The notion of functional load (FL) quantifies the role a phonological contrast plays in keeping words distinct in a given language. Several studies have emphasized its potential impact on language evolution and acquisition, and FL has repeatedly been mentioned as a useful tool to supplement phonological descriptions for more than seventy years. It is nevertheless still rarely explored and this paper is a contribution to filling this gap. By adopting an information-theory approach and a measure of FL proposed by Hockett (1955), we performed a corpus-based comparison of three non-tonal (English, Japanese, Korean) and two tonal languages (Cantonese and Mandarin). We calculated FLs carried by segmental (vowels and consonants) contrasts and tonal contrasts (in Cantonese and Mandarin). We also evaluated the total FL associated with the vocalic system as a whole, the consonantal system as a whole, and the tonal system (when applicable). Our results suggest that i) the distributions of FLs in a phonological system are very uneven, with only a few prominent contrasts, and ii) the existence of a tonal system does not reduce the importance of vowel and consonantal contrasts, even though tone contrasts are as important as vowel contrasts in Cantonese and Mandarin.
Bibliographic reference. Oh, Yoon Mi / Pellegrino, François / Coupé, Christophe / Marsico, Egidio (2013): "Cross-language comparison of functional load for vowels, consonants, and tones", In INTERSPEECH-2013, 3032-3036.