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More than once I've seem texts mentioning that the sounds /v/ and /w/ are similar.

The fact that Esperanto and many east-european languages have the "kv" cluster in place of the latin "qu" (which sounds like /kw/) makes this even more likely.

To my ears the distinction between /v/ and /w/ is very clear.

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Similarity is in the ear of the listener.

When we acquire our first language, our ears and brains become trained in all the phonemic differences that are relevant for that language. When we than learn a new language (after the so-called "critical period" where those differences burn in) we hear all the sounds of the new language in terms of the sounds we already know.

Native speakers of languages with /v/ only (like Germans or Eastern Europeans) tend to hear the sound /w/ as a /v/ unless they are taught to watch the difference between the two sounds.

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    The similarity of /w/ and /u/ (and /y/ and /i/) that you notice is correct since the first of these pairs are consonantal versions of the vowels. They are called "glides" and phonetically they are labeled as approximants. The /v/ sound is called labio-dental fricative and belongs to the same class as /s/, or /h/ like sounds. – czypsu Nov 7 '16 at 20:22
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    To my ear, /w/ and /v/ sound completely different but as jknappen wrote, this is because I am Polish and my language has a phonemic constrast between those sounds. – czypsu Nov 7 '16 at 20:24
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    i think also that looking at the consonants /β/ or /ɸ/ adds to understanding about the mix between /w/ and /v/. it's the halfway point between the two and is used in several languages, notably maori from new zealand where it was originally transliterated in latin as 'wh' but now is pronounced a lot more like /f/ – davecw Nov 8 '16 at 0:46
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    Except that /w/ is spelled ɫ in Polish, whereas /v/ is often spelled w. This is very confusing to English speakers, who never learn the difference between pronunciation and spelling, and still think the spelling comes first. – jlawler Nov 11 '16 at 15:38

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