Is there a measure of distance somewhere that tells me that certain phoneme A is more "distant" or "different" to phoneme B that it is to phoneme C in english?

For example, that the phoneme /k/ is more close to phoneme /t/ that it is to /a/. (random values to create an example)

Edit: As suggested by @Mitch, this is actually a 'confusion matrix' for English phonemes. Can anyone point to one of such tables ?

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    I think you should ask first whether it is true that some phonemes are closer. How do you know that /k/ and /t/ are closer than /k/ and /a/? – Greg Lee Feb 27 '15 at 15:40
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    You can think of the English phonemic chart as kind of a periodic table of the phonemes, with separate tables for consonants and vowels. One can actually envision a phonetic space, and measure distances (in millimeters or frequencies) between individual phones. But phonemes form simpler systems, more like the set of all the chemical elements than (say) the abstract space of all possible organic compounds, which is more like the set of all possible phones. – John Lawler Feb 27 '15 at 15:43
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    Obviously, /t/ is closer to /k/ than it is to /a/ because /a/ is in a different chart than /t/ and /k/ are. Both of them are consonants, while /a/ is a vowel. However, this is not a vast improvement in measurement, and it's not clear what "distance" between discrete entities should be measured, not in which dimensions, nor how many dimensions are necessary. Probly the best that can be achieved with phonemes is to say 'X is closer to Y than it is to Z' or else 'X is about as close to Y as it is to Z' – John Lawler Feb 27 '15 at 15:47
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    You are looking for a 'confusion matrix' for English phonemes. There exist these kinds of things used within speech recognition software. I'm not sure if there are any publicly available. – Mitch Feb 27 '15 at 16:01
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    found this: people.cs.uchicago.edu/~dinoj/research/confmat.html – El Marce Feb 27 '15 at 16:31

After googling for a while for "confusion matrix", found this resource:


Perhaps is interesting to learn how to read a confusion matrix here:


Edit: Thanks to J Trana for also pointing out the following papers:

  • This answer has, unfortunately, suffered from link rot, and is no longer useful. – Joe Jun 6 '16 at 1:29
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    This and this have not only consonant but also vowel confusion matrices; I found them to be useful. – J Trana Feb 17 '18 at 15:49
  • @J Trana: This is useful. Why not make the comment an answer? – El Marce Feb 17 '18 at 19:02
  • Thanks! I felt your answer was a good one and already accepted long ago; this merely acts as a helpful addendum in the spirit of your answer rather than as a new standalone one. With these types of resource-finding questions, I tend to find there is a natural trend towards a community wiki-style answer over time. – J Trana Feb 17 '18 at 20:52
  • I see, in that case, I will add your comment to my answer. With your permission, of course. – El Marce Feb 20 '18 at 17:18

The confusion matrix is highly dependent on the native language of the listener.

For example, a German speaker once asked me why we pronounce the German composer Bach's name with a /k/, when [bɑf] is clearly closer to [bɑx] than [bɑk]. It's not to modern English speakers. But it might have been closer in Middle English: the word laugh, which was originally pronounced with /x/, is now pronounced with an /f/ and not a /k/.

Similarly, this question and its answers show that Spanish speakers perceive /ɛ/ as the closest English phoneme to /e/, while English speakers think it's /eɪ/.

And I suspect that /z/, /d/, and /v/ are the closest phonemes to /ð/ in various languages, because these are all substituted for /ð/ by foreigners learning English.

And even among native English speakers, people from California can't tell the difference between Don and Dawn, while people from the U.K. think they sound nothing alike.

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