- Steven MoranSteven MoranDepartment of Comparative Linguistics, University of Zurich
A phonological inventory is a repertoire of contrastive articulatory or manual gestures shared by a community of users. Whether spoken or signed, all human languages have a phonological inventory. In spoken languages, the phonological inventory is comprised of a set of segments (consonants and vowels) and suprasegmentals (stress and intonation) that are linguistically contrastive, either lexically or grammatically, in a particular language or one of its dialects. Sign languages also have phonological inventories, which include a set of linguistically contrastive signs made from movement, hand shape, and location.
The study of phonological inventories is interesting because they tell us about the distribution, frequency, and diversity of gestures that individuals acquire and produce in the world’s 7,000 or so languages. Their study has also raised important empirical questions about the comparability of linguistic concepts across different languages and modalities, in the use of statistics and sampling in quantitative approaches to comparative linguistics, and in the study of language ontogeny and phylogeny over the course of language evolution. As such, some recent research highlights include the following: quantitative approaches suggest causal relationships between phonological inventory composition and gene-culture and language-environment coevolution; the study of de novo sign languages provides important insights into the emergence of phonology; and comparative animal communication studies suggest evolutionary speech precursors in phonological repertoires of nonhuman primates, and potentially in extinct hominids including Neanderthal.