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What languages in Europe have the most or least phonemes ?


A phoneme is a sound, or set of similar speech sounds, which are perceived as a single distinctive sound by speakers of the language or dialect in question. For example, the "c/k" sounds in cat and kitten represent the English phoneme /k/.

Phonemes are divided in vowels and consonants. There are also semi-consonants like /j/ and /w/, which for practical purposes will be listed as consonants here.

Since some languages regard diphthongs (and triphthongs) as distinct phonemes and others don't, in order to clarify the comparison, diphthongs are counted separately from vowels. As diphthongs are merely combinations of vowels existing in a language, they won't be taken into account for the total of phonemes, so as not to count the same vowel phonemes multiple times. Diphthongs starting with semi-consonants like /ja/ and /wo/ are excluded from the list altogether. Numbers in brackets indicate vowels or consonants found only in dialects or loan words.

You can click on each column's title to sort results in ascending or descending order.

Language Vowels Diphthongs Consonants Total Phonemes
Albanian 7 0 30 37
Basque 5 (+1) 1 24 30
Belarusian 6 13 36 (+3) 45
Bulgarian 8 5 36 (+8) 44
Catalan 8 6 25 (+3) 36
Czech 10 3 24 (+3) 37
Danish 32 0 20 52
Dutch 13 (+3) 9 19 (+4) 39
English 12 13 24 36
Esperanto 5 6 23 (+4) 32
Estonian 9 28 (+8) 28 (+2) 39
Finnish 16 18 14 (+4) 34
French 17 4 20 (+2) 39
Galician 7 9 19 26
German 17 3 25 45
Greek 5 5 18 23
Hungarian 14 0 27 41
Icelandic 16 11 16 (+6) 38
Irish Gaelic 11 5 ? 33 44
Italian 7 6 23 30
Latvian 10 (+2) 6 (+4) 24 (+3) 39
Lithuanian 11 (+1) 18 41 (+6) 59
Norwegian 19 6 23 (+2) 44
Polish 6 0 31 37
Portuguese 14 9 23 37
Romanian 7 20 22 29
Russian 5 (+1) 15 34 40
Serbo-Croatian 5 (1) 25 30
Slovak 10 4 29 39
Spanish (Castilian) 5 6 19 (+1) 25
Swedish 17 4 18 35
Ukrainian 6 8 34 40
Welsh 13 (+1) 17 26 (+5) 45

For the sake of comparison, here are a few major non-European languages.

Language Vowels Diphthongs Consonants Total Phonemes
Arabic 6 2 28 34
Chinese (Mandarin) 9 6 26 35
Hausa 10 4 24 34
Hindustani 11 4 30 (+7) 48
Persian 6 11 26 32
Japanese 5 2 17 22
Turkish 8 0 23 31

Note that American English has between 4 and 6 vowels less than British English (Received Pronunciation). Brazilian Portuguese has 3 vowels less than European Portuguese.

Top 10 languages for number of vowels

  • 1. Danish : 32
  • 2. Norwegian : 19
  • 3. French, German, Swedish : 17
  • 4. Dutch, Finnish, Icelandic : 16
  • 5. Hungarian, Portuguese : 14

Top 10 languages for number of vowels + diphthongs

  • 1. Estonian : 45
  • 2. Finnish : 34
  • 3. Danish : 32
  • 3. Welsh : 31
  • 4. Lithuanian : 30
  • 5. Icelandic, Romanian : 27
  • 6. Dutch, English, Norwegian : 25

Top 10 languages for number of consonants

  • 1. Lithuanian : 47
  • 2. Bulgarian : 44
  • 3. Belarusian : 39
  • 4. Russian, Ukrainian : 34
  • 5. Irish Gaelic : 33
  • 6. Polish, Welsh : 31
  • 7. Albanian, Estonian : 30
  • 8. Slovak : 29

Top 15 languages for total number of phonemes including diphthongs

  • 1. Lithuanian : 77
  • 2. Estonian : 75
  • 3. Welsh : 62
  • 4. Belarusian : 58
  • 5. Russian : 55
  • 6. Danish, Finnish : 52
  • 7. Norwegian : 50
  • 8. English, Icelandic, Irish Gaelic, Latvian, Romanian : 49
  • 9. Dutch, German, Ukrainian : 48


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