By making a quick comparison among several language phonologies (from various language families), I could observe that some phones occur very frequently, such as [m], [p], [b], [h], [a] and [i]. Others seem to be much rarer, among which, [ʕ], [ɰ], [ⱱ] and [ɪ̈].

Do linguists know the frequency of each phone across languages? And, perhaps more importantly, why are some phones more frequent than others?

  • just a guess, they might be frequent because they are easy to make, the example you cite are some of the earliest sound that babies make
    – Louis Rhys
    Jan 4 '12 at 9:20
  • Be careful that you're looking at real phones rather than just transcriptions. [ɪ̈] is rarely transcribed as such; it's more commonly written as [ɨ] or even [ə] or [ɯ], unless the language makes a phonemic distinction between [ɪ̈] and [ɨ]. So the sound is probably much more common than looking at transcriptions would suggest. Sep 28 '12 at 6:06

The most frequently-cited work on this topic is probably Maddieson (1984) (see also Ladefoged & Maddieson 1996), and the associated UPSID database, from which you can get frequency data for different types of contrastive sounds in languages. Taking a diachronic perspective, we can say that rare sounds are those which tend to get easily lost in sound change, because they are difficult to produce or perceive, and those for which there are few pathways for their innovation (even if they are not difficult to produce, they just require very specific conditions to arise).

An interesting discussion of aerodynamic factors influencing the prevalence of different types of stop consonants is found in Ohala (1983); a proposal for the rarity of bilabial trills is found in Maddieson (1989: 91--115).

Peter Ladefoged & Ian Maddieson (1996). The sounds of the world's languages. Oxford: Blackwell. Maddieson, I. 1984. Patterns of Sounds. Cambridge University Press, Cambridge


Phonetics isn't my forte but I might offer some help.

I am aware of at least two theories that try to explain why certain sounds are more wide-spread than others. The first one is called Quantal Theory, proposed by Kenneth Stevens (1972, 1989, 2002, inter alia). There are regions of stability in the articulatory to acoustics mapping (aka quantal regions), when changes in articulation have little impact on acoustics. Sounds that occupy those stable regions tend to be more common in languages. Have a look at this handout

The other one is called Adaptive Dispersion, first proposed by Liljencrants & Lindblom (1972) (the 1971 working paper version can be downloaded for free). Its basic tenet is that sounds in a language tend to be placed in such a way so that perceptual (auditory) contrast between them is at maximum. See this paper by Keith Johnson

Liljencrants J, Lindblom B. 1972. Numerical simulation of vowel quality systems: The role of perceptual contrast. Language 48, no 4, pp839-862

Stevens, K.N. 1972. The quantal nature of speech: Evidence from articulatoryacoustic data. In Denes, P.B. and David Jr., E.E. (eds.), Human Communication, A Unified View, 51-66. New York, McGraw-Hill.

Stevens, K.N. 1989. On the quantal nature of speech. Journal of Phonetics 17, 3-46. [the same issue of JPhonet. contains multiple critical responses to Stevens' theory]

Stevens, K.N. 2002. Toward a model for lexical access based on acoustic landmarks and distinctive features. Journal of the Acoustic Society of America 111, 1872- 1891.

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