Wondering if there are languages in which there are 2 words, 1 containing letter (a) and the other containing letter (b), such that they sound pretty much the same, yet they mean different things. The pairs of words are formed from these sound pairs:

(a) (b)
 k   q
 ɲ   ŋ
 n   ɳ
 ŋ   ɴ
 ɡ   ɢ
 d   ɖ
 β   v
 ɸ   f
 ʒ   ʐ
 ʃ   ʂ
 ʐ   ʝ
 ħ   h
 h   ɦ
 ɣ   ʁ
 ɣ   ɰ
 ɹ   ɻ
 v   ʋ
 ɾ   ɽ
 ʀ   r
 ʜ   ħ
 ʜ   h
 ɬ   ʃ
 ɮ   ʒ
 ɭ˔̊  ʃ
 ɭ   ʟ
 l   ɭ
 ɺ   l
 t   ʈ

These sounds sound almost identical to me, even though they are produced differently anatomically. Pretty much it boils down to these sounds to me:


The other ones seem too subtle to be used to make different words. Wondering if they are actually used for that purpose, or what purpose they serve. I'm just wondering if any of the pairs could be used this way, not necessarily all of them since that would be a lot :)

If there are words used from these two letter pairs that have different meanings in some language, I'm wondering how you get to understand the different sounds so well to distinguish it easier (sort of thing). Maybe the before/after letter around the letter makes it easier to distinguish or something.

  • 6
    You mean they sound "pretty much the same"... to an average native English speaker. To my ears, /θ/ and /s/ sound pretty much the same, but they happen to be distinguished in a particularly important language so that I had to learn the distinction at middle school, which was hard and painful, I have to say. – jick Aug 31 '18 at 21:18
  • 2
    You might like to look into categorical perception. Basically, all languages make a different set of distinctions, and there's a certain age at which infants learn these distinctions: they become much better at telling the difference between different categories, and much worse at telling the difference between different sounds in the same category. – Draconis Aug 31 '18 at 21:36
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    For example, English doesn't have phonemic aspiration, so English-speaking infants group the aspirated and unaspirated voiceless plosives together. Mandarin-speaking infants instead group the unaspirated and voiced plosives together. – Draconis Aug 31 '18 at 21:37
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    English doesn't have much in the way of velar and post-velar sounds. A language like Lushootseed, for instance, has only four vowels, but it has eight voiceless velar stops: k, kʷ, q, qʷ, and ejective k̓, k̓ʷ, q̓, q̓ʷ. They're distinctive, but it takes a while to learn and make the distinctions if you're not familiar with them. – jlawler Aug 31 '18 at 23:19
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    I'm voting to close this question as off-topic because it looks like a trivia question not a serious linguistics question. – curiousdannii Sep 1 '18 at 1:29

Basically you're asking if each of these distinctions is phonemic in any language.

Here's a partial answer:

 k   q    Arabic and Biblical Hebrew
 ɲ   ŋ    Swahili, Mapos Buang
 n   ɳ    Sanskrit
 ŋ   ɴ    This distinction is rare, but occurs in Mapos Buang
 ɡ   ɢ    This is an even rarer distinction
 d   ɖ    Sanskrit
 β   v    Also rare, but occurs in casual Swedish (where [β] is /b/)
 ɸ   f    Some dialects of Spanish (where [ɸ] is /b/)
 ʒ   ʐ    Polish, depending on analysis
 ʃ   ʂ    Polish, depending on analysis
 ʐ   ʝ    /ʝ/ is very rare, but usually acts velar-ish while /ʐ/ acts alveolar-ish
 ħ   h    Arabic, Hebrew
 h   ɦ    Zulu, Lamé
 ɣ   ʁ    Southern Dutch
 ɣ   ɰ    Not sure this distinction is phonemic anywhere
 ɹ   ɻ    /ɹ/ is very rare in general
 v   ʋ    English in some parts of London, where [ʋ] is /r/
 ɾ   ɽ    Warlpiri, though their <r> is usually a trilled /r/
 ʀ   r    Provençal Occitan
 ʜ   ħ
 ʜ   h    Iraqi Arabic, where [ʜ] is /ħ/
 ɬ   ʃ    Biblical Hebrew
 ɮ   ʒ    Zulu
 ɭ˔̊  ʃ
 ɭ   ʟ
 l   ɭ    Toda
 ɺ   l
 t   ʈ    Sanskrit
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  • Alright then, language can be pretty complicated in practice then :) Thanks. – Lance Pollard Aug 31 '18 at 21:36

You can self-answer your questions by using the simple interface to the UPSID database. You can play with the query interface (it is not really tuned to find pairs of given sounds, but you can search for languages having at least two consonants with the common features (voiced stops, voiced fricatives, nasals, etc) and skim through the results, or you can download the full database and search for your own.

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A long question! Here is a partial answer.

Most languages that have /q/ also have /k/ as a distinct phoneme. As you’ve suggested, the distinction may be realized in part on surrounding sounds: uvular consonants like /q/ tend to lower high vowels and back low unrounded vowels.

A velar/uvular distinction is uncommon for voiced consonants, fricatives or approximants, but is certainly possible.

Uvular nasals are rare, and as far as I know can usually easily be analyzed as allophones of either a non-uvular nasal, or a non-nasal uvular consonant.

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