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Unusual English Speech Sounds That Define the Language

Learning how English relates to other languages can really aid in language learning. It can also make us appreciate the vast diversity of the world’s languages. Let’s look at some of the unique and not-so-strange sounds of English using WALS, the World Atlas of Language Structures, and this interactive table of consonants and vowels.

WALS is a vast database of linguistic attributes. The Max Planck Institute for Evolutionary Anthropology’s interactive maps compare languages’ major grammatical elements.

What exactly is a phoneme?

We’ll be looking at language sounds, or phonemes, in this section. Phonemes are discrete sound components that differentiate one word from another. The words ‘bat’ and ‘pat’ in English represent distinct things and are only distinguished by /b/ and /p/, showing that these sounds are independent phonemes. Phonology is the study of spoken sounds.

A language having phonemes that differ greatly from our own tongue might be difficult to learn. Mandarin and Cantonese, according to the US State Department, are extremely difficult for natural English speakers to master, but Spanish and Norwegian are simpler. The considerable phonetic distinctions between the two languages present a challenge for English speakers studying Mandarin.

new blog 1 1024x576 - SOUNDS THAT MAKE ENGLISH HARD

Vowel Sounds in English

Vowels: When compared to other languages, English has a considerable number of vowels, with WALS defining ‘big’ as more than 7 vowels. The ‘average’ number of vowels is five or six. Although we only have five written vowels (a e i o u), depending on the dialect, English has 14-21 distinct vowel sounds.

Although English includes several vowel sounds, most of the vowels are not very uncommon. It lacks front rounded vowels, which are rather uncommon in the world’s languages.

German and French Front Rounded Vowels

Front rounded vowels are found in German and French, where the vowels /y/, //, and /oe/ are used. Click the relevant symbols in this chart to hear how these vowels sound. Because they do not exist in English, their existence in German and French, which many English speakers acquire as second languages, might be difficult.


The consonant inventory in English is average, with roughly 22 consonants. The Rotokas language of Papua New Guinea has the fewest consonants of any language, with only six.

English features two consonants that are not found in other languages. These are ‘th’ sounds, as in ‘thunder’ or ‘thought’. Only 8% of the world’s languages have ‘th’ sounds. Historically, ‘th’ sounds were frequently derived from ‘t’ or ‘d’ sounds. This occurred on its own in English, Spanish, and Tashelhiyt (Berber; Morocco).

Another odd sound in English is //, which is typically represented as ‘ng’ and may be found in words like ‘wing’ or ‘singing.’ This is known as ‘enigma.’ This phoneme is found in almost half of all languages. Many languages permit this ‘ng’ sound at the start of a word.

Comparing the Sounds of English to Other Languages

Comparing the sounds of English to those of other languages might help us understand and appreciate some of our language’s quirks, such as its huge number of vowels or unusual ‘th’ sounds. We may also learn more about what sounds are frequent or rare in languages spoken throughout the world by doing so.

Comparing the sounds of several languages reveals more about what is possible in language and aids in determining which sounds distinguish a language. We have a tendency to believe that our native language is normal and everyone else’s is strange, yet by comparing linguistic traits, we can discover that all languages have a little strangeness in them.

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