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.

  • 4
    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
    Commented May 20, 2014 at 22:05
  • Bear in mind, that what is very easy for me to pronounce, could be very difficult for you. So, this is basically a pipe dream.
    – Lambie
    Commented Feb 6 at 14:31

3 Answers 3


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

  • Can you edit your answer and add the link? :)
    – robert
    Commented 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. Commented Jan 12, 2016 at 13:29

I discover this question nearly ten years later, but seeing both it and its responses relate to things that somebody once paid me to spend a considerable amount of time upon, i feel i have to add some bits, if not for the original poster anymore then for others who might follow up in this vein.

The goal from the outset was pretty much what the original poster had in mind: find a set of phonemes that is fairly easy to produce and reproduces for as many people as possible. The approach that i followed was, just as suggested, to trawl through UPSID, take notes of everything, and discover a list of phonemes that fits the description so that it could be used in an AuxLang.

While I'm not going to disclose my results (even though the project ultimately deviated from them), i'll point out that i have come across several studies of shared features of phoneme inventories of Creole languages (use Th Klein, 2006, "Creole phonology typology" for a starter) point very much in the same direction.

But, some insights based on things i still remember:

  • One might think "phoneme" is clearly defined, but they're anything but simple. For example, should one count diphthongs as one vowel or two? If they are single vowels, then how should one deal with those occasional triphthongs? And while were at it, should one follow the book by assuming affricates as single consonantic phonemes, or would it better to treat them as two separate and separable consonants? And what about approximants (think of English ⟨Y⟩ and ⟨W⟩), vowels in every sense but their consonantic actual use?
  • The things that proved most annoying as i followed this path were suprasegmentals. Initially, the idea was to simply ignore stress phenomena and tone, and that should be it. But... while busy deliberately ignoring how unexpectedly many tonal languages there are, i'd realize that length is similar, so should one treat long vowels and/or long consonants as one or two of their kind each? And yes, this proved to connect to the diphthong/affricate question from above. And then there's short vowels, too, rather indicated than pronounced (if you don't know what i'm thinking of, look at Japanese). Also, what's happening with instances where only the onset of tongue movement makes a difference (as in "ew" vs "you")?

The one thing that work in this project really brought home to me was a clearer understanding of what my phonology teachers had had in mind when they pointed out the relational nature of phonemes: the phoneme itself is not all that important: the thing that you really want to figure out for your AuxLang are the most common distinctions between phonemes.

For example, some languages distinguish (syllable-initial) among bilabial plosives between voiced and unvoiced, some between unaspirated and aspirated, some cross these two for a fourway, some palatalize or velarize or whathaveyou... and some have only |b|, or only |p|. So if we're serious about wanting to make it easy for people to learn the language, we shouldn't force them to pronounce exactly [+voiced -aspirated -palatalized -velarized -breathy] or [-voiced -aspirated -palatalized -velarized -breathy] and not any of their native variants... we should try to map these distinctions one on another so that speakers realize that their voiced/unvoiced is my unaspirated/aspirated or nonpalatalized/palatalized, and trust on them to realize that their interlocutors' pronunciation may be slightly accented because of their native language, but still reasonably comprehensible. And if there is a distinction that is not common, don't try to push it on people. (I've heard enough Italians trying to cope with German vowels, i know what i'm talking about.)

So: anybody: if you are in it for this particular goal, and up for the long trawl through UPSID, don't simply repeat in the tracks that appear untrodden. Trust me, i did walk there, decades ago. No doubt you'll learn a lot, but i've already highlighted (what i consider makes out) a fair deal for you, above. Rather, try go to a new level when you're there: look into the distinctions between phonemes that are employed, and try to map the most frequent one on each other in a way that'll let people in, rather than keep them frustrated on the outside. (Do take me serious: just adding vowel length to the Creole-like inventory i mentioned above will considerably reduce ease of acquisition for about 2 out of 3 learners. You wouldn't want that.)

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