The Commonest Speech Sounds

Gretchen McCulloch of All Things Linguistic posted without comment a graphic by Suzy Styles, of the Nanyang Technological University, Singapore, of The Commonest Speech Sounds: Prevalence Rates for Phonemes of the World. Styles, in turn also doesn’t comment on it, beyond stating that she compared the speech sounds of 1672 languages on a certain online database. What follows are my own thoughts about the graphic, primarily as an ESL teacher and not as a linguist.

(There’s a large space under this graphic – keep scrolling.)

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Dydd gŵyl Dewi Sant hapus!

Today is the 1st of March (at least where I’m sitting, but not where WordPress’s clock/calendar is located), which is commemorated in some parts of the Christian Church as St David’s day. It is a date of some significance in our family. This year it falls on Wednesday, indeed on Ash Wednesday, which is commemorated in most parts of the Christian Church. This is coincidental, as Ash Wednesday, which is linked to the lunar calendar calculation of Easter, can fall anywhere between 4 February and 10 March. 1 March 2006 also fell on a Wednesday, which is not surprising, as the calendar repeats every 11 + 11 + 6 years. 1 March 2006 was also Ash Wednesday, which is surprising, as the date of Easter jumps around the calendar seemingly randomly. (If there is a pattern, it certainly plays out over longer periods than 11 years.)

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I scream for eyes cream

Yesterday the topic in the textbook was money and shopping, and one of the questions was about what men and women (stereotypically) buy. One (male) student said that women buy cosmetics, such as make-up and (what sounded like) ‘ice cream’. I figured that he meant ‘eyes cream’.

There are two issues – turning ‘eye cream’ into ‘eyes cream’, and turning ‘eyes cream’ into ‘ice cream’. In English, cream for your eyes is ‘eye cream’, not ‘eyes cream’. ‘eyes’ has a /z/ at the end and if I had to say ‘eyes cream’, I would emphasise the /z/ and make a little break after it. However, it is very easy to devoice a final plural noun /z/, especially here because the next sound is the unvoiced /k/ of ‘cream’.

From ‘ice cream’, it’s just another small step to ‘I scream’, but that’s been done before. (That’s the first time I’ve actually heard that song.) (More information.)

‘I live in a pig house’

One lower level student was writing some answers to basic questions about her and her life. Her answer to ‘Do you live in a house or a flat?’ was ‘I live in a pig house’. I demonstrated ‘p-pig-b-big’ a few times, and she understood and changed her answer. I then told her to look for ‘pig’ on her translator app. I said ‘It’s a big difference, isn’t it?’.

But this is not just one student making one mistake – there’s a genuine linguistics/ESL teaching point her. This student’s language does not have voiced consonants like /b/, but rather unvoiced unaspirated consonants like /p/ (as in spin) and unvoiced aspirated consonants like /pʰ/ (as in pin). She is (and other students from her country, and many others, are) just not used to processing the difference between /p/ and /b/, just as I’m not used to processing the difference between /p/ and /pʰ/.


The last lesson in the textbook was unexpectedly boring. I tried to put it across my Wednesday class and failed miserably, so I thought I’d do something different with my Thursday class. I have an educational resource called ‘Brainbox’ – a set of cards about 10 cm square, with a map of a country and pictures of representative people, places and things on one side and eight questions relating to them on the other. Students work in pairs – one asks the questions and the other answers. It’s a good way to practice clear speaking and careful listening, looking for information and sometimes attempting to pronounce very unfamiliar words, and maybe they’ll learn something about the world along the way.

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‘a large crap’

One class was practicing the ‘verb + infinitive’ construction. One sentence prompt was ‘I really want to’. One student wrote ‘I really want to eat a large crap’. If this had been spoken, I would have tried not to bat an eyelid, but it was written, so I couldn’t ignore it. The problem is that Korean doesn’t have voiced oral stop phonemes (eg English /b/, /d/, /g/). Some of the equivalent unvoiced phonemes become (more) voiced in certain contexts. For example, 밥 (bap – rice) has a (more) voiced sound at the beginning and a definitely unvoiced one at the end. As a result, Koreans speaking English are more likely to use an unvoiced sound at the end of a word than a voiced one; hence ‘crap’ instead of ‘crab’. Once I’d explained all this as simply as I could, the student claimed that coprophagia (sensibility warning) for therapeutic purposes was a traditional practice in Korea. The other students were unable to confirm or deny this.

added 20 Nov: one of my several regular readers (to whom, thanks) pointed me to this Wikipedia page, describing ‘Korean feces wine‘ (obviously, sensibility warning). This being Wikipedia, I can’t guarantee the accuracy, but it is soberly written and extensively referenced. Maybe someone is taking the piss.

later: I saw a restaurant offering Blue Crad Soup.


While I was drafting the previous post about voiced and unvoiced consonants, an incident happened in class which illustrated some of the difficulties that the distinction between these sounds causes to English language learners (and to teachers!). The theme in the textbook was ‘wishes’, and one of the sentences to be completed by the students was ‘I wish I was more ____’. One student said ‘I wish I was more punctual’. Another student said ‘What does that mean?’. I often answer questions like that with a series of questions of my own: ‘Does he (the first student) come to class every day?’ ‘No.’ ‘Does he come to class on time every day?’ ‘No.’ ‘Should he come to class on time every day?’ (Sideways message to the first student!) ‘Yes.’ ‘Should he be more punctual?’ ‘What does that mean?’ She then said to the first student ‘How do you spell that?’ and wrote it down as he told her. She then typed it into her electronic dictionary/translator and said ‘It’s not here’. I glanced at what she’d written and saw ‘buncdual’ – she’d heard ‘pee’ as ‘bee’ and ‘tee’ as ‘dee’. Not only are the two pairs of sounds  – /b/ and /p/, and /d/ and /t/ – differentiated by voicing, but so are their names – ‘bee’ and ‘pee’, and ‘dee’ and ‘tee’. (While /g/ and /k/ show the same voicing distinction, the letter names ‘gee’ and ‘kay’ are unlikely to be confused). Unfortunately, I had to leave this digression and return to the textbook lesson.

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