I there a resource that lists the phonemes that are used in different languages? I would prefer a ranking of the most common phonemes within each language like in this example:

1 /ɛ/
2 /ə/
15 /x/

If no explicit ranking is available, grouping ("very common", "common", "rare") within each language would help to. The more speaker a language has the more important is this ranking for me.

My goal is to identify phonemes that appear in many words of many languages and phonemes that are rarely used across all spoken languages of the world (weighted by number of speakers). I want to find a set of phoneme of which one could construct a language who's words are easy to pronounce for as many people on earth as possible.

  • 3
    A phoneme is a class of phones which a particular language regards as equivalent. Trying to compare phonemes cross-linguistically is fraught with difficulties: in English [t] and [tʰ] are allophones of the same phoneme, but in Chinese they belong to different phonemes.
    – Colin Fine
    May 20, 2014 at 22:05

2 Answers 2


Ian Maddieson's UPSID database will take you some of the way.

  • Can you edit your answer and add the link? :)
    – robert
    May 27, 2014 at 12:22

not sure whether your question is meaningful at all in case your understanding of 'phoneme' is compatible with mine. in my book, 'phoneme' is 'an abstract class of 'sounds' that results from an analysis of spoken language which attempts to produce as few sound classes as practical and feasible'; instead of 'sounds' i like to use 'phonotypes', which in turn denotes 'universally distinguishable and practically occurring types of phonetically minimal utterances'. whew. that's not even close to being complete, but the upshot is:

  • we cannot say how many sounds there are in human language, the problem being the same as in the question 'how long is the British coastline'? it has a definite length when you walk around it with finite strides, but it becomes arbitrarily long if you make your strides shorter and shorter. all you can do is to impose a somewhat artificial limit, and this is exactly what phonotypes are for: you discard some precision, and end up basically with the famous and well-known IPA table of human speech sounds.

  • Yuen-Ren Chao, in 1934, wrote a famous piece entitled "The Non-Uniqueness of Phonemic Solutions", which is a must-read for anyone doing phonology. i will give an example (using Pinyin here instead of IPA): in Chinese, 'sa' and 'sha' are distinct sibilants (apical and retroflex). they do not occur before 'i' and 'ü', but there are 'xi' and 'xü' (with palatalized sibilants). one might conclude that there are at least three sibilants /s, sh, x/ in Mandarin, or that [x] is an allophone of /s/, or else an allophone of /sh/, or else that it is a neutralization of both /s, sh/ before /i, ü/. but it's worse since /h/ does not occur before /i, ü/, either, so maybe [x] is the neutralization of /s, sh, h/? it goes on like that with the vowels: you have 'lou' and 'luo', 'lei' and 'lie', but no *'loi, lio, leu, lue', so maybe [e] and [o] are really one phoneme?—i can tell you that a closer inspection of the entire system of Mandarin Chinese syllable finals makes such an analysis very compelling.

the above lead me to surmising that maybe what you really want is counting phonotypes across languages, and maybe which phonotypes often get lumped together to form phonemes. but even that will depend very much on the person(s) doing the analysis for a given language.

does German 'have' the phoneme /x/ (as in 'ach, Bach, Suche')? it regularly changes to [ç] after a front vowel, so [x, ç] get normally lumped together under one roof (which is intuitively correct for a native speaker). but what do you label that phoneme? label it /x/ or /ç/ or anything else, and your count of phonemes will by necessity omit the important fact that German speakers sometimes utter [x] and sometimes [ç]. Chinese speakers utter a sound very close to German [x] when saying things like 'hu, han, huanghe', but 'is' their /x/ 'the same' as German /x/? it doesn't seem to make sense—both systems do have commonalities, but (1) German [x] does not normally occur initially in a syllable, where Chinese [x] only occurs in initial position, and (2) German [x] is closely related to [ç], while Chinese [x] has a (much more complicated) relationship to an alveo-palatal sibilant.

it does not seem to make much sense. counting phonemes across languages is little more than counting letters.

  • 2
    This answer is an example of the perfect solution fallacy. In other words, if there is no perfect solution to the question of how many phonemes there are (perfect measurement), we should give up the idea. The point is to realize that even imperfect measurements (disputed number of phonemes) may be useful for analysis (one can also average the estimates from different authors). E.g., whether a language has 30 or 31 vowels, it will still have very many compared to other languages. Jan 12, 2016 at 13:29

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