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Languages with small phoneme inventories such as Pirahã often encourage different constructions of the phoneme system. In the case of Pirahã, it either lacks phonemic velars or phonemic nasals. Are there any metrics to measure which option is more likely?

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Pirahã has a consonant phoneme that's pronounced [g] in some contexts and [n] in others. (It has no other nasal phonemes, and arguably no other velar phonemes.) So the question here is, "Is this Mystery Consonant really a /g/, or is it really an /n/?"

As a matter of convention, linguists tend to name consonants after their default pronunciation if there is a clear default. According to the Wikipedia article, the Pirahã Mystery Consonant is pronounced [n] after a pause and [g] elsewhere. That suggests that [g] is the default pronunciation, and that we should name the phoneme /g/. And by the looks of it, that's what the linguists who work on Pirahã have done.

For what it's worth, too, it's not terribly uncommon for languages to lack nasal phonemes. Whereas it's quite uncommon for languages to lack velar phonemes: /k/ is the most common consonant across languages. (There are some languages without phonemic /k/, including Tahitian and maybe some varieties of Hawaiian. But it's very, very rare.)

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  • Kind of an aside, but for anyone that is interested, and in case you see this "out in the wild", for the commonality of features linguists will often use markedness, where a marked feature is uncommon and an unmarked feature is common. – Mark Tuttle Sep 26 '11 at 15:57
  • Do you have a source for /k/ as most common consonant? I was under the impression that the distinction belonged to /t/, with Hawai'ian being unusual precisely because it lacks /t/ after a *t > k sound change. – Aaron Sep 27 '11 at 20:33
  • I'm afraid I don't have a source handy, and it's possible I've misremembered. I should have just said that lacking /k/ is rarer than lacking /m/ or /n/ and left it at that. (As for Hawai'ian: most varieties have /k/ but no /t/, but at least one has /t/ but no /k/. I believe the story is that all had *k go to glottal stop, and most but not all then had *t go to /k/.) – Leah Velleman Oct 3 '11 at 4:07
  • Only a tiny number of languages lack nasal phonemes. WALS (combining features 18A and 10A) records a single language with neither nasal consonants or vowels. – Gaston Ümlaut Oct 3 '11 at 10:00

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