Revisiting population size vs. phoneme inventory size

Language Vol/Iss. 88(4) Linguistic Society of America Published In Pages: 877-893
By Moran, Steven, McCloy, Daniel, Wright, Richard


In this paper, the authors argue against the findings presented in Hay & Bauer (2007) which suggest a positive correlation between population size and phoneme inventory size in languages. In order to do so, they highlight some methodological issues in the previous study, as well as other studies addressing similar questions. To address these issues, the authors conducted their own study using a larger and more representative sample of phoneme inventories drawn from the PHOIBLE knowledge base, and applied a more rigorous statistical analysis using a hierarchical mixed model. The results indicate that correlations between population size and phoneme inventory size are quite small when compared to differences among language family groups, and that the phoneme-population relationship fluctuates around zero between families, suggesting that any relationship between population and phoneme inventory size does not generalize to language as a whole. The author concludes that the correlations seen between population and phoneme inventories are likely to be artifacts, and do not find compelling reason to consider population size as a potential causal factor in the development of phonological systems.


Sample Used Coded Data Comment
Phonetics Information Base and Lexicon (PHOIBLE)Other researchersUsed to gain all relevant information on the 969 languages in question

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