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Themes and actions

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Modelling of the structure and evolution of phonetic/phonological systems

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Scientific framework and objectives

The way the world’s languages rely on different inventories of sounds to build the words of their lexicon contribute in a significant way to their diversity. Far from being randomly assembled, these inventories of various sizes are as many possible answers to the physiological, perceptive and cognitive human features; in these systems, sounds occur in a structured way, especially in terms of meaningful oppositions with respect to the lexicon. Phonology and phonetics both aim at unravelling the main principles of the structure and evolution of sound systems, and therefore at understanding their typological diversity in terms of underlying mechanisms


We try to at least partially reveal the principles of structure and evolution of phonological systems by analyzing the UPSID database. This database contains more than 450 phonological systems that give a representative sample of the diversity of the world’s languages. The coding of these systems relies on a hundred of features which define around 830 segments that were thought to adequately represent all the sounds encountered in the languages of the database. On the basis of theoretical proposals such as Maddieson and Linblom’s « size principle » or « all-inclusive universal phonetic space », we analyze how features co-occur in segments, and how these segments are then combined to produce inventories of various sizes and shapes. Various numerical values are providing us with clues to this respect, for example on the more or less “basic” aspect of a feature in the definition of segments, or on the number of derived segments a specific segment can lead to. To avoid any problem of circularity in our reasoning, the frequencies of segments or of groups of segments in the languages are only considered as ways of validating our models, and not as entries.
More generally, our approach follows the paradigm of complex dynamical systems (CDS), and aims at better understanding why and how phonological systems may be considered as CDS. Various statistical measurements especially address the strong or weak independence of features or segments to each others. The results of such computations also lead to distances or complexity measures for phonological systems that take the structural dimension of these systems into account.

  Financial support
  • ACI Systèmes Dynamiques Complexes en SHS

    CNRS – Ministère de l’enseignement Supérieur et de la Recherche

  • Coupé, C., Marsico, E., Pellegrino, F., 2005, "Complex patterns in phonological systems", proc. of Approaches to complexity in language, Helsinki, Finlande, 24-26 Août, pp. 1
  • Coupé, C., Marsico, E., Pellegrino, F., 2005, "Complexity of phonological inventories: features and structures", Workshop Phonological systems and complex adaptive systems, Lyon, France, 4-6 juillet
  • Marsico, E., Hombert, J.M., 2000, "(Re)evaluating the implicit assumptions behind historical linguistics methods", proc. of Conference on Long-range Comparison, Moscou, Russie, Mai-Juin
  • Marsico, E., Coupé, C., Pellegrino, F., Hombert, J.M., 2002, "Vers une mesure de la complexité des systèmes phonologiques", actes de IIIèmes Journées d'Etudes Linguistiques, "Universaux sonores", Nantes, France, 21-23 Mars 2002
  • Marsico, E., Maddieson, I., Coupé, C., Pellegrino, F., 2005, "Investigating the "hidden" structure of phonological systems", Proceedings of the 30th Meeting of the BLS, Feb 13-16, Berkeley, 30, pp. 256-267
  • Marsico, E., Maddieson, I., Coupé, C., Pellegrino, F., 2005, "Etude typologique des contraintes portant sur la constitution des systèmes phonologiques", actes de 7èmes Journées internationales du Réseau français de phonologie, Aix-en-Provence, France, 2-4 juin
  • Wang, F., Minett, J., Coupé, C., 2003, "A quantitative study on Chinese dialects", proc. of 12th Annual Conference of the International Association of Chinese Linguistics (IACL-12) & 2nd International Symposium of Chinese Linguistics (ISCL-2), Linguistics Institute of Chinese Academy of Social Sciences, Nankai University, Tianjin, China, June 18-22

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