The similar rates of occurrence of consonants across the world's languages: A quantitative analysis of phonetically transcribed word lists

Research output: Contribution to journalArticle


Via an analysis of nearly 7000 phonetically transcribed word lists representing every major linguistic family, this study examines the frequency with which languages use particular consonants. The results suggest that there is an underlying global similarity in the frequency of occurrence of these consonants. Some consonants are uncommon across the word lists, and do not occur frequently even in those languages in which they are used. In contrast, a few other consonants represent a large portion of sounds in the word lists, across regions and linguistic families. The analysis quantifies the pervasiveness of such sounds that are known to be, impressionistically, common in speech. A new method captures the overall similarity of consonants’ rates of occurrence across languages and families. This method offers one means of evaluating the extent to which individual languages or families deviate from, or adhere to, the typical patterns of consonant usage. It is suggested that the crosslinguistic similarity of consonant usage, in terms of rates of occurrence in word lists, likely owes itself to previously documented factors like the relative ease of articulation of some sounds. This new evidence suggests that the role of ease of articulation in shaping speech may be more influential than generally assumed, though other explanatory factors are also likely at work and these patterns require further exploration with more robust intralinguistic phonetic corpora.

Original languageEnglish (US)
JournalLanguage Sciences
StateAccepted/In press - Jan 1 2018



  • Ease of articulation
  • Phonetics
  • Phonology
  • Typology
  • Zipf

ASJC Scopus subject areas

  • Language and Linguistics
  • Linguistics and Language

Cite this