On extremes in linguistic complexity
Phonetic accounts of Iroquoian, Polynesian and Khoesan
This article examines common motifs in the accounts of the sound systems of Iroquoian, Polynesian and Khoesan languages as the most well-known cases of extremes in phonetic complexity. On the basis of examples from European and American scholarship between the 17th and early 20th century, we investigate continuities in the description of their seemingly ‘exotic’ inventories and phonotactic structures when viewed from the perspective of European languages. We also demonstrate the influence of phonetic accounts on the interpretation of other components of language and their role in the construction of biased images of the languages and their speakers. Finally, we show that controversies in descriptions of ‘exotic’ languages concern issues that remain relevant in modern phonetic research, in particular complexity of phonological systems, while notions which were conceived as ‘misconceptions’ have re-emerged as unresolved research questions, e.g., the status of clicks and small and large consonant inventories.
Published online: 23 November 2012
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