What’s the loudest / softest / highest / lowest sound humans can hear?

Humans can’t hear all sounds. Actually, not even most, in the grand scheme of things. Like how we can only see a narrow band of all wavelengths–hence “visible” light–we can also only hear some of the possible wavelengths. And wave heights. You might remember this from physics, but there are two measurements that are really important on a diagram of a wave: wave length and intensity. Like so:

This should be bringing back flashbacks of asking if you were going to be able to use a formula sheet and a calculator.
So you’ve got the wavelength, which is the distance between two peaks or two troughs, and the amplitude, which is the distance between the mid-point of the wave and the tip of a peak. Which is all very well, but it doesn’t tell you much in the grand scheme of things, since most waves aren’t kind enough to present themselves to you as labelled diagrams. You actually have a pretty good intuitive grasp of the wavelength and amplitude of sound waves, though. The first is pitch and the second is what I like to refer to as “loudness”. (Technically, “loudness” is a perceptual measurement, not a… you know, this is starting to be boring.)

So there’s a limit in how loud and how soft a sound can be and a limit of how high and low a sound can  be. I’ll deal with loudness first, because it’s less fun.


So we measure loudness using the decibel scale, which is based on human perception. Since 0 decibels is, by definition, the lower perceptual limit of sound for humans, the quietest sound humans can hear is just above that, which is around 20 micro-pascals of pressure. Of course, that’s healthy young humans. The older you get, the more your hearing range decreases, which is why your grandmother asks you to repeat yourself a lot. The loudest is just under 160 decibels, since exposure to a sound at 160 decibels will literally rip your eardrum. That’s things like being right under a cannon when it fires, standing next to a rocket when it launches or standing right next to a jet engine during take off, all of which tend to have other problems associated with them. So… avoid that.


Pitch is a bit more interesting. Normal human hearing is generally between 20 hertz and 20 kilohertz–compare that to 15 to 200 kilohertz for dolphins and bats! (Because they both rely on sonar and echo-locution for hunting.) Just like hearing range for loudness, though, this gets narrower as you get older, particularly at the higher end of the range. Here’s a video that runs the gamut of the human hearing range (warning: you might want to turn your speakers down).

If you’re older than 25 (which is when hearing loss usually starts in the upper ranges) you probably couldn’t hear the whole thing. If you did, congratulations! You’ve got the hearing of a normal, young human.


How can you realistically imitate a French accent?

So, my main area on interest within linguistics is the study of the individual sound systems of different languages and the rules governing them. It may sound pretty dry, but it can lead to some pretty impressive party tricks. For example, by knowing about the sound systems of different languages you can emulate them. In other words, you can have a pretty convincing fake accent. In fact, accent coaches, who work with actors to create accents and other to reduce them, tend to have linguistic backgrounds with a focus on studying the sounds of language. So I thought with this post I’d go over how to imitate a French accent by looking at the individual sounds that are different between the two languages.

Just to be clear: I’m using English as a target language here because English is my native language and everyone who’s asked me about it has spoken English natively. I’m in no way implying that English is the “best” language, or that English speakers don’t have accents. (You should hear how I butcher Mandarin. It’s pretty atrocious.) If you have any other languages you’d like me to write posts for, let me know in the comments. 🙂

Marcel Marceau (square)
Marcel Marceau can’t help you on this one, sorry. Mostly because you’ll have a hard time finding examples of authentic French in his performances for some reason… 
I’m going to assume that you want to sound like you’re from Paris and not Quebec (Not that Quebec isn’t great! Man, now I’m jonesing for some President’s Choice snacks.). There are a couple sounds you’re going to have to learn:

  1. Instead of the English “r”, as in “rat”, you’re going to have to use what’s called the “gutteral r”. (Okay, it’s actually called the voiced uvular fricative, but that’s a little bit harder to say.) Basically, when you say the sound, you want to vibrate your uvula, that little punching-bag-looking thing  at the back of your throat. Try doing it in front of a well-lit mirror with your mouth open until you can figure out what it feels like.
  2. Instead of the English “ng”, as in “cling”, you can use a “ny”, as in “nyan cat“. No, seriously. This will be a little difficult, since  we only really use that sound at the end of words, but practice a bit and you should be able to pick it up. Or you can just go with go with a regular “n” sound.

Now the good news! There’s also a couple of sounds we have in English that don’t exist in French, and they’re the one’s that are slightly harder to say, so you can save yourself some time and trouble by switching them out.

  1. The “th” sound, like at the begining of “thin” or “the” is actually really rare in world languages. French speakers tend to replace it with “z”.
  2. The sounds at the beginning of “church” and “judge” are also not a thing in French. You can use the sound at the beginning of “sheep” for the sound at the beginning of “church” and the “s” in “vision” for the “j” in “judge”.
So that’s the consonants.
The vowels are significantly different than they are in English. You’ve got all sorts of things like nasalization and rounding in places where you, as an English speaker, are just not expecting it. And, frankly, unless you’ve got a really good ear, you’re going to have a hard time picking up on the differences. Long story short: I’m weaseling out of explaining the vowels entirely and using a Youtube video. (I’m also doing it so you can get some native speaker data, which I think you’ll find helpful.)

That does give me space to discuss intonation, however. Intonation is probably the single biggest difference in the way English and French sounds. In fact, intonation is one of the very first things that babies pick up, before they even start experimenting with individual sounds. Unfortunately, it’s also one of  the most difficult things to learn. Here’s a few pointers, though:

  • French intonation isn’t as concerned with individual syllables. Rather, you tend to get whole phrases (rather than individual words) in the same intonation pattern. This is what gives French its sort of smooth, musical quality.
  • Instead of a slow rise and slow fall, like we get in English, pitch in French tends to rise slowly until the very final syllable of a sentence, where it drops suddenly. It looks more like the graph of an absolute value than polynomial, in other words.

There’s a ton more to be said about French phonology, and a lot of it has already been said, but this should be enough to get you started on approximating a French accent. Good luck!