Visualizing Swedish vowels

A few days ago I wrote a post comparing English and Japanese vowel sounds in a 2D chart. In this post I’d like to do something similar for English and Swedish. As before the data come from [1].

A friend of mine who learned Swedish would joke about how terribly he had to contort his mouth to speak the language. Swedish vowels are objectively difficult for non-native speakers as can be seek in a vowel chart. The vertical axis runs from closed sounds on top to open sounds on the bottom. The horizontal axis runs from front vowels on the left to back vowels on the right.

Swedish vowel sounds

There are a lot of vowel sounds, and many of them are clustered close together. Japanese, by contrast, has only five vowel sounds, and they’re widely spread apart.

Japanese vowel sounds

The vowel charts for Spanish and Hebrew look fairly similar to the chart for Japanese above: five vowels spread out in roughly the same locations.

It wouldn’t matter so much that Swedish has a lot of tightly clustered vowel sounds if your native language has the same sounds, but the following chart shows that English and Swedish vowels are quite different. The red x’s mark English vowel locations and the blue dots mark Swedish vowels.

Swedish and English vowel sounds

[1] Handbook of the International Phonetic Association: A Guide to the Use of the International Phonetic Alphabet. Cambridge University Press, 2021.

Visualizing English and Japanese vowels

Vowel sounds can be visualized in a two-dimensional space according to tongue position. The vertical axis is runs from open down to closed, and the horizontal runs from front to back. See a linguistics textbook for far more detail.

English has five vowel letters, but a lot more than five vowel sounds. Scholars argue about how many vowel sounds English and other languages have because there’s room for disagreement on how much two sounds can differ and still be considered variations on the same sound. The IPA Handbook [1] lists 11 vowel sounds in American English, not counting diphthongs.

When I wrote about Japanese hiragana and katakana recently, I showed how the letters are arranged into a grid with one side labeled with English vowel letters. Is that justified? Does Japanese really have just five vowel sounds, and are they similar to five English vowels? Essentially yes. This post will show how English and Japanese vowel sounds compare according to [1].

Here are versions of the vowel charts for the two languages that I made using Python’s matplotlib.

First English:

Then Japanese:

And now the two combined on one plot:

Four out of the five Japanese vowels have a near equivalent in English. The exception is the Japanese vowel with IPA symbol ‘a’, which is midway between the English vowels with symbols æ (U+0230) and ɑ (U+0251), somewhere between the a in had and the a in father.

Update: See the comments for a acoustic phonetician’s input regarding frequency analysis.

Update: Here is a similar post for Swedish. Swedish is interesting because it has a lot of vowel sounds, and the sounds are in tight clusters.

Analogy with KL divergence

The differences between English and Japanese vowels are asymmetric: an English speaker will find it easier to learn Japanese vowels than a Japanese speaker would find it to learn English vowels. This reminiscent of the Kullback-Leibler divergence in probability and statistics.

KL-divergence is a divergence and not a distance, even though it is often called a distance, because it’s not symmetric. The KL-divergence between two random variables X and Y, written KL(X || Y), is the average surprise in seeing Y when you expected X. If you expect English vowel sounds and hear Japanese vowel sounds you’re not as surprised as if you expect Japanese vowel sounds and hear English. The English student of Japanese hears familiar sounds shifted a bit, but the Japanese student of English hears new sounds.

Related posts

[1] Handbook of the International Phonetic Association: A Guide to the Use of the International Phonetic Alphabet. Cambridge University Press, 2021.

Voiced and unvoiced consonants and digits

The latest episode of The History of English Podcast discusses the history of pronunciation changes in the Elizabethan period. The episode has a lot to say about the connections between voiced and unvoiced pairs of consonants, and the circumstances under which a consonant might change from voiced to unvoiced and vice versa.

The major mnemonic system encodes digits as consonant sounds in order to make words out of numbers. The system works in terms of sounds, not spellings, and so some of the symbols below are not English letters but rather IPA symbols [1]. More on the system here.

0: S Z, 1: T D ð θ, 2: N ŋ, 3: M, 4: R, 5: L, 6: ʤ ʧ ʃ ʒ, 7: K G, 8: F V, 9: P B

If you’re not familiar with the concept of voiced and unvoiced vocal sounds it may seem arbitrary that, for example, the F and V sounds both decode to 8, or that the S and SH sounds map to different numbers, 0 and 6 respectively.

The allocation of sounds may seem inefficient at first.Some numbers get more sounds than others because some sounds belong to clusters of related sounds and some do not. For example, there’s no such thing as an unvoiced L sound, so 5 gets L and no other sound. But 8 gets P and B because these are unvoiced and voiced variations of the same sound.

The allocation is more uniform than it seems at first when you count consonant groups rather than individual consonant sounds.


[1] Here are the IPA symbols above that do not correspond to English letters.

| IPA | Example |
| ð   | THis    |
| θ   | THistle |
| ŋ   | siNG    |
| ʤ   | Jar     |
| ʧ   | CHurCH  |
| ʃ   | SHoe    |
| ʒ   | corsaGe |

For more on IPA, see the Wikipedia IPA help page.