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A fricative is a consonant produced by forcing air through a narrow channel made by placing two articulators close together.[1] These may be the lower lip against the upper teeth, in the case of [f]; the back of the tongue against the soft palate in the case of German [x] (the final consonant of Bach); or the side of the tongue against the molars, in the case of Welsh [ɬ] (appearing twice in the name Llanelli). This turbulent airflow is called frication.[2]

A particular subset of fricatives are the sibilants. When forming a sibilant, one still is forcing air through a narrow channel, but in addition, the tongue is curled lengthwise to direct the air over the edge of the teeth.[1] English [s], [z], [ʃ], and [ʒ] are examples of sibilants.

The usage of two other terms is less standardized: "Spirant" is an older term for fricatives used by some American and European phoneticians and phonologists.[3] "Strident" could mean just "sibilant", but some authors[who?] include also labiodental and uvular fricatives in the class.


The airflow is not completely stopped in the production of fricative consonants. In other words, the airflow experiences friction.


All sibilants are coronal, but may be dental, alveolar, postalveolar, or palatal (retroflex) within that range. However, at the postalveolar place of articulation, the tongue may take several shapes: domed, laminal, or apical, and each of these is given a separate symbol and a separate name. Prototypical retroflexes are subapical and palatal, but they are usually written with the same symbol as the apical postalveolars. The alveolars and dentals may also be either apical or laminal, but this difference is indicated with diacritics rather than with separate symbols.

Central non-sibilant fricatives[edit]

The IPA also has letters for epiglottal fricatives,

with allophonic trilling, but these might be better analyzed as pharyngeal trills. [5]

Lateral fricatives[edit]

The lateral fricative occurs as the ll of Welsh, as in Lloyd, Llewelyn, and Machynlleth ([maˈxənɬɛθ], a town), as the unvoiced 'hl' and voiced 'dl' or 'dhl' in the several languages of Southern Africa (such as Xhosa and Zulu), and in Mongolian.

IPA letters used for both fricatives and approximants[edit]

No language distinguishes fricatives from approximants at these places, so the same symbol is used for both. For the pharyngeal, approximants are more numerous than fricatives. A fricative realization may be specified by adding the uptack to the letters, [χ̝, ʁ̝, ħ̝, ʕ̝]. Likewise, the downtack may be added to specify an approximant realization, [χ̞, ʁ̞, ħ̞, ʕ̞].

(The bilabial approximant and dental approximant do not have dedicated symbols either and are transcribed in a similar fashion: [β̞, ð̞]. However, the base letters are understood to specifically refer to the fricatives.)


In many languages, such as English or Korean, the glottal "fricatives" are unaccompanied phonation states of the glottis, without any accompanying manner, fricative or otherwise. They may be mistaken for real glottal constrictions in a number of languages, such as Finnish.[6]

In addition, [ʍ] is usually called a "voiceless labial-velar fricative", but it is actually an approximant. True doubly articulated fricatives may not occur in any language; but see voiceless palatal-velar fricative for a putative (and rather controversial) example.

Aspirated fricatives[edit]

Fricatives are very commonly voiced, though cross-linguistically voiced fricatives are not nearly as common as tenuis ("plain") fricatives. Other phonations are common in languages that have those phonations in their stop consonants. However, phonemically aspirated fricatives are rare. /s~sʰ/ contrasts with a tense, unaspirated /s͈/ in Korean; aspirated fricatives are also found in a few Sino-Tibetan languages, in some Oto-Manguean languages, in the Siouan language Ofo (/sʰ/ and /fʰ/), and in the (central?) Chumash languages (/sʰ/ and /ʃʰ/). The record may be Cone Tibetan, which has four contrastive aspirated fricatives: /sʰ/ /ɕʰ/, /ʂʰ/, and /xʰ/.[7]

Nasalized fricatives[edit]

Phonemically nasalized fricatives are rare. Umbundu has /ṽ/ and Kwangali and Souletin Basque have /h̃/. In Coatzospan Mixtec, [β̃, ð̃, s̃, ʃ̃] appear allophonically before a nasal vowel, and in Igbo nasality is a feature of the syllable; when /f v s z ʃ ʒ/ occur in nasal syllables they are themselves nasalized.[8]

Types of fricative[a]
bilabial labio-
dental denti-
alveolar post-
velar uvular pharyn-
central non-sibilant ɸ β f v
θ̼ ð̼ θ̟ ð̟ (θ̪͆ ð̪͆) θ ð θ̠ ð̠ θ͇ ð͇ (laminal)
ɹ̝̊ ɹ̝ (apical)
ɹ̠̊˔ ɹ̠˔ ç ʝ (laminal)
ɻ̝̊ ɻ̝ (apical)
x ɣ
χ̝ ʁ̝ ħ̝ ʕ̝
lateral fricative ɬ̪ ɮ̪ ɬ ɮ
ɬʰ ɮʱ
ɬ̠ ɮ̠ 𝼆 ʎ̝ (laminal)
ɭ˔ (apical)
𝼄 ʟ̝
laminal sibilant s̻̪ z̻̪ ( )
s͇ʰ z͇ʱ
(s̻̠ z̻̠)
ʃ̻ ʒ̻ (domed)
ŝ (ʆ ʓ) (closed)
ɕ ʑ
ɕʰ ʑʱ
apical sibilant s̺̪ z̺̪ (s̺̠ z̺̠)
ʃ̺ ʒ̺
ʃʰ ʒʱ
ʂ ʐ
ʂʰ ʐʱ
fricative trill r̝̊ ʀ̝̊ ʀ̝ ʜ ʢ
fricative flap ɾ̞̊ ɾ̞
nasalized fricative ɸ̃ β̃ θ̃ ð̃ ʃ̃ ʒ̃


Until its extinction, Ubykh may have been the language with the most fricatives (29 not including /h/), some of which did not have dedicated symbols or diacritics in the IPA. This number actually outstrips the number of all consonants in English (which has 24 consonants). By contrast, approximately 8.7% of the world's languages have no phonemic fricatives at all.[9] This is a typical feature of Australian Aboriginal languages, where the few fricatives that exist result from changes to plosives or approximants, but also occurs in some indigenous languages of New Guinea and South America that have especially small numbers of consonants. However, whereas [h] is entirely unknown in indigenous Australian languages, most of the other languages without true fricatives do have [h] in their consonant inventory.

Voicing contrasts in fricatives are largely confined to Europe, Africa, and Western Asia. Languages of South and East Asia, such as Mandarin Chinese, Korean, and the Austronesian languages, typically do not have such voiced fricatives as [z] and [v], which are familiar to many European speakers. In some Dravidian languages they occur as allophones. These voiced fricatives are also relatively rare in indigenous languages of the Americas. Overall, voicing contrasts in fricatives are much rarer than in plosives, being found only in about a third of the world's languages as compared to 60 percent for plosive voicing contrasts.[10]

About 15 percent of the world's languages, however, have unpaired voiced fricatives, i.e. a voiced fricative without a voiceless counterpart. Two-thirds of these, or 10 percent of all languages, have unpaired voiced fricatives but no voicing contrast between any fricative pair.[11]

This phenomenon occurs because voiced fricatives have developed from lenition of plosives or fortition of approximants. This phenomenon of unpaired voiced fricatives is scattered throughout the world, but is confined to nonsibilant fricatives with the exception of a couple of languages that have [ʒ] but lack [ʃ]. (Relatedly, several languages have the voiced affricate [] but lack [tʃ], and vice versa.) The fricatives that occur most often without a voiceless counterpart are – in order of ratio of unpaired occurrences to total occurrences – [ʝ], [β], [ð], [ʁ] and [ɣ].


Fricatives appear in waveforms as somewhat random noise caused by the turbulent airflow, upon which a periodic pattern is overlaid if voiced.[12] Fricatives produced in the front of the mouth tend to have energy concentration at higher frequencies than ones produced in the back.[13] The centre of gravity (CoG), i.e. the average frequency in a spectrum weighted by the amplitude (also known as spectral mean), may be used to determine the place of articulation of a fricative relative to that of another.[14]

See also[edit]


  1. ^ There are likely to be more aspirated, murmured and nasal fricatives than shown here. ⟨s̄ ṣ ŝ⟩ are not IPA transcription.


  1. ^ a b Ladefoged, Peter; Maddieson, Ian (1996). The Sounds of the World's Languages. Oxford: Blackwell. ISBN 0-631-19815-6.
  2. ^ "Definition of Frication". Merriam-Webster. Retrieved 27 May 2021.
  3. ^ Lodge, Ken (2009). A Critical Introduction to Phonetics. New York: Continuum International Publishing Group. p. 36. ISBN 978-0-8264-8873-2.
  4. ^ Pountain (2014) Exploring the Spanish Language, p. 18
  5. ^ John Esling (2010) "Phonetic Notation", in Hardcastle, Laver & Gibbon (eds) The Handbook of Phonetic Sciences, 2nd ed., p 695.
  6. ^ Laufer (1991:91)
  7. ^ Guillaume Jacques 2011. A panchronic study of aspirated fricatives, with new evidence from Pumi, Lingua 121.9:1518-1538
  8. ^ Laver (1994: 255–256) Principles of Phonetics
  9. ^ Maddieson, Ian. 2008. "Absence of Common Consonants". In: Haspelmath, Martin & Dryer, Matthew S. & Gil, David & Comrie, Bernard (eds.) The World Atlas of Language Structures Online. Munich: Max Planck Digital Library, chapter 18. Accessed on 2008-09-15.
  10. ^ Maddieson, Ian. "Voicing in Plosives and Fricatives", in Martin Haspelmath et al. (eds.) The World Atlas of Language Structures, pp. 26–29. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2005. ISBN 0-19-925591-1.
  11. ^ Maddieson, Ian. Patterns of Sounds. Cambridge University Press, 1984. ISBN 0-521-26536-3.
  12. ^ Zsiga, Elizabeth C. (2013). The Sounds of Language: An Introduction to Phonetics and Phonology. Wiley-Blackwell. p. 129. ISBN 978-1-4051-9103-6.
  13. ^ Johnson, Keith (2012). Acoustic and Auditory Phonetics (3rd ed.). Wiley-Blackwell. pp. 162–3. ISBN 978-1-4051-9466-2.
  14. ^ Kiss, Zoltán G. (2013). "Measuring acoustic correlates of voicing in stops and fricatives". In Szigetvári, Péter (ed.). VLlxx: Papers Presented to László Varga on His 70th Birthday. Budapest: Department of English Linguistics, Eötvös Loránd University.


External links[edit]