English is full of sounds that are difficult for people of other cultures to hear and pronounce. H (for the French), L (for many Asian languages), Th (for pretty much everyone), etc.

What, if any, sounds (using IPA as our sound reference) are pronounceable by pretty much everyone?

  • 1
    An issue with using the IPA as the discriminator of sounds is that the same IPA letters are used to represent similar but different sounds, and the IPA also defines a number of diacritics that may be used when a further distinction is desirable. So what counts as same?
    – LjL
    Commented Oct 28, 2019 at 22:37

2 Answers 2


First, it depends on what you mean by "pretty much everyone" (we could exclude certain languages to get the result you want). Second, it depends on whether you literally mean "does everybody know at least one IPA symbol" (the answer is nosiree), or do you mean "Is there a sound that is found in all languages; and what is the IPA symbol for that sound". Third, it depends on how strict you are about pronunciation of IPA letters.

With the caveats out if the way, the low vowel [a] is the "universal sound". Every language has it. There are some subtle differences in exactly how that vowel is pronounced across languages. If you have in mind some exact pronounced IPA sound (as defined by traditional exemplifications such as Jones, Ladefoged and Esling), then I would say no, there are none, because the phonetic standards for the "a" vowel are not the same across languages.


It's hard to answer that question - indeed, it's not clear that it really makes sense to ask it.

The difficulty is that sounds in spoken language are not nearly as clear-cut as you might think. A pertinent question is not "can you hear that sound?" but "can you distinguish these two sounds?"

Consider the English words kill, skill, cool, and school. To English ears, they all have the same /k/ sound; and indeed in transcribing them in IPA, we would normally write them all with the same /k/: /kɪl/, /skɪl/, /ku:l/,/sku:l/.

But actually, the /k/ sound is phonetically different in all four cases (it is aspirated in kill and cool, and palatalised in kill and skill: /kʲʰɪl/, /skʲɪl/, /kʰu:l/,/sku:l/) - and to speakers of some languages they would be different sounds, and would be transcribed differently.

So, while it is true that most languages (not all!) have at least one unvoiced velar plosive, broadly transcribed /k/, some have several, all corresponding to English /k/.

So is /k/ universal? English speakers generally can't distinguish it from /kʰ/, and can't pronounce it except after /s/. So maybe it's /kʰ/ that's universal? But some languages don't have that variant at all.

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