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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