The Rarest Sounds Across All Human Languages: Learn What They Are, and How to Say Them

When first we start learn­ing a new for­eign lan­guage, any num­ber of its ele­ments rise up to frus­trate us, even to dis­suade us from going any fur­ther: the moun­tain of vocab­u­lary to be acquired, the gram­mar in which to ori­ent our­selves, the details of pro­nun­ci­a­tion to get our mouths around. In these and all oth­er respects, some lan­guages seem easy, some hard, and oth­ers seem­ing­ly impos­si­ble — those last out­er reach­es being a spe­cial­ty of Youtu­ber Joshua Rud­der, cre­ator of the chan­nel NativLang. In the video above, he not only presents us with a few of the rarest sounds — or phonemes, to use the lin­guis­tic term — in any lan­guage, he also shows us how to make them our­selves.

Sev­er­al African lan­guages use the phoneme gb, as seen twice in the name of the Ivo­rian dance Gbég­bé. “You might be tempt­ed to go all French on it,” Rud­der says, but in fact, you should “bring your tongue up to the soft palate” to make the g sound, and at the same time “close and release your lips” to add the b sound.

Evi­dent­ly, Rud­der pulls it off: “Haven’t heard a for­eign­er say the gb sound right!” says a pre­sum­ably African com­menter below. From there, the phone­mic world tour con­tin­ues to the bil­abi­al trilled africate and pha­ryn­geals used by the Pirahã peo­ple of the Ama­zon and the whis­tles used on one par­tic­u­lar Canary Island — some­thing like the whis­tled lan­guage of Oax­a­ca, Mex­i­co pre­vi­ous­ly fea­tured here on Open Cul­ture.

Rud­der also includes Oax­a­ca in his sur­vey, but he finds an entire­ly dif­fer­ent set of rare sounds used in a riv­er town whose res­i­dents speak the Maza­tec lan­guage. “For every one nor­mal vow­el you give ’em,” he explains, “they have three for you”: one “modal” vari­ety, one “breathy,” and one “creaky.” He ends the video where he began, in Africa, albeit in a dif­fer­ent region of Africa, where he finds some of the rarest phonemes, albeit ones we also might have expect­ed: bil­abi­al clicks, whose speak­ers “close their tongue against the back of their mouth and also close both lips, but don’t purse them.” Then, “using the tongue, they suck a pock­et of air into that enclosed area. Final­ly, they let go of the lips and out pops a” — well, bet­ter to hear Rud­der pro­nounce it. If you can do the same, con­sid­er your­self one step clos­er to readi­ness for a Khoekhoe immer­sion course.

Relat­ed con­tent:

Speak­ing in Whis­tles: The Whis­tled Lan­guage of Oax­a­ca, Mex­i­co

What Eng­lish Would Sound Like If It Was Pro­nounced Pho­net­i­cal­ly

Why Do Peo­ple Talk Fun­ny in Old Movies?, or The Ori­gin of the Mid-Atlantic Accent

The Scotch Pro­nun­ci­a­tion Guide: Bri­an Cox Teach­es You How To Ask Authen­ti­cal­ly for 40 Scotch­es

Was There a First Human Lan­guage?: The­o­ries from the Enlight­en­ment Through Noam Chom­sky

Based in Seoul, Col­in Marshall writes and broad­casts on cities, lan­guage, and cul­ture. His projects include the Sub­stack newslet­ter Books on Cities, the book The State­less City: a Walk through 21st-Cen­tu­ry Los Ange­les and the video series The City in Cin­e­ma. Fol­low him on Twit­ter at @colinmarshall or on Face­book.

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