Video-Fix: The language sounds that could exist, but don’t


Human speech is, at its core, air that is made to vibrate. We push air out from our lungs and use our vocal cords to make this air vibrate, creating sound waves. These sound waves are then modified – or articulated – by the position of our mouth, our tongue, and our lips.

Amazingly, we do all of this subconsciously. The only times you may be aware of how you form language sounds is when you try to make a sound that is not habitually found in your native language(s). For example, as there is no rolled ‘r’ (known as an ‘alveolar trill’ in phonetics and denoted by the r in the chart below) in my native language, I find it very hard to produce this sound.

However, there are also some sounds which are judged impossible for any human to articulate. In this week’s video, Tom Scott delves deeper into human speech production, why some language sounds do not exist, and why you are still welcome to try and pronounce some of them.

Janna Mack pictureJanna Mack. From Luxembourg, she has degrees in Linguistics, Education, and Translation from Glasgow University.