27 Oct 2013

Vowels and consonants in different languages

Learning a language requires different facets to be mastered: the alphabet, the grammar, the vocabulary, and the pronunciation. The pronunciation or articulation of the sounds is very important and usually what marks an 'accent' in foreign speaker. The branch of linguistics concerned with this systematic organization of sounds in languages is Phonology. Sounds can be grouped into units composed by a vowel and a consonant (phonemes). If a language has 'x' number of vowels 'V' and 'y' number of consonants 'C', then, the theoretical number of possible sound combinations is '2xy' (a consonant can preceded or followed by a vowel CV or VC). Note that here, diphthongs, triphthongs, and multiple consonant combinations are ignored as these may vary from language to language; there are also restrictions on syllables that can be constructed (read below). The aim of this post is to simply compare the number of 'C' and 'V' across languages.

There are other features such as tones or prosody that affect these combinations. Also phonological rules (phonotactics) which are positional constrains regulated by articulatory features of the sounds -literature is endless on this topic to the extent of calling phonology the 'queen among the "intellectually stimulating conversations with little or no practical propose"' by some language experts. It is important not to confuse the possible sound combinations with the syllables which are "units of organization for a sequence of speech sounds".

The sounds of consonants and vowels are caused by different anatomical positions of the tongue, mouth, etc. There are 28 vowels, 59 pulmonic consonants and 15 non-pulmonic consonants in the International Phonetic Alphabet (IPA); on top of that there are affricatives and co-articulated consonants.  In total 172 consonants (97 pulmonic, 43 non-pulmonic, 25 affricates, and 7 co-articulated) and 35 vowels (monophthongs) are identified. This means that in theory, humans should be able to articulate (172)(35)(2)=12,040 different sounds!!! -Try articulating some yourself: here (V) and here (C). - Data from IPA Chart, 2005

A native speaker can articulate certain number of sounds according to the number of vowels and consonants in its language. There are also regional variations, in which speakers of the same language use different consonants or vowels. The graphs below were constructed regardless of the dialect for the Top 22 countries arranged by the number of native speakers. Mandarin, Cantonese, Hindi and Bengali are included to represent China and India.

The number of vowels and consonants in different languages ordered by number of native speakers (top 22 only):

Consonants Top3 = 1) Bengali, 2) Russian, 3) Polish & Hindustani.
Vowels Top3 = 1) Mandaring, 3) German, 3) English.

The number of possible sound combinations (VC, CV) for the top 22 languages by number of native speakers:

Total sound combinations Top 3 = 1) Mandarin, 2) German, 3) Bengali.

Number of native speakers for Top 22 languages as for 2013:
Top 3 most spoken languages by native speakers = 1) Mandarin, 2) Spanish, 3) English.

Some people have tried to rate the difficulty of learning a language and even proposed formulas for this. Those rating systems take into account the alphabet (number of characters, accents, etc), the grammar (cases, conjugations, genders, etc), and the vocabulary (number of words). Some languages may be very similar to others facilitating its learning; in any case, speaking is different. The difficulty is also related to the difference in phonology. To compare how difficult it would be for a speaker of 'a' language to speak another one, it would be advisable to compare their phonology i.e. vowel and consonant charts. Languages with a few sounds are likely to be covered by languages with lots of sounds, thus easier to speak if you language covers those sounds.