LINGUIST List 7.837

Fri Jun 7 1996

Disc: Phoneme inventory size and word length

Editor for this issue: T. Daniel Seely <>


  1. Chris Golston, Re: 7.826, Sum: Phoneme inventory size and word length

Message 1: Re: 7.826, Sum: Phoneme inventory size and word length

Date: Wed, 05 Jun 1996 11:38:44 BST
From: Chris Golston <>
Subject: Re: 7.826, Sum: Phoneme inventory size and word length
Regarding Martin Haspelmath's recent posting on the Linguist list.

I am amazed to find that anybody is seriously counting SEGMENTS to
determine word length (Nettle 95). Hello?

Surely the big generalization is on word-length in terms of SYLLABLES and
number of distinctive features (or number of phonemes). If a language
allows really complex syllables it doesn't need lots of them per morpheme
(eg, German); if a languages has really beautiful syllables it MUST have a
lot of them per morpheme (Italian). Comparing English strengths and
Hawaiian honolulu 'tourist trap' as two words with eight segments misses
something important.

Chinese morphemes, PIE roots, etc. are ALL monosyllabic, but they vary
greatly in terms of number of segments and number of distinctive features.
In many languages we find a minimal word requirement (McCarthy & Prince
1986) of two moras or two syllables; in some languages we find the same for
roots (Golston 1991). But in no language do we find ANY correlation
between number of segments and words or between number of segments and
roots (not even in Arabic! which has bi-, tri- and quadra-literal roots).

Has anyone tried counting something reasonable (number of syllables or
feet) and seeing if it correlated with something else?

Chris Golston
Allgemeine Sprachwissenschaft
Heinrich Heine Universitaet Duesseldorf
Universitaetsstr. 1
40225 Duesseldorf

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