My accent is from New York City, yet I wonder which area has the most or least sounds in their phonemic inventory. While one may have the most vowels and another the most consonants, I would like to hear that as well.

  • 1
    To obviate the dialect/accent issue and make for a better title, may I suggest "variety"? Nov 15, 2018 at 22:56
  • There is no such thing as a "phonetic syllabary". The number of phonetically distinct syllables you can find will depend on how long you look and how sensitive your instruments.
    – Greg Lee
    Nov 16, 2018 at 4:26

1 Answer 1


I think you are asking about the greatest number of phonemes.

I don't know which variety of English has the most phonemes, but my guess is that it may well be so-called Standard British (also called Southern Standard British English, or Recieved Pronunciation, RP).

There are a several reasons for thinking this:

  • It is non-rhotic, meaning that there is no /r/ in syllable codas. This in turn means that it has several vowels which only occur in environments where syllable final /r/ has been lost.

  • It was subject to vowel splits such as the TRAP/BATH split, which do not occur in many other regional varieties of English.

  • It has not undergone vowel mergers such as the Mary/marry/merry merger, which have occurred in other Englishes.

  • It currently retains distinction between voiced th, /ð/, and /v, d/. It also retains the distinction between voiceless th, /θ/, and /f, t/. Both of these have been lost in some British and other Englishes.

Nearly all the differences in numbers of phonemes—that I know of— between Standard British and other varieties involve Standard British having more distinct phonemes than its cousins.

I have no idea about which variety or varieties have the least phonemes. However, I would guess that it is a rhotic variety which has lost its dental fricatives, /θ/ and /ð/, and which has both been subject to various vowel mergers and not experienced many of the vowel splits seen in other varieties. It is unlikely that there will be any significant difference in the inventory of consonant phonemes bewteen different varieties.

  • 2
    The presence or absence of the TRAP–BATH split doesn't affect the number of phonemes of a dialect (unless the phoneme for TRAP/BATH is also used for PALM and START).
    – Nardog
    Nov 15, 2018 at 21:31
  • @Nardog It is in most British Englishes Therefore they don't have separate PALM/START. Nov 16, 2018 at 10:32
  • In RP, palm, start, bath have the same sound, /ɑː/. But,@Nardog, you are right: The number of phonemes is not affected. Simply because /ɑː/ existed all along. Dec 15, 2018 at 16:06
  • Apart from the TRAP/BATH split that doesn't affect the phoneme inventory, I definitely agree that there have been a lot fewer vowel mergers in RP than in American accents. GA had a comparable vowel split: the lot-cloth split, which doesn't result in an additional phoneme either because the /ɔ(ː)/ in GA cloth isn't a new sound either. Due to the Cot-Caught merger this split has been reverted in many accents. Dec 15, 2018 at 16:14
  • @tobiornottobi In Scottish English, for example, palm, TRAP and bath all have the same vowel. So it does affect some varieties. Dec 15, 2018 at 18:55

Your Answer

By clicking “Post Your Answer”, you agree to our terms of service and acknowledge you have read our privacy policy.

Not the answer you're looking for? Browse other questions tagged or ask your own question.