As a side thought to my current efforts looking at types of minimal-pairs, the similarity between sounds across other languages has occurred to me.
After some searching, I failed to find an answer to how similar phonemes of other languages are - but I have found some resources;

According to those pages, there are many phonemes shared between English and French, (such as both have plosive//bilabial /p/ and /b/, and both have fricative//post-alveolar /ʃ/ and /ʒ/).

I am aware that accent will hold influence (as would age/gender etc.).
I'm also aware of allophonic variance/range.
Yes, 'context' may also change the sounding (based upon presence/lack of stress, preceding/following phonemes etc.).

But I'm left with a question - in fact, two parts of a question;
a) How similar are the sounds of phonemes that are shared across languages?
b) Of the phonemes that are not shared, how many are 'close' to sounds that do exist in other languages (English has the Fricative//Dental /θ/ - is there a sound in French that is similar)?

Thank you for any insights.

  • 2
    Phonemes are abstract concepts, so it doesn't really make much sense to compare them across languages. In any case this question is way too broad.
    – curiousdannii
    Mar 1, 2016 at 13:26
  • And how is this question too broad? How could it be asked in a tighter/refined manner? I'm interested in the sounds of language, and how easily confused they are (within a single language, or multiple languages). How do you suggest I make inquiries about it??? Mar 1, 2016 at 13:34
  • How is it too broad? You're asking us to compare how similar the sounds of phonemes are across every language. That's (~7000^2)/2 = 24 million comparisons! While you could ask about two specific languages (and also specifying the dialects you want compared) you'd probably be better off looking up Wikipedia - all the big languages will have a simple table of phonemes in their pages. How much have you read about phonology before? If you haven't read much it might be better to look at one of our resource recommendation questions to see which textbooks are recommended for phonology.
    – curiousdannii
    Mar 1, 2016 at 13:44
  • I'm not asking 'you' to compare all languages. I'm asking if people know of a degree of audible similarity between the sounds of multiple languages. A simple 'yes' or 'no' would have been a good start. Alternatively, a good explanation - such as provided by Jeremy below - would have been far better. And suggesting Wiki is useless, unless you have already stated something akin to "yes - there are degrees of similarity, with caveats" :D. Mar 1, 2016 at 17:02

3 Answers 3


The term "phoneme" is used in a lot of ways. Most often, people use it to refer to the distribution of "phones" in a given language, where a "phone" is a set of sounds that can be (reliably) auditorily discerned and transcribed using IPA letters. This allows you to maintain a distinction between oral vowel and nasal vowel, or unaspirated and aspirated voiceless stop, but does not encompass "left-side nasalized" vs. "right-side nasalized", or "somewhat aspirated", "aspirated" and "massively aspirated", essentially because this is beyond the scope of what the IPA can handle. These "phones" are what is most closely related to absolute / universal perceptual similarity in sound. One would then find that there are both aspirated and unaspirated voiceless stop phones in English, Korean, Thai, Navaho and Apache. At level of what a trained listener can hear, even though there are only two IPA phone categories available to us (aspirated and unaspirated), it is clear that the aspirated phones of Korean are very different from the aspirated phones of English and from the aspirated phones of Navaho; the unaspirated phones of Thai are likewise perceptually distinct from the unaspirated phones of Navaho. In other words, narrow symbolic transcription of sound properties via IPA yields an intermediate level of granularity, which doesn't even encompass what is audible without using special technology. If you use special technology (e.g. acoustic measurements), there is no limit to the number of distinctions that can be made – acoustic measurements are continuous, whereas categorial judgments are (by definition) discrete.

People will use the term "phoneme" to refer to categorial analysis of sounds as "phones", namely discrete perceived categories of limited granularity. A different (and historically terminologically correct) view is that "phonemes" are a set of phones that potentially "contrast" in a language. On those grounds, aspirated and unaspirated voiceless stops of English are not distinct phonemes (ignoring problematic pairs like capitalistic and militaristic). Under either understanding of "phoneme", you can still compare across languages and you can say that Korean and Hindi are similar in both having a voiceless aspirated alveolar stop phoneme [tʰ], even though there will still be some measurable differences in the acoustic properties of these sounds. Unfortunately, there isn't much data available allowing us to compare acoustic similarity of nominally identical phones across languages. (My standard for a "much" comparison is the amount of non-quantitative transcriptional information available on the languages of the world).

There is a special problem in talking about the similarity of phonemes in the contrastive sense, which is that the properties of an abstract contrastive phoneme abstract away from properties that are not universal amongst the allophones. So in English, the voiceless bilabial stop /p/ is realized with aspirated phones and unaspirated phones -- but what are the properties of the phoneme? Is it aspirated, unaspirated, or not specified? There are many ideologies surrounding this question, for example there is an economy ideology that holds that underlying forms should minimize the number of properties available (which forces an analysis where /p/ is unspecified for aspiration). A competing ideology is based on rule-economy, holding that whatever system yields the simplest rules is the correct analysis, and this forces the analysis that /p/ is underlying unaspirated because stating the distribution of aspiration is formally simpler than stating the distribution of non-aspiration.

To answer your question, then, you would have to make an ideological decision about the properties of phonemes – do they constitute a special class of "unspecified" elements, or is their substance the same as that of phones? If you assume the latter approach, there is a fairly simple basis for comparing sounds in languages. In English, we have the phone(me)s s,θ; in Serbo-Croatian, French, Chinese and Makua there is s and no θ. These languages have sounds that are similar to θ, for example they have both s and t; they also have p which is somewhat similar, but less similar. By simply comparing the categorial properties of these phonemes, you could then arrive at a set of sounds that are "equally similar" to English /θ/. Makua is special in these languages in also having phonemes /t̪, t̪ʰ/, which is more similar to /θ/ than /t/ is (thus for Makua, the sounds that are "most similar" to English /θ/ would be /s/ and one of /t̪, t̪ʰ/).

So in fact, there is a computable answer to your question, provided you make the requisite assumptions about the standard of comparison, and provided that you get reliable information about the properties of the sounds in languages that you want to compare. There is an alternative approach of cross-linguistic experimental perceptual comparison, where you present speakers of language A with a sound X of language B and ask (indirectly) what sound X is most like. This would involve trillions of trillions of comparisons, and hasn't been done.

  • 1
    user6726 - I know you can't see it ... but I'm standing and clapping. That is one of the most informative answers I've seen on any of the SE sites I use. !Thank You! - not only for answering, but going the extra 5 Miles and providing background, comparisons and theoretical/principal stances :D // My problem is I don't know all the sounds - but if I use online sound files, I should be able to tag each IPA char with a language + tick/cross if it has an Eng Phone equivalent (which is about as close to accurate as I will likely get). Mar 1, 2016 at 19:45
  • 1
    I second that, @oftenfrustrated! Mar 2, 2016 at 18:01

There are some issues first, and then I’ll hazard an answer.

I think you need definitions for what ‘how similar’ and ‘how close’ mean. For /p/ and /b/, if you’re going by the kinds of phonemic features that IPA broadly uses (plosive, bilabial), then they’re the same. Phonetically, there are major differences (e.g., voice onset time). Analogous issues apply for ‘close’ with non-shared phonemes: is a (voiceless) dental fricative similar to a voiced alveolar fricative? Answering these questions is probably best tackled through experimental research (e.g., confusability) with real French and English speakers.

Given those concerns, ‘matching’ phonemes between these two languages generally are ‘similar’, though often not ‘the same’. Lay persons can recognize that some of these phonemes are equivalent; for example, an English speaker is likely to say that ‘baguette’ contains phonemes they recognize from English: /b/, /g/, etc. This is kind of cheating in answer to your question, though: the reason ‘shared’ phonemes are similar is because we’ve defined them as shared... because of their similarity. In other language matchups, speakers might have very different ideas about which sounds are similar to each other (i.e., different schema for featural closeness, etc.).

  • Thank you Jeremy. I was hoping that degree's of similitude had already been at least partly defined ... but I'm getting the impression this is an area that isn't that well covered. I'd have to label them as "the same", "easily confused", "easier to distinguish" and "not similar at all" ... the problem is those are still subjective (based upon degree of familiarity with the languages/sounds, quality of hearing, word selection, accent etc.), so there is unlikely to be an empirical value :( But as a 'loose' approach, could I use the resource of the 1st/2nd links to identify shared 'sounds'? Mar 1, 2016 at 13:29
  • 1
    It’s not the case that this kind of research hasn’t been done. I couldn’t really address it until your question and your goals were clarified. You could start with something like (sciencedirect.com/science/article/pii/S0749596X0400138X), which doesn’t directly address cross-linguistic issues; or maybe (sciencedirect.com/science/article/pii/S0166411508614983). Both of these are areas of active research. Mar 1, 2016 at 13:39
  • Again, thank you. The first looks interesting for Eng<>Eng minimal pairs/confusability ... which is my initial interest. The second looks more like a thorough examination of orth/phon-confusion ... but I cannot tell if it focuses on the ortho, both ortho+phon or just phon (the latter being my interest, I can cover ortho easily enough over time). // As it appears that there are degree's of similarity, I may have to play around and see if I can identify theoretically similar sounds based on transcription - then test those audibly to confirm/deny ... won't that be fun :D Mar 1, 2016 at 17:11

Phonemes don't come in isolation, they form an inventory in a language.

There are indeed similarities between phoneme inventories between different languages.

Vowel systems

Vowels tend use the vowel space in a kind of optimal way. A three vowel system will have /a/, /i/, and /u/ most probably, and it will never be /e/, /o/, and /ə/. Five vowel systems look typically like /a/, /e/, /i/, /o/, /u/ forming a nice triangle in vowel space.

Consonants also have preferences, there are very common consonants like /m/, /n/, /t/, /k/, /s/ and there are more rare segments like /q/ or /ð/. Consonant systems also have an internal structure, when there is a certain contrast (like voiced/unvoiced) in one point of articulation, it is probably also found at another one.

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