Dunbar and Dupoux (2016) established that the sound inventories of human languages show three curious typological properties. Their abstract geometries tend to be regular in three ways:
Each of these hypercubes shows the inventory of consonants or vowels in some (real or hypothetical) language. Each of the three or four dimensions is a different phonological feature. The pair on the left illustrates (feature) economy, a property already documented by Clements (2003) and by Mackie and Mielke (2011): if two inventories have the same number of sounds, those sounds tend, all things being equal, to require relatively few phonological features to characterize: inventory (b) would be more likely than inventory (a), all things being equal (though all things are not equal in that case, as languages tend to have nasal sounds). The middle pair illustrates local symmetry: if two inventories have the same number of sounds, using the same number of features, those sounds tend to make relatively many “minimal oppositions” between pairs of sounds, which differ only in one feature: inventory (b) has more such pairs of sounds (like [u] and [o]). This geometry is more typologically frequent. The right-hand pair illustrates global symmetry: if two inventories are matched geometrically on the other two properties, they tend to have sounds that are more symmetrically distributed: few features show far more sounds at one axis than at the other (for example, far more front than back vowels, or vice versa). Inventory (b) is more globally symmetrical, and more typical.
The idea that there are geometric tendencies in sound inventories goes back at least to Martinet and Trubetskoy, but, as yet, there is no good explanation for why inventories have the types of geometries they do. One of the principal goals of the GEOMPHON project (project funded by Agence Nationale de la Recherche, 299k €, 2018 to 2021) is to test explanations for these tendencies. The idea is that historical change will be more likely to add some sounds to inventories than others, depending on whether the resulting inventory is relatively geometrically regular or irregular. In psycholinguistic experiments probing some of the conditions that would need to hold for historical change to take place, we should see active psychological evidence of such preferences.
For example, although Dutch has [p t k b d]—an almost complete set of voiced and voiceless obstruents—it lacks [ɡ] historically. This is an odd inventory geometry: adding [ɡ] would make the language more economical, more locally symmetrical, and more globally symmetrical. With respect to the Dutch obstruent inventory, then, [ɡ] sits in a geometrically privileged position, and, according to the general logic, is very likely to enter the language. Indeed, today, [ɡ] has entered the language through loanwords: most people say [ɡuɡəl] for Google, rather than the [ɣuɣəl] or [xuxəl] that would be dictated by Dutch orthography.
In my group, we are currently testing a speech perception explanation in a pre-registered study (see Open and replicable science). The hypothesis is that sounds which are not part of a language’s inventory, but which would give rise to a geometrically more regular inventory, are easier for native listeners to perceive. For Dutch speakers, [ɡ] is relatively easy to distinguish from acoustically similar sounds (like [d] and [ɣ]), whereas a sound in a less geometrically privileged position would be more difficult to distinguish from the sounds of Dutch, like the ejective [kʼ], which reduces the economy of the system as it requires a new featural contrast. The hypothesis predicts positive effects of the geometric properties on performance in a speech discrimination task, even when effects of acoustic similarity are controlled for.Additional hypotheses about these tendencies, complementary to the perception hypothesis, will be tested later: artificial language experiments will assess whether there is an effect of geometric privilege when participants learn to group arbitrary classes of sounds.
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