Different Languages, Different Phonemes

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"Ohana" means family in Hawaiian, a word with a few number of sounds. These categories of sounds our vocal apparatus produces are called phonemes (Lilienfeld). According to the Lilienfeld text, "The Hawaiian language contains a remarkably small number of phonemes (some estimates place it as though as 13)..." Some more examples of this are "kaukau" (food), "kakahiaka (morning), and "Humuhumunukunukuapua'a" (Lilienfeld).

One could wonder how this compares to other languages. The English language has 44 phonemes and some languages in Africa have more than 100 (A Walk in the WoRds). Why such a difference? According to the blog A Walk in the WoRds (http://walkinthewords.blogspot.com/2011/05/phonemes-count-and-phoneme-counts.html), "According to some recent phonetic analysis conducted by University of Aukland psychologist Quentin Atkinson, places more recently settled by humans have fewer phonemes." It is possible that settlement causes the difference in phonemes between languages; however, it could instead be related to population size. A Science article, "Phonemic Diversity Supports a Serial Founder Effect Model of Language Expansion from Africa", explains, "The number of phonemes...in a language is positively correlated with the size of its speaker population (1) in such a way that small populations have fewer phonemes" (http://www.sciencemag.org/content/332/6027/346.full). It is curious whether population size, time of settlement, or some other reason really explains why different languages have varying numbers of phonemes.


What does this difference in phonemes really mean? Lilienfeld states, "Although there's some overlap across languages, some languages contain sounds that don't occur in other languages." Because of this, it is difficult to learn other languages, most especially when the languages have fewer phonemes that coincide. This, for example, explains why is it easy to learn from one Romantic language to another, because many of the phonemes overlap.

The differences in languages is intriguing. Different languages have varying number of phonemes for uncertain reasons - possibly population size or time of inhabitance. Due to this, the ease of learning a language is correlated positively to the number of shared phonemes between two languages. Because the sounds in the Hawaiian word for family ("ohana") are phonemes that also exist in English, thus, it is easy for English speakers to learn the word.

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This page contains a single entry by bens0432 published on October 23, 2011 11:06 PM.

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