all languages of the world have more consonants than vowels. Are there some languages of the world with more vowel phonemes than consonants?

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  • Can someone post an answer involving whistling languages? I can't quite do it.
    – Joshua
    Commented Apr 24, 2023 at 17:10
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    @Joshua there are no natural whistled languages, only whistled registers of spoken languages (the key fact here is that they encode a language whose default mode is spoken, rather than being languages that are primarily whistled; in the case of the famous silbo gomero, it is a whistled register of Spanish). The consonant/vowel distinction is not really maintained in whistling, so I don't think the question could really be applied to them, any more than it could to sign languages
    – Tristan
    Commented Apr 25, 2023 at 8:57

5 Answers 5

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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.

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  • Another nice example from the Lakes Plain family. Commented Apr 22, 2023 at 9:21
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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.

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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.

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    Your Vietnamese example works only if you count all the diphthongs and triphthongs as separate vowels. The orthography recognises only 9 vowels and 6 tones.
    – fdb
    Commented Apr 21, 2023 at 18:33
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    Diphthongs and triphthongs are often treated as separate vowels, just as "prenasalized stops" and affricates are often treated as separate phonemes. Likewise there is a debate as to whether Chinese has [k, kʷ] as phonemes, of [k,w] and some clusters.
    – user6726
    Commented Apr 21, 2023 at 23:25
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    For the sake of this question: The clearer the vowel majority is, the better. When there is a vowel majority without invoking tone, length, and diphthongs the example is just perfect. Commented Apr 22, 2023 at 19:33
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    @fdb English orthography "recognizes" five or six vowels, but there are far more vowels actually used. The mapping of phonemes to letters is never one to one.
    – PC Luddite
    Commented Apr 23, 2023 at 20:44
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    @PCLuddite. In the case of Vietnamese the assumption of 9 vowel phonemes is an adequate and economical phonological analysis, with tone as a super-sequential feature.
    – fdb
    Commented Apr 23, 2023 at 21:45
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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.
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    When counting length in vowels, shouldn't length in consonants (gemination) also be counted as distinguishing feature? This would change the balance for Finnish. Commented Apr 21, 2023 at 20:58
  • Rotokas technically fails the OP's requirement, but comes really close, with 5 vowels and 6 consonants.
    – dan04
    Commented Apr 21, 2023 at 21:17
  • @SirCornflakes I suppose so; however, the phonology charts I see don't show geminates. On the other hand, geminates are sometimes analyzed as sequences of two of the same consonant (e.g. akka is [ak.ka]), but I guess by that logic, diphthongs shouldn't count, taking Hawaiian off the list. Commented Apr 22, 2023 at 13:22
  • @nearsighted But diphthongs are usually vowels that change in quality as they progress. They are often vectors rather than a sequence of two vowels. I'm not sure what the situation is in Hawaiian though. Commented Apr 22, 2023 at 14:51
  • @Araucaria-him Well, as I think about it I suppose you're right. But they're still written either as two vowels or as a vowel followed by a glide. Commented Apr 22, 2023 at 15:26
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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.

CONSONANTS

Approximate Phoneme Thai Grapheme(s)
b
bp
ch ช / ฉ / ฌ
d ด / ฎ
dt ต / ฏ
f ฟ / ฝ
gk
h ห / ฮ
j
k ค / ข / ฃ / ฅ / ฆ
l ล / ฬ / ฦ
m
n น / ณ
ng
p พ / ผ / ภ
r ร / ฤ
s ซ / ส / ษ / ศ
t ท / ฑ / ธ / ฐ / ถ
w
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.

VOWELS

Approximate Phoneme Thai Grapheme(s)
ah -า
aht -ะ
i -ี
it -ิ
eu -ื
eut -ึ
u -ู
ut -ุ
ae แ-
aet แ-ะ
e เ-
et เ-ะ
o โ-
ot โ-ะ
au -อ
aut เ-าะ
euu เ-อ
euut เ-อะ
ia เ-ีย
iat เ-ียะ
eua เ-ือ
euat เ-ือะ
ua -ัว
uat -ัวะ
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.

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    “Officials” didn’t “simplify the language” to convert /r/ to /h/ or /l/; that’s not how sound change works. The change happened naturally and gradually in regular speech, not because any officials decreed that it should happen: /r/ became /h/ initially in monosyllabic words and /l/ elsewhere. It’s not known when exactly the latter change happened (though it had definitely happened by the early 20th century), but the change to /h/ seems to have happened around 500 years ago. Commented Apr 24, 2023 at 12:38
  • @JanusBahsJacquet I could be more specific, actually. It was a recent king of Laos, just prior to Communism taking over in the country, who reduced the alphabet and removed certain consonants from it, including the "r". I have spoken with native Lao people, within Laos, who explained this--note that Wikipedia does not appear to have the full details, but a brief mention of the fact that the "r" "was dropped as part of a language reform" can be seen HERE.
    – Biblasia
    Commented Apr 24, 2023 at 13:20
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    @Biblasia: that sounds more like a spelling reform than a language reform. It didn't change the language, just the way it was written.
    – TonyK
    Commented Apr 24, 2023 at 13:22
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    While this answer contains a good insight, it "unfairly" favors vowels over consonants. Namely, it promotes vowel clusters (like ia and ua) into full-featured vowel sounds while discourages consonant clusters (like kr, khr, kl, khl, kw) at all. It promotes vowel duration (thus promoting a and a: into two full-featured ones) but discourages the final values of many consonants (e.g. written/initial r becoming final n) etc. Thankfully, it did not consider lexical tones; that would multiply the whole multitude of vowels by 5. Commented Apr 24, 2023 at 13:24
  • @TonyK I should also note that in addition to simplifying the Lao script, one of the purposes of the king was political in nature. He deliberately wanted the Lao language to be different from Thai, hence the removal of certain consonants, and pressure placed on the population to adopt the revised pronunciations.
    – Biblasia
    Commented Apr 24, 2023 at 13:24

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