How many of the same phonemes in the German language are found in the English language? Same consonants? Vowels? Resources for this?

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    Since phonemes are defined with reference to a language (or a variety of a language) the whole idea of a phoneme being "the same" in different languages is problematic. While we often do treat phonemes in different languages as "the same", they usually do not wholly match.
    – Colin Fine
    Mar 29, 2015 at 17:01
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    It seems to be a straightforward question, though I don't know off-hand. German has front rounded vowel phonemes that are missing in English, and also a voiceless velar fricative. You'd have to decide whether the mid front English [ei] diphthong should count as equivalent to the German tense mid front unrounded vowel phoneme -- not obvious. Maybe you could look at facts about borrowings between English and German to resolve such questions.
    – Greg Lee
    Mar 29, 2015 at 18:59
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    Another problem with this is what you consider a phoneme of a given language. Many German speakers try to pronounce many loanwords as in the original language and dthus you could argue that every phoneme of the English language occurs in the German language (which loaned a lot from English). Of course, you may regard this as a rather extreme point of view, but where do you draw the line? (This was not a rhethorical question.) Mar 29, 2015 at 20:46

1 Answer 1


The only context where "same phoneme" makes sense is if identity is based on a fixed and universal feature system like the SPE system, and underlying forms are fully specified (because underspecification leads to a immense degree of indeterminacy what the feature values are in a single language). You also have to make some analytic assumptions about what is phonemic in either language (such as whether there is a flap phoneme in English).

"Phoneme" or "phonemic" has at least two meanings, so you would have to specify what meaning of "phoneme" you have in mind. One meaning is "present in underlying representations". The other is "is not fully predictable as a variant of some phoneme, looking only at surface phonetic segments" (so, is not strictly allophonic, as would be the case with the rounded and non-rounded variants of /ɹ/). The intermediate territory between these two concepts includes the flap (which can come from /t/ or /d/) or aspiration (caused by stress differences which are then neutralized, as in capitalistic versus militaristic).

There are a number of other analytic choices that need to be made, for example, in "gate", is there a vowel [e] that is distinct from the vowel of "get"? One answer is "yes, it's [get] vs. [gɛt], and another answer is "no, it's [gɛɪt] vs. [gɛt]. Since [ɛɪ] is, in the SPE system, a sequence of phonemes and not one phoneme, the analytic question is whether to add a new segment /e/ (as opposed to a new sequencing of existing phonemes). For German, one can analogously treat [ø:] and [œ] as long and short variants of the otherwise same vowel [ø(:)].

Then you also have to decide what dialect of the language you're interested in, since some dialects of English lack [θ ð] and others lack [ɔ]. My rule of thumb is that if someone doesn't specify dialect, I get to use mine. In the case of German, I'm not a native speaker, but I will use the values of the dialect that I tried to learn in high school.

Oh, and you also have to decide how to deal with marginal phonemes like English [x] as in "Bach" or German [θ]. I think one should be really conservative in admitting such phonemes, because if you're not, English would end up having phonemic /q/ and /ʕ/ as exemplified by words like [ʕira:q] "Iraq". And what about the click in the language name Xhosa? You'd need to set some kind of social criterion for filtering out recherché pronunciations by people in the know, if you feel that [ʕira:q] is too unacceptable but [bax] is acceptable.

In other words, it seems like a straightforward question, but it totally isn't.

  • I think that the [x] of English /bax/ is not a phoneme because it is inconsistent with processes such as x -> k (corresponding to the implicational universal fricatives imply stops) which define the English phoneme system. The only reason /bax/ is pronounced [bax] is Kiparsky's condition that morphophonemic rules apply only in environments created by the concatenation of forms or the application of previous rules. So /bax/ is not permitted to change into [bak], and in general, underlying forms may contain non-phonemes.
    – Greg Lee
    Mar 30, 2015 at 1:12
  • You're simply stipulating without argument that [x] isn't a phoneme. The fact that [x] is "marked" doesn't mean it can't be a phoneme. Your explanation for why /bax/ doesn't change to [bak] presupposes that and only works if /x/ is in fact a phoneme (as shown by the the "Bach, bock" minimal pair. The derived environment condition only holds of morphophonemic rules i.e. the non-allophonic ones, as Kiparsky points out. English simply does not have a process changing /x/ into [k].
    – user6726
    Mar 30, 2015 at 1:31
  • It hardly needs to be argued that [x] is not a phoneme of English. It's obvious. Why do some say [bak]?
    – Greg Lee
    Mar 30, 2015 at 2:16
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    It hardly needs to be argued that [ɔ] is not a phoneme of English. It's obvious. Why do some say [kat] for "caught"? It hardly needs to be argued that [θ] is not a phoneme of English. It's obvious. Why do some say [wif] for "with"? I think we're done here.
    – user6726
    Mar 30, 2015 at 5:05

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