At the moment I have 90 unique vowel/diphthong sounds that use tonal and length distinction in my conlang. In addition I've chosen 14 consonants, making my total of unique sounds 104.

I don't particularly want to drop any of them, but this seems a lot higher than the usual amount of unique sounds in a language. High enough to consider a more selective approach maybe.

I do want the language to have more vowel sounds than consonant, but how many unique vowel sounds does it have to have to be considered above average?

  • 1
    You are using non-standard terminology, which makes me think that you may not be very well acquainted with the subject. You may want to go over to Zompist.com and read their introductory Language Construction Kit (also available as a book from Amazon). The phrase "vowel-focused language" has no meaning, unless explained. Three distinct vowel lengths are possible, but unusual. Languages with both tones and phonological vocalic length are definitely exotic. English has about 16 vowels and diphthongs...
    – AlexP
    Apr 5, 2019 at 21:26
  • 1
    ... And you are mixing the description of the language with a description of its writing system. Languages do not have "diacritics"; those are a feature of a particular writing system, and a language can be written with none, one, or more writing systems. Would you say that Italian is a vowel-rich language? Italian has just 7 vocalic phonemes, and in Italian diphthongs are not considered phonemic, because they never contrast with a plain sequence of vowels. (Moreover, in Italian vocalic length is not phonemic, being directly conditioned by the dynamic stress.)
    – AlexP
    Apr 5, 2019 at 21:34
  • I've edited this question to bring it on-topic here, though you could do with editing it again. It's not really clear if the average you want to learn about is for natlangs or conlangs.
    – curiousdannii
    Apr 6, 2019 at 4:43
  • This question seems quite subjective and should be closed (in my opinion).
    – MilkyWay90
    May 21, 2019 at 1:51

4 Answers 4


Depends what you want to do. If you want to be able to emulate all the words of real languages, add the whole IPA system. If you want nice melodic options, add in accordance with your preferred music system (Asian 5 tone, Western 7 tone, Modern 12 tone, each with steps and variations, and repeating form 20 Hz up to 20 000 Hz) and for each possible sound humans can produce - different voiced and voiceless sounds, whispered (ha) or normal (a), and so on. If you want to actually use it and keep it independent of other languages, I suggest keeping it simple - a movie language, for instance, is more effectful if you only choose in-character sounds.

Btw, you get a lot more sounds even in English and Italian if you include unusual words, regional dialects and so on - a large part of the IPA phonemes can be used in either language, though people often don't notice.

Here a few different English vowels (all mainstream):

Hut Hat Heroic Hellenic Hmmmh Hit Here Hot Hotel Herd Hoover

Alpha And Entity About e-in-Garden India Equal Oven Organ Earth Ultra

Iron Out Able Oil Over

Hi How Hey Hoist Holy

That's 32 distinct sounds. Some might be debatable, they are also dependent on dialect - "and" and "entity" start with the same sound for some, but I hear a difference - at least in some regions. The e in "Garden" isn't a sound at all according to some. And so on. The version on Wikipedia (English phonology) is slightly different. "Ha" is even in IPA written as two sounds, though it clearly is one sound (a whispered "a"), as you can see when stretching it, with or without adding a letter afterwards. I even ommitted a few vowels only the British/Australian/Canadian people use. According to Google, US English has 14-16 vowel phonemes, Australian English 20-21. And the whispered variety isn't even included.

If you multiply by three for tonal (add Up like we do in questions and Down like we do in some forms of emphasis or sounding defeated), you get 96. Asia also has a wavering tonal, but that can be emulated with two letters imo.

If you multiply by two for 2 different lengths, you get 192. If we ignore the h-sounds, we are still at 96.

So what you have is not that much.

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    Tone in linguistics is different from musical tone scales. Most people cannot hear absolute pitch making a musical tone scale difficult for conlang design.
    – Sir Cornflakes
    Apr 9, 2019 at 11:49

I speak Finnish, which is one of the more vowel-oriented languages. Considering the 8 vowels, diphthongs, double-vowel (long) sounds... there's probably 2-3 dozen vowel sounds. 90 not only feels like overkill, but I wonder how effectively anyone could distinguish that many sounds. It's like asking someone to involve all the sounds in 5-6 U.S. dialects all at once.


If you have ninety vowels (including diphthongs), I'd say your invented language is already above average. English is probably at the higher end of the vowel spectrum with twentyish; but there are plenty of languages with far fewer (as few as two or three!).

Since your title question references invented languages specifically, you might consider trawling the CALS to find an approximation. Not every invented language is listed, so naturally the data & results can not be seen as accurate.


90 different vowels sounds a lot, but you include tone as a distinguishing feature. I don't know how many tone/length distinctions you have, but some natural languages have 6 tones. This brings the number of different vowel qualities down to 15 which is still a large number, but in the range of natural languages (German and Norwegian are in that range).

14 consonants is a rather moderate size for a consonant system.

For more information on consonant and vowel inventories of natural languages you can consult the World Atlas of Linguistic Structures specially chapters 1 and 2.

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