How Many Sounds In The English Language

  • It is largely accepted that there are 44 common sounds (phonemes) used within the English language.
  • Of these, there are 23 consonant sounds (52.27%) and 21 vowel sounds (47.73%).
  • Consonant sounds are created by either partially or completely cutting off the airflow when the sound is produced, giving them a harsher sound.
  • In contrast, vowel sounds are created without obstructing the airflow in the mouth, making them sound more smooth.
  • When spoken, phonemes can be created using the 26 letters of the alphabet, individually or in combination with other letters.
  • Furthermore, phonemes often have many different spelling alternatives (graphemes), with the same sounds often being spelled in multiple ways, such as in the word-endings for “TRAY” and “PREY”.
  • The same spelling combination can even result in different sounds, such as in the middle two letters in the words “BOOK” and “DOOM”.
  • Variation on the accent and articulation of different sounds does also exist. 
  • English words can be pronounced differently depending on the region or country the language is spoken in. 
  • In terms of sound frequency, UK English has been found to range from 2,000Hz to 12,000Hz, 3.33 times larger than in US English (1,000Hz to 4,000Hz).

Phonemes in the English Language

A list of the 44 phonemes in the English Language is given below:

#SoundExampleDescriptionType
1/p/PAT”Voiceless bilabial plosiveConsonant sounds
2/b/BAT”Voiced bilabial plosiveConsonant sounds
3/t/TOP”Voiceless alveolar plosiveConsonant sounds
4/d/DOG”Voiced alveolar plosiveConsonant sounds
5/k/CAT”Voiceless velar plosiveConsonant sounds
6/g/GO”Voiced velar plosiveConsonant sounds
7/f/FUN”Voiceless labiodental fricativeConsonant sounds
8/v/VAN”Voiced labiodental fricativeConsonant sounds
9/θ/THINK”Voiceless dental fricativeConsonant sounds
10/ð/THIS”Voiced dental fricativeConsonant sounds
11/s/SUN”Voiceless alveolar fricativeConsonant sounds
12/z/ZEBRA”Voiced alveolar fricativeConsonant sounds
13/ʃ/SHOE”Voiceless postalveolar fricativeConsonant sounds
14/ʒ/“VISION”Voiced postalveolar fricativeConsonant sounds
15/h/HAT”Voiceless glottal fricativeConsonant sounds
16/m/MAT”Voiced bilabial nasalConsonant sounds
17/n/NET”Voiced alveolar nasalConsonant sounds
18/ŋ/“SINGVoiced velar nasalConsonant sounds
19/l/LET”Voiced alveolar lateral approximantConsonant sounds
20/r/RED”Voiced alveolar approximantConsonant sounds
21/w/WET”Voiced labial–velar approximantConsonant sounds
22/j/YES”Voiced palatal approximantConsonant sounds
23/ʔ/“UHOH”Glottal stopConsonant sounds
24/i/“BEET”Close front unrounded vowelVowel sounds
25/ɪ/“BIT”Near-close near-front unrounded vowelVowel sounds
26/e/“BAIT”Close-mid front unrounded vowelVowel sounds
27/ɛ/“BET”Open-mid front unrounded vowelVowel sounds
28/æ/“CAT”Near-open front unrounded vowelVowel sounds
29/a/“FATHER”Open front unrounded vowelVowel sounds
30/ɑ/“HOT”Open back unrounded vowelVowel sounds
31/ʌ/“GUT”Open-mid back unrounded vowelVowel sounds
32/ə/“SOFAMid central vowel (schwa)Vowel sounds
33/u/“BOOT”Close back rounded vowelVowel sounds
34/ʊ/“HOOK”Near-close near-back rounded vowelVowel sounds
35/o/“GOClose-mid back rounded vowelVowel sounds
36/ɔ/“THOUGHT”Open-mid back rounded vowelVowel sounds
37/aɪ/“BIDE”DiphthongVowel sounds
38/aʊ/“LOUD”DiphthongVowel sounds
39/ɔɪ/“BOY”DiphthongVowel sounds
40/eɪ/“BAKE”DiphthongVowel sounds
41/oʊ/“SLOWDiphthongVowel sounds
42/ɪə/“NEAR”DiphthongVowel sounds
43/ɛr/“HERDiphthongVowel sounds
44/ʊə/“TOUR”DiphthongVowel sounds

Relative frequency of phonemes in American English

A study combining the Carnegie Mellon University Pronouncing Dictionary with the British National Corpus estimated the relative frequency of phonemes in American English. The top 20 phonemes by their relative frequency are listed below:

  • The /ə/ sound is found to have the highest relative frequency of phonemes (11.49%).
  • The /n/ sound and the /r/ have the second and third-highest relative frequencies (7.11% and 6.94% respectively).
  • Consonant sounds make up 80% of the top 10 phonemes by relative frequency.
#SoundRelative frequency
1/ə/11.49%
2/n/7.11%
3/r/6.94%
4/t/6.91%
5/ɪ/6.32%
6/s/4.75%
7/d/4.21%
8/l/3.96%
9/i/3.61%
10/k/3.18%
11/ð/2.95%
12/ɛ/2.86%
13/m/2.76%
14/z/2.76%
15/p/2.15%
16/æ/2.10%
17/v/2.01%
18/w/1.95%
19/u/1.93%
20/b/1.80%

A graph is given below to show the top 10 phonemes in American English by their relative frequency:

Now you can find words that use each of the given phonemes by using the WordsRated Word Finder! The tool will unscramble the letters you enter to produce a list of words that can be created. Test your language skills and see if you can identify each phoneme!

How many sounds in the english language FAQ

What is a phoneme?

  • In language, a phoneme is the smallest unit of sound.
  • Phonemes act as the component parts of spoken language and can also be represented through written expressions called graphemes.
  • Arranging and combining phonemes in different ways allow us to form words, diversifying and increasing the richness of the languages we speak.

What is a grapheme?

  • Graphemes are visual symbols that can be used to demonstrate sounds within a language (phonemes).
  • As they are written, they can represent an individual sound or multiple sounds combined in a way that can be read.
  • In the English language, multiple spelling variations can apply to the same grapheme.

What is a glottal stop?

  • Glottal stops are an element of verbal communication where the speaker momentarily closes their vocal cords.
  • By quickly closing and opening the glottis, the airflow is interrupted.
  • In English their usage often varies based upon the accent being spoken, but they can usually be noticed as the gap in the phrase “UHOH” or when replacing the /t/ sound in words such as “MOUNTAIN” or “KITTEN”.

What is a schwa?

  • Otherwise known as a mid-central vowel sound, the schwa is commonly found when syllables of English words are unstressed.
  • It is often written using the symbol /ə/ and is known for being a neutral, relaxed sound.
  • In American English, the schwa can be seen (bold) in the words “CHOCOLATE”, “CAMERA”, “FAMILY”, “EVERY” and “DIFFERENT”. 
  • Sometimes it can even be omitted entirely, shortening the number of syllables in a word.

What is a diphthong?

  • Diphthongs are complex vowel sounds that combine two vowel sounds together within one syllable of a word.
  • When spoken, the mouth and tongue should make a smooth and continuous movement that creates a unique kind of sound.
  • In American English, diphthongs can be seen (bold) in the words “MOUTH”, “SIGHT” and “GREAT”.