High functional load inhibits phonological contrast loss: A corpus study

Andrew Wedel, Abby Kaplan, Scott Jackson

Research output: Contribution to journalArticlepeer-review

130 Scopus citations


For nearly a century, linguists have suggested that diachronic merger is less likely between phonemes with a high functional load - that is, phonemes that distinguish many words in the language in question. However, limitations in data and computational power have made assessing this hypothesis difficult. Here we present the first larger-scale study of the functional load hypothesis, using data from sound changes in a diverse set of languages. Our results support the functional load hypothesis: phoneme pairs undergoing merger distinguish significantly fewer minimal pairs in the lexicon than unmerged phoneme pairs. Furthermore, we show that higher phoneme probability is positively correlated with merger, but that this effect is stronger for phonemes that distinguish no minimal pairs. Finally, within our dataset we find that minimal pair count and phoneme probability better predict merger than change in system entropy at the lexical or phoneme level.

Original languageEnglish (US)
Pages (from-to)179-186
Number of pages8
Issue number2
StatePublished - Aug 2013


  • Corpus
  • Entropy
  • Frequency
  • Functional load
  • Minimal pair
  • Phoneme

ASJC Scopus subject areas

  • Experimental and Cognitive Psychology
  • Language and Linguistics
  • Developmental and Educational Psychology
  • Linguistics and Language
  • Cognitive Neuroscience


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