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Ejective consonant

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In phonetics, ejective consonants are usually voiceless consonants that are pronounced with a glottalic egressive airstream. In the phonology of a particular language, ejectives may contrast with aspirated, voiced and tenuis consonants. Some languages have glottalized sonorants with creaky voice that pattern with ejectives phonologically, and other languages have ejectives that pattern with implosives, which has led to phonologists positing a phonological class of glottalic consonants, which includes ejectives.


In producing an ejective, the stylohyoid muscle and digastric muscle contract, causing the hyoid bone and the connected glottis to raise, and the forward articulation (at the velum in the case of [kʼ]) is held, raising air pressure greatly in the mouth so when the oral articulators separate, there is a dramatic burst of air.[1] The Adam's apple may be seen moving when the sound is pronounced. In the languages in which they are more obvious, ejectives are often described as sounding like “spat” consonants, but ejectives are often quite weak. In some contexts and in some languages, they are easy to mistake for tenuis or even voiced stops.[2] These weakly ejective articulations are sometimes called intermediates in older American linguistic literature and are notated with different phonetic symbols: ⟨C!⟩ = strongly ejective, ⟨⟩ = weakly ejective. Strong and weak ejectives have not been found to be contrastive in any natural language.

In strict, technical terms, ejectives are glottalic egressive consonants. The most common ejective is [kʼ] even if it is more difficult to produce than other ejectives like [tʼ] or [pʼ] because the auditory distinction between [kʼ] and [k] is greater than with other ejectives and voiceless consonants of the same place of articulation.[3] In proportion to the frequency of uvular consonants, [qʼ] is even more common, as would be expected from the very small oral cavity used to pronounce a voiceless uvular stop.[citation needed] [pʼ], on the other hand, is quite rare. That is the opposite pattern to what is found in the implosive consonants, in which the bilabial is common and the velar is rare.[4]

Ejective fricatives are rare for presumably the same reason: with the air escaping from the mouth while the pressure is being raised, like inflating a leaky bicycle tire, it is harder to distinguish the resulting sound as salient as a [kʼ].


Ejectives occur in about 20% of the world's languages.[3] Ejectives that phonemically contrast with pulmonic consonants occur in about 15% of languages around the world. The occurrence of ejectives often correlates to languages in mountainous regions such as the Caucasus which forms an island of ejective languages. They are also found frequently in the East African Rift and the South African Plateau (see Geography of Africa). In the Americas, they are extremely common in the North American Cordillera. They also frequently occur throughout the Andes and Maya Mountains. Elsewhere, they are rare.

Language families that distinguish ejective consonants include:

According to the glottalic theory, the Proto-Indo-European language had a series of ejectives (or, in some versions, implosives), but no extant Indo-European language has retained them.[a] Ejectives are found today in Ossetian and some Armenian dialects only because of influence of the nearby Northeast Caucasian and/or Kartvelian language families.

It had once been predicted that ejectives and implosives would not be found in the same language[citation needed] but both have been found phonemically at several points of articulation in Nilo-Saharan languages (Gumuz, Me'en, and T'wampa), Mayan language (Yucatec), Salishan (Lushootseed), and the Oto-Manguean Mazahua. Nguni languages, such as Zulu have an implosive b alongside a series of allophonically ejective stops. Dahalo of Kenya, has ejectives, implosives, and click consonants.

Non-contrastively, ejectives are found in many varieties of British English, usually replacing word-final fortis plosives in utterance-final or emphatic contexts.[5][6][7]


Almost all ejective consonants in the world's languages are stops or affricates, and all ejective consonants are obstruents. [kʼ] is the most common ejective, and [qʼ] is common among languages with uvulars, [tʼ] less so, and [pʼ] is uncommon. Among affricates, [tsʼ], [tʃʼ], [tɬʼ] are all quite common, and [kxʼ] and [ʈʂʼ] are not unusual ([kxʼ] is particularly common among the Khoisan languages, where it is the ejective equivalent of /k/).

Attested ejective consonants[8]
(excluding ejective clicks and secondary articulations)
Bilabial Labio-
Dental Alveolar Labial-
Retroflex Alveolo-
Palatal Velar Labial–
Uvular Epi-
t̪ʼ t͡pʼ[b] ʈʼ
ɡ͡kʼ (ɡʼ)

ɢ͡qʼ (ɢʼ)
p̪fʼ t̪θʼ tsʼ
d͡tsʼ (dzʼ)
d͡tʃʼ (dʒʼ)
ʈʂʼ tɕʼ kxʼ
ɡ͡kxʼ (ɡɣʼ)
ɢ͡qχʼ (ɢʁʼ)
Fricative ɸʼ θʼ ʃʼ ʂʼ ɕʼ χʼ
Lateral affricate tɬʼ c𝼆ʼ (cʎ̝̊ʼ) k𝼄ʼ (kʟ̝̊ʼ)
Lateral fricative ɬʼ
Trill (theoretical)
Nasal (theoretical)

A few languages have ejective fricatives. In some dialects of Hausa, the standard affricate [tsʼ] is a fricative [sʼ]; Ubykh (Northwest Caucasian, now extinct) had an ejective lateral fricative [ɬʼ]; and the related Kabardian also has ejective labiodental and alveolopalatal fricatives, [fʼ], [ʃʼ], and [ɬʼ]. Tlingit is an extreme case, with ejective alveolar, lateral, velar, and uvular fricatives, [sʼ], [ɬʼ], [xʼ], [xʷʼ], [χʼ], [χʷʼ]; it may be the only language with the last type. Upper Necaxa Totonac is unusual and perhaps unique in that it has ejective fricatives (alveolar, lateral, and postalveolar [sʼ], [ʃʼ], [ɬʼ]) but lacks any ejective stop or affricate (Beck 2006). Other languages with ejective fricatives are Yuchi, which some sources analyze as having [ɸʼ], [sʼ], [ʃʼ], and [ɬʼ] (but not the analysis of the Wikipedia article), Keres dialects, with [sʼ], [ʂʼ] and [ɕʼ], [citation needed] and Lakota, with [sʼ], [ʃʼ], and [xʼ] .[citation needed] Amharic is interpreted by many as having an ejective fricative [sʼ], at least historically, but it has been also analyzed as now being a sociolinguistic variant (Takkele Taddese 1992).

An ejective retroflex stop [ʈʼ] is rare. It has been reported from Yawelmani and other Yokuts languages, Tolowa, and Gwich'in.

Because the complete closing of the glottis required to form an ejective makes voicing impossible, the allophonic voicing of ejective phonemes causes them to lose their glottalization; this occurs in Blin (modal voice) and Kabardian (creaky voice). A similar historical sound change also occurred in Veinakh and Lezgic in the Caucasus, and it has been postulated by the glottalic theory for Indo-European.[2] Some Khoisan languages have voiced ejective stops and voiced ejective clicks; however, they actually contain mixed voicing, and the ejective release is voiceless.

Ejective trills aren't attested in any language, even allophonically. An ejective [rʼ] would necessarily be voiceless,[9] but the vibration of the trill, combined with a lack of the intense voiceless airflow of [r̥], gives an impression like that of voicing. Similarly, ejective nasals such as [mʼ, nʼ, ŋʼ] (also necessarily voiceless) are possible.[10][full citation needed][11][full citation needed] (An apostrophe is commonly seen with r, l and nasals, but that is Americanist phonetic notation for a glottalized consonant and does not indicate an ejective.)

Other ejective sonorants are not known to occur. When sonorants are transcribed with an apostrophe in the literature as if they were ejective, they actually involve a different airstream mechanism: they are glottalized consonants and vowels whose glottalization partially or fully interrupts an otherwise normal voiced pulmonic airstream, somewhat like English uh-uh (either vocalic or nasal) pronounced as a single sound. Often the constriction of the larynx causes it to rise in the vocal tract, but this is individual variation and not the initiator of the airflow. Such sounds generally remain voiced.[12]

Yeyi has a set of prenasalized ejectives like /ⁿtʼ, ᵑkʼ, ⁿtsʼ/.


In the International Phonetic Alphabet, ejectives are indicated with a "modifier letter apostrophe" ʼ, as in this article. A reversed apostrophe is sometimes used to represent light aspiration, as in Armenian linguistics ⟨pʼ tʼ kʼ⟩; this usage is obsolete in the IPA. In other transcription traditions (such as many romanisations of Russian, where it is transliterating the soft sign), the apostrophe represents palatalization: ⟨⟩ = IPA ⟨⟩. In some Americanist traditions, an apostrophe indicates weak ejection and an exclamation mark strong ejection: ⟨k̓ , k!⟩. In the IPA, the distinction might be written ⟨kʼ, kʼʼ⟩, but it seems that no language distinguishes degrees of ejection. Transcriptions of the Caucasian languages often utilize combining dots above or below a letter to indicate an ejective.

In alphabets using the Latin script, an IPA-like apostrophe for ejective consonants is common. However, there are other conventions. In Hausa, the hooked letter ƙ is used for /kʼ/. In Zulu and Xhosa, whose ejection is variable between speakers, plain consonant letters are used: p t k ts tsh kr for /pʼ tsʼ tʃʼ kxʼ/. In some conventions for Haida and Hadza, double letters are used: tt kk qq ttl tts for /tʼ tɬʼ tsʼ/ (Haida) and zz jj dl gg for /tsʼ tʃʼ c𝼆ʼ kxʼ/ (Hadza).






[ʘqʼ ǀqʼ ǁqʼ ǃqʼ ǂqʼ]
[ʘ̬qʼ ǀ̬qʼ ǁ̬qʼ ǃ̬qʼ ǂ̬qʼ]
[ʘqχʼ ǀqχʼ ǁqχʼ ǃqχʼ ǂqχʼ ~ ʘkxʼ ǀkxʼ ǁkxʼ ǃkxʼ ǂkxʼ ~ ʘk𝼄ʼ ǀk𝼄ʼ ǁk𝼄ʼ ǃk𝼄ʼ ǂk𝼄ʼ
[ʘ̬qχʼ ǀ̬qχʼ ǁ̬qχʼ ǃ̬qχʼ ǂ̬qχʼ ~ ʘ̬kxʼ ǀ̬kxʼ ǁ̬kxʼ ǃ̬kxʼ ǂ̬kxʼ ~ ʘ̬k𝼄ʼ ǀ̬k𝼄ʼ ǁ̬k𝼄ʼ ǃ̬k𝼄ʼ ǂ̬k𝼄ʼ

The Mountain Hypothesis[edit]

A pattern can be observed wherein ejectives correlate geographically with mountainous regions. Everett (2013) argues that the geographic correlation between languages with ejectives and mountainous terrains is because of decreased air pressure making ejectives easier to produce, as well as the way ejectives help to reduce water vapor loss. The argument has been criticized as being based on a spurious correlation.[13][14][15]

See also[edit]


  1. ^ The western and Northwestern Indic languages like Sindhi have implosives.
  2. ^ In Ubykh; in free variation with [tʷʼ]; also found in Abkhaz in free variation with [tʷʼ].


  1. ^ Ladefoged (2005:147–148)
  2. ^ a b Fallon, 2002. The synchronic and diachronic phonology of ejectives
  3. ^ a b Ladefoged (2005:148)
  4. ^ Greenberg (1970:?)
  5. ^ Wells, J.C.; Colson, G. (1971). Practical Phonetics. Pitman. p. 3. ISBN 9780273016816.
  6. ^ Wells, John Christopher (1982). Accents of English (vol. 1). Cambridge University Press. p. 261. ISBN 0521297192.
  7. ^ Cruttenden, Alan (2008). Gimson's Pronunciation of English (7th ed.). Hodder Education. p. 167. ISBN 978-0340958773.
  8. ^ Bickford & Floyd (2006) Articulatory Phonetics, Table 25.1, augmented by sources at the articles on individual consonants
  9. ^ John Esling (2010) "Phonetic Notation", in Hardcastle, Laver & Gibbon (eds) The Handbook of Phonetic Sciences, 2nd ed., p 700.
  10. ^ Barker, M. A. R. (1963a).
  11. ^ Heselwood (2013: 148)
  12. ^ Esling, John H.; Moisik, Scott R.; Benner, Allison; Crevier-Buchman, Lise (2019). Voice Quality: The Laryngeal Articulator Model. Cambridge University Press.
  13. ^ Liberman (2013).
  14. ^ Lewis & Pereltsvaig (2013).
  15. ^ Wier (2013).


External links[edit]