Universal language sounds.

English uses “S” and “L” sounds that don’t appear in and are almost unpronouncable in to speakers of some other languages. Arabic languages use the aspirated “ch” sound that gives many English speakers trouble, while the Xhosa clicks are even more difficult to emulate.

So are there any sounds at all that are universal to all human languages? And what are they?


I’d say there are basic vowel sounds - Ah, ee, etc. - that are probably universal. And consonants like “M” seem pretty ubiquitous. It’s probably a smaller list than most people would guess, though.

That’s if we’re talking about vocal languages - throw in the sign lanaguages and you can truthfully say all sounds are optional in communication.

I think it would almost be easier to look for language specific sounds but anyway.

Off the top of my head I’d suggest the short vowel sounds and those consonants which require minimal articulation of the tongue - such as ‘d’, ‘g’, ‘k’, ‘m’, ‘n’, ‘p’ etc.

(You also need to be wary of falling into the trap of ‘how’ the sounds are represented on paper. It would be easy enough to conclude that Polish does not have a ‘w’ sound on hearing the name ‘Kwasniewski’ pronounced; they do, but to represent the sound by using an ‘l’ with a line through it. There is no ‘k’ in modern Welsh however the letter ‘c’ is always hard so the ‘sound’ exsists.)

This is just off the top of my head, but I’ll see if I can dig around later and find some more information. Most languages have /m/, /p/, /t/, and /k/. The latter three often have **, [d], and [g] as allophonic variants if the /b/, /d/, and /g/ phonemes don’t exist.

(A phoneme is what speakers of the language think of as a “sound”, but in all languages many phonemes have more than one realization, and those realizations are called allophones. For instance, the English word “pot” sounds like [p[sup]h[/sup]at] while “spot” would be transcribed [spat]. The superscript “h” refers to aspiration, a puff of air released after the sounds /ptk/ at the beginning of a syllable but not after /s/. This difference is not ordinarily perceived by speakers of the language. So [p] and [p[sup]h[/sup]] and both allophones of /p/.)

/s/ is pretty common as well; as vowels go I’m not aware of any language with a vowel system more minimal than /a/, /i/, /u/ (approximately “pot”, “team”, “loon”) and quite common is the five vowel system of Spanish or Italian /a/, /e/, /i/, /o/, /u/. All languages permit consonant-vowel syllables, though many or most permit at least some variation on that (consonant clusters, consonants at the ends of syllables, etc.)

Hawai’ian has one of the smallest phonemic inventories of any language, and it has /p/, /m/, /w/, /n/, /l/, /k/, /h/, and /?/ (my clumsy substitute for the glottal stop symbol.) It’s got a typical five vowel system, and vowel length matters. These are all fairly common sounds as basic phonemes go, and it’s a good example of a very minimal phonetic system.

If you want actual universals, the existence of universals that are significant or interesting is controversial. (Certain things are universal: All languages have words. All languages have sentences. All languages have consonants and vowels.) But it’s easy to see broader tendencies - most languages have some sort of stop consonant in the bilabial, dental or alveolar, and velar articulatory sites. Most languages have nasal consonants, and those will usually correspond to stop consonants. All languages use air leaving the lungs in the great majority of their sounds (as opposed to air trapped somewhere else in the articulatory tract or being sucked into the mouth, for example.)

On phonetic universals:

Excellent responses. Thank you people. I’m surpised to see that the number of universals is so low when human language itself is so universal.