Sounds and Sound Systems Around the World: An Brief Overview

Apr 7, 2015 by

Human languages use great many different speech sounds, but no single language uses them all. To hear various speech sounds and to see International Phonetic Alphabet (IPA) symbols that represent them, visit here. Each language selects a certain number of both consonants and vowels; no language makes do with just consonants or just vowels. Small sound inventories consist of approximately 11-15 sounds: Rotokas spoken in Papua New Guinea has only 11 sounds, as does Pirahã, a native South American language; Hawaiian has 13 sounds. An average size of sound inventory is about 30-60 sounds (both English and Russian, for example, fit into this category), but some languages have more than 60 sounds in their “toolbox”. Such sound-rich languages are typically found in the Caucasus, southern Africa, and North America.

common consonants

The image on the left shows the consonants (in green boxes) that are found most commonly across languages: voiced and voiceless bilabial, alveolar, and velar stops; glottal stop; bilabial, alveolar, palatal, and velar nasals; labiodental, alveolar, palatoalveolar, and glottal fricatives; liquids and glides: l, r, j, and w. Yet even those consonants are not present in all human languages: for example, many aboriginal Australian languages lack fricatives of any kind, and several languages indigenous to North America lack bilabial sounds. To see which types of common consonants are absent in what languages, click here.

Other types of consonants are more “exotic” and found in relatively few languages. One such rare type of consonant is clicks found in Khoisan and Bantu languages of southern Africa; the only language outside those families to have clicks is Dahalo, a Cushitic language spoken in Kenya. Other rare types of consonants include labio-velars (or “doubly-articulated consonants”, i.e. sounds pronounced by simultaneous closure at the lips and the soft palate; hear examples from Yoruba here), pharyngeals (sounds pronounced in the pharynx), and interdentals (sounds pronounced with the tip of the tongue protruding between the teeth, spelled in English with “th”). To learn more about those rare consonant types and where they are found, click here. Other typologically rare types of sounds are implosives (sounds pronounced while inhaling rather than exhaling) and ejectives. Note that languages with small sound inventories need not have only the cross-linguistically common types of sounds. For example, among the six consonants of Rotokas we find a flap (heard in the middle of the American English pronunciation of words writer and rider) and a voiced bilabial fricative (to pronounce it, bring the two lips close but not completely shut and try to say “v”).

When it comes to vowels, one thing to note is that vowel inventories range in size from as few as 2 to as many as two dozen vowels, yet languages generally have fewer vowels than consonants. To learn more about the consonant-vowel ratios in languages of the world, click here. Small vowel inventories (2-4 vowels) are found in many Australian aboriginal languages (e.g. Mparntwe Arrernte, which has only two vowels) and Native American languages. Average vowel inventories consist of 5-6 vowels, while large vowel inventories (7 or more vowels) are found predominantly in Africa and Eurasia. To examine the distribution of vowel inventories of different sizes, see here. As for the content of vowel inventories, languages tend to distribute their vowels evenly across “the vowel space”, that is to have vowels whose articulation is as far apart as possible. The most typical vowel inventories consist of three vowels (i, u, and a), as in Modern Standard Arabic, or five vowels (i, u, a, e, and o), as in Modern Hebrew. Systems with a “gap”, that is missing one of those five vowels are rare but not impossible: for example, Quapaw, a Siouan language in North America, has four vowels: i, a, e, and o, but no u. Languages that have more than 5 vowels typically distinguish between high-mid and low-mid vowels (“open” and “closed” e and o), have diphthongs or unusual types of vowels such as front rounded or back unrounded vowels, or distinguish between short and long consonants.

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  • John B Gorentz

    I’m a bit confused as to whether a long vs short vowel counts as the same vowel or as two different vowels. (I’m thinking about Ojibwe, which has more vowel sounds if you count the drawn-out ones as separate vowels.)

    • Thanks for the comment, John. In a language that uses vowel length to distinguish meaning (e.g. Finnish), short and long vowels certainly count as different. I guess Ojibwe is like that (but I don’t know all the details about the language). In English length is not relevant although school teachers sometimes talk about “long” and “short” vowels in English, but what they mean is tense and lax vowels. For example, the difference between the vowels in “Pete” and “pit” are not length but how tense the muscles are when pronouncing the vowels. As a result, the vowel in “Pete” is also more front and more high and the lips are more stretched. In Finnish, “a” and “aa” are different purely in the time they are pronounced.

      • John B Gorentz


        The Nichols and Nyholm “Consise Dictionary of Minnesota Ojibwe” lists seven vowels, three short and four long, the long and short distinguished only by how long the sound is drawn out. If one follows the links on that atlas you linked to, you’re taken to an older reference book (for Eastern Ojibwe) that says pretty much the same thing. But I now see that another commenter has already pointed out (a few years ago) that this means that Ojibwe should be classified as having a large inventory of vowel sounds rather than a small one. Which means North America should get a second red dot on the map!

        I don’t happen to know of any word pairs that are distinguished only by a short vs long vowel, but there are probably some that are. My knowledge of the spoken language is mostly from having worked through the Pimsleur course (also based on Minnesota Ojibwe). But in my part of the U.S. you sometimes hear Ojibwe, Odawa, or Potawatomi people refer to themselves as Anishinaabe, and the double-a (as commonly written to distinguish from the short vowel) definitely sounds more drawn out.

        My wife is sometimes annoyed when we’re driving along a county road and I point out the waawaashkeshiwag in the roadside ditch or crossing the road in front of us. It takes longer to say than “deer”, especially if you draw out the long vowels properly. And sometimes the speed of saying it is important, because if you slam on the brakes quickly enough you can avoid an expensive accident or worse. But it’s one of the small inventory of things I know how to say in Ojibwe, so I like to stay in practice.

        When I was a little tyke I learned that English has long vs short vowels, but it wasn’t until recently, possibly from reading things you’ve written, that it occurred to me that “long” in that context could be taken literally. Maybe I wondered about it as a kid (it was a long time ago) but I probably just gave up and satisfied myself that “long” and “short” were just words for different sets of sounds. I never thought of the tenseness of muscles as distinguishing the two sets, so I’m now glad to have that description from you!

        • Ilya Zlatanov

          Speed is crucial in some situations. For Arctic people (Eskimo-Aleut family) maritime hunting is a basic occupation. They have special short terms for such things like ‘seal left on board’. An old hunter complained that young generations tend to forget their language and as a result the hunt often fails.

        • Yes, there are on occasion errors in WALS (only he who does nothing doesn’t make mistakes!), but they are good at fixing it. I don’t remember, however, if their database is supposed to reflect the size of the entire vowel inventory or just of the inventory of vowel qualities (determined by the position of the tongue and the lips, but not by suprasegmental phenomena such as length or tone)…

          • John B Gorentz

            Asya, the title of the map says “vowel quality” and not “vowel.” And in his chapter 2 he explains the reasons for doing that chart as an inventory of vowel qualities. For one thing, there will be less disagreement on what constitutes a vowel quality. So this all explains why he didn’t make a change in response to the person who said, like I did, that Ojibwe has 7 vowels. It’s a map of vowel qualities, not vowels.

            Thanks for making me aware of that distinction.

          • That’s what I thought — thanks for checking, John!

      • Ilya Zlatanov

        The case of Finnish is clear, both vowels and consonants vary in length (tuli – he came, tulli – customs, tuuli – wind). But in Hungarian some long and short vowels have the same “quality” (/i/ – /iː/), and some don’t (/ɒ/ – /aː/, /ɛ/ – /eː/).

        • Yes, which is why individual (long and short) vowels should be counted, rather than multiplying vowel qualities by 2.