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This started out as a trivially simple question:

How many phonemes are there in the different dialects and accents of English?

I just needed a simple reference for a point about the teaching of phonics (it's built on the assumption that Br English has 44 phonemes while many if not most speakers in the UK do not distinguish between 44 phonemes in their speech).

So I just wanted a simple number. 44 phonemes in RP, X phonemes in Wales, X phonemes in Birmingham, etc. The figure 44 phonemes is all over the place but nothing about the huge variation in that number by speech community (not counting the variation in what recognized as a phoneme in the first place).

Here are a few places that address the complexity of the issue:

So now I'm not only stuck on finding an answer to my original question (as imperfect as it may be), I'm also stuck on a way of formulating the question itself. Should we be asking about the size of an individual's phonemic inventory? Or should we be asking about different lects. How about the size of passive vs active inventory (or the nature of perception of phonemic contrasts in other dialects by speakers with dialects without those contrasts - e.g. children in Newcastle watching a US movie or listening to West Coast rap)?

This seems to be a minefield. But it's not just a theoretical preoccupation, there are also some practical applications that would benefit from having a clearer picture:

  • Phonics instruction manuals that take accents into account
  • Computer software that can identify phonemes in a word based on a speaker's preference
  • Computer software that can track a learner's progress in English phonology and orthography with respect to the dialect they're interacting with

I would appreciate any hints at an answer, help with formulating the question better or even just suggestions for further readings.

UPDATE: As I was thinking about this, perhaps a better way would be dealing with vowels and consonants separately and use John Wells' lexical sets as a way to count vowels. This is the standard way of comparing dialects, so maybe it's a better concept to use for the practical purposes I mentioned than the more abstract notion of phoneme.

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The diaphoneme chart in this Wikipedia article may give you some of the information you need. It suggests, for example, that there are some 38 vowel phonemes produced in total across the major varieties of English, though fewer are recognised in each variety; for example, RP, Scottish English and Irish English have 27 each (not exactly the same 27) and Welsh English has 29. Unfortunately, the varieties are very broad, and the phonemes of dialects within the varieties are not covered. Also, it says nothing about the distribution of the various consonant forms. Still, it's better than nothing.

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  • Thanks, I've looked at that chart. The problem with that is that it's not just describing phonemes but also their contexts, for instance / juː/. So it's actually quite difficult to figure what should be counted. Plus, it's limited to only the main dialects but does not distinguish between accents and dialects within England which is at least part of the data I was after. – Dominik Lukes Nov 7 '14 at 21:57
  • I realise the problems, but it was the best I could find on one chart. For variations in the phonemes in English, I have always found Gimson's Pronunciation of English helpful, but it's not what you're looking for. You'd have to look at the treatment of each phoneme in turn and try to work out a count. – tunny Nov 7 '14 at 22:17

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