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Number of phonemes and number of speakers

Richesse en phonèmes et richesse en locuteurs


Observations from unrelated language families paradoxically bring out what looks like an inverse correlation between the number of phonemes in a language and the number of its speakers: languages with fewer speakers seem to have more phonemes. The interpretation proposed here is based on historico-geographical perspectives, as well as on socio-demographic considerations. The increase or decrease in the number of phonemes of a language appears to be influenced by the proportion of bilingual speakers, which itself depends on the type of relationships established with neighbouring societies, as well as on the absolute size of the group at issue. Equal bilingualism is typically found between small language communities. It involves neighbouring populations that are in contact and have long-standing ties through exchanges and marriages. This type of bilingualism tends to enrich phonemic inventories. It differs sharply from the unequal bilingualism that prevails in Europe, typically involving a stigmatized local variety spoken as first language and a prestigious national language spoken as a second language. [This is a translation of the article originally published as: Richesse en phonèmes et richesse en locuteurs. L’Homme 1, 1: 5–10 (1961).]
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halshs-01631481 , version 1 (09-11-2017)



  • HAL Id : halshs-01631481 , version 1


André-Georges Haudricourt. Number of phonemes and number of speakers. 2017. ⟨halshs-01631481⟩
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