Re: Human Language. (long post)

Michael McBroom (
Thu, 23 Jan 1997 00:52:42 -0800

John A. Halloran wrote:

> > Linguists reconstruct the phonemes, not all the phonetic variations,
> >of ancient languages.
> This is true. Would you accept, however, the assertion that with just one
> vowel phoneme, vowels lacked semantic significance in the earliest version
> of this particular proto-language?

If a language -- proto- or otherwise -- contains only one vowel phoneme,
it can still have semantic significance. In addition to phonemes, many
languages have suprasegmentals, which include tones, such as those
found in Chinese, or gemination (lengthening) of sounds, as is found in
Arabic. Thus, even if a language had only one vowel phoneme, with the
use of suprasegmentals, clear semantic distinctions could be maintained
between otherwise identical consonant-vowel formations. Consider the
famous example of "ma" in Chinese. What are the various meanings (all
dependent upon a different tone)? 'mother' 'horse' 'hemp' 'scold' and
the interrogative particle, I believe it is.

Thus, the assertion that a single vowel phoneme lacks semantic
significance is without merit.


Michael McBroom
CSUF Linguistics