How Many Consonant Pairs Do We Actually Use?

Sunday, February 26, 2012.

Of all possible pairs of consonants you could start a word with, how many are actually valid in the English language?

The question came up at a party during a disappointing Ouija board session where the spirits conjured gibberish like "QHPEV." Someone wondered aloud how difficult it was to pick a valid pairs of consonants at random. Instinctively, we felt that most of them were invalid.

This is a nice little problem for the unix text processing toolset. I used the 2006 Scrabble Tournament Word List because /usr/share/dict/words contains many proper names and non-words. To get the count:

tr '[A-Z]' '[a-z]' < TWL06.txt |
sed -nEe 's/^([a-z]{2}).*$/\1/p' | 
grep -v '[aeiouy]' |
sort -u | 
wc -l

There are 20 consonants in the language after removing "aeiouy", so that makes 400 possible pairs of consonants.

So only 20.5% of all consonant pairs are valid beginnings for an English word.

To see the 82 valid pairs:

tr '[A-Z]' '[a-z]' < TWL06.txt |
sed -nEe 's/^([a-z]{2}).*$/\1/p' | 
grep -v '[aeiouy]' |
sort -u |
tr '\n' ' '
bd bh bl br bw ch cl cn cr ct cw cz
dh dj dr dw fj fl fr gh gj gl gn gr
gw hm hr hw jn kb kh kl kn kr kv kw
ll lw mb mh mm mn mr ng nt pf ph pl
pn pr ps pt qw rh sc sf sg sh sj sk
sl sm sn sp sq sr st sv sw tc th tm
tr ts tw tz vr wh wr zl zw zz

To see an example word for each valid pair (remember, this is the Scrabble dictionary, so there's some pretty weird stuff in there):

tr '[A-Z]' '[a-z]' < TWL06.txt |
tr -d '\r' |
sed -nEe 's/^([a-z]{2})(.*)$/\1\2 \1/p' |
grep ' [^aeiouy][^aeiouy]' |
sort |
uniq -f1 |
awk '{ print $2, $1 }'
bd bdellium
bh bhakta
bl blabbed
br brabble
bw bwana
ch chabazite
cl clabber
cn cnida
cr craal
ct ctenidia
cw cwm
cz czar
dh dhak
dj djebel
dr drabbed
dw dwarf
fj fjeld
fl flabbergasted
fr frabjous
gh gharial
gj gjetost
gl glabellae
gn gnar
gr graal
gw gweduc
hm hm
hr hryvna
hw hwan
jn jnana
kb kbar
kh khaddar
kl klatches
kn knacked
kr kraaled
kv kvases
kw kwacha
ll llama
lw lwei
mb mbaqanga
mh mho
mm mm
mn mnemonically
mr mridangam
ng ngultrum
nt nth
pf pfennige
ph phaeton
pl placabilities
pn pneuma
pr praam
ps psalmbook
pt ptarmigan
qw qwerty
rh rhabdocoele
sc scabbarded
sf sferics
sg sgraffiti
sh shabbatot
sj sjamboked
sk skag
sl slabbed
sm smacked
sn snacked
sp spaceband
sq squabbier
sr sraddha
st stabbed
sv svarajes
sw swabbed
tc tchotchkes
th thacked
tm tmeses
tr trabeated
ts tsaddikim
tw twaddled
tz tzaddikim
vr vroomed
wh whacked
wr wracked
zl zlote
zw zwiebacks
zz zzz

Aside: finding good and freely available (ie opensource or creative commons) word lists is surprisingly annoying.

Posted by Alan on Sunday, February 26, 2012. (Discuss)

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Illustration for Edgar Allan Poe's story "Descent into the Maelstrom" by Harry Clarke, published in 1919.