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In phonetics, preaspiration (sometimes spelled pre-aspiration)[1] is a period of voicelessness or aspiration preceding the closure of a voiceless obstruent,[2] basically equivalent to an [h]-like sound preceding the obstruent. In other words, when an obstruent is preaspirated, the glottis is opened for some time before the obstruent closure.[3] To mark preaspiration using the International Phonetic Alphabet, the diacritic for regular aspiration, ʰ, can be placed before the preaspirated consonant. However, Ladefoged & Maddieson (1996)[page needed] prefer to use a simple cluster notation, e.g. hk instead of ʰk.


Preaspiration is comparatively uncommon across languages of the world,[4] and is claimed by some to not be phonemically contrastive in any language.[5] Ladefoged & Maddieson (1996) note that, at least in the case of Icelandic, preaspirated stops have a longer duration of aspiration than normally aspirated (post-aspirated) stops, comparable to clusters of [h]+consonant in languages with such clusters. As a result, they view preaspiration as purely a distributional feature, indistinguishable phonetically and phonologically from clusters with /h/, and prefer to notate preaspirated stops as clusters, e.g. Icelandic kappi /ˈkʰahpi/ "hero" rather than /ˈkʰaʰpi/.

A distinction is often made between so-called normative and non-normative preaspiration: in a language with normative preaspiration of certain voiceless obstruents, the preaspiration is obligatory even though it is not a distinctive feature; in a language with non-normative preaspiration, the preaspiration can be phonetically structured for those who use it, but it is non-obligatory, and may not appear with all speakers.[6][7] Preaspirated consonants are typically in free variation with spirant-stop clusters, though they may also have a relationship (synchronically and diachronically) with long vowels or [s]-stop clusters.[8]

Preaspiration can take a number of different forms; while the most usual is glottal friction (an [h]-like sound), the precise phonetic quality can be affected by the obstruent or the preceding vowel, becoming for example [ç] after close vowels;[9] other potential realizations include [x][8] and even [f].[10]

Preaspiration is very unstable both synchronically and diachronically and is often replaced by a fricative or by a lengthening of the preceding vowel.[11]


Preaspiration is perhaps best known from North Germanic languages, most prominently in Icelandic and Faroese, but also some dialects of Norwegian and Swedish. It is also a prominent feature of Scottish Gaelic. The presence of preaspiration in Gaelic has been attributed to North Germanic influence.[12] Within Northwestern Europe preaspiration is furthermore found in most Sami languages, except Inari Sami where it has been replaced by postaspiration.[13] The historical relationship between preaspiration in Sami and North Germanic is disputed: there is general agreement of a connection, but not on whether it represents Sami influence in North Germanic,[14] [15] North Germanic influence in Sami[16] or parallel sprachbund influence in both languages.[17]

Elsewhere in the world, preaspiration occurs in Halh Mongolian, Western Yugur, and in several American indigenous languages, including dialects of Hopi,[18][19][20][21] Purepecha, and many languages of the Algonquian family (such as Cheyenne, Cree, Ojibwe, Fox, and Miami-Illinois).



In certain accents, such as Geordie (among younger women) Watt & Allen (2003:268) and in some speakers of Dublin English[22] word- and utterance-final /p, t, k/ can be preaspirated.


Some examples of preaspirated plosives and affricates from Faroese (where they occur only after stressed vowels):

Furthermore, the dialects of Vágar, northern Streymoy and Eysturoy also have ungeminated preaspirated plosives and affricates (except after close vowels/diphthongs):


Some examples of preaspirated plosives from Icelandic:[23]

Huautla Mazatec[edit]

In Huautla Mazatec, preaspirates can occur word-initially, perhaps uniquely among languages which contain preaspirates:[24]

Sami languages[edit]

Preaspiration in the Sami languages occurs on word-medial voiceless stops and affricates of all places of articulation available: /p/, /t̪/, /t͡s/, /t͡ɕ/, /k/. In the Western Sami languages (Southern, Ume, Pite, Lule and Northern) as well as Skolt Sami, preaspiration affects both long and half-long consonants; in most Eastern Sami languages (Akkala, Kildin and Ter) only fully long consonants are preaspirated. This likely represents two waves of innovation: an early preaspiration of long consonants dating back to Proto-Sami, followed by a secondary preaspiration of half-long consonants that originated in the Western Sami area and spread eastwards to Skolt Sami.[25]

In several Sami languages, preaspirated stops/affricates contrast with lax voiceless stops, either due to denasalization of earlier clusters (e.g. *nt > [d̥ː]) or in connection to consonant gradation.

Scottish Gaelic[edit]

In Scottish Gaelic, however, due to the historical loss of voiced stops preaspiration is phonemic in medial and final positions after stressed vowels.[26]

The approximate distribution of preaspiration in Gaelic dialects

Its strength varies from area to area and can manifest itself as [ʰ] or [h] or in areas with strong preaspiration as [ç] or [x]. The occurrence of preaspiration follows a hierarchy of c > t > p; i.e. if a dialect has preaspiration with p, it will also have it in the other places of articulation. Preaspiration manifests itself as follows:[27]

  • Area 1 as [xk xt xp] and [çkʲ çtʲ çp]
  • Area 2 as [xk xt hp] and [çkʲ çtʲ hp]
  • Area 3 as [xk ht hp] and [çkʲ htʲ hp]
  • Area 4 as [ʰk ʰt ʰp]
  • Area 5 as [xk] and [çkʲ] (no preaspiration of t and p)
  • Area 6 no preaspiration

There are numerous minimal pairs:


Although distinguishing preaspirated consonants from clusters of /h/ and a voiceless consonant can be difficult, the reverse does not hold: there are numerous languages such as Arabic or Finnish where such clusters are unanimously considered to constitute consonant clusters.[citation needed]

See also[edit]


  1. ^ Nance & Stuart-Smith (2013).
  2. ^ Silverman (2003), p. 575.
  3. ^ Stevens & Hajek (2004), p. 334.
  4. ^ Silverman (2003), p. 592.
  5. ^ Tronnier (2002), p. 33.
  6. ^ Gordeeva & Scobbie (2010), p. 167ff.
  7. ^ McRobbie-Utasi (2003), p. 1.
  8. ^ a b Silverman (2003), p. 593.
  9. ^ Stevens & Hajek (2004), pp. 334–35.
  10. ^ McRobbie-Utasi (1991), p. 77.
  11. ^ Silverman (2003), pp. 592, 595.
  12. ^ Bandle & Widmark (2002), p. 2059.
  13. ^ Sammallahti (1998), p. 55.
  14. ^ Rießler (2004).
  15. ^ Kusmenko (2008), pp. 127–171.
  16. ^ Posti (1954).
  17. ^ Hansson (2001).
  18. ^ Rießler (2004), p. ?.
  19. ^ McRobbie-Utasi (1991), p. ?.
  20. ^ McRobbie-Utasi (2003).
  21. ^ Svantesson (2003), p. ?.
  22. ^ "Glossary". Retrieved 11 February 2015.
  23. ^ Silverman (2003), p. 582.
  24. ^ Silverman (2003), pp. 590–91.
  25. ^ Sammallahti (1998), p. 193.
  26. ^ Borgstrøm (1940), p. ?.
  27. ^ Ó Dochartaigh, C. Survey of the Gaelic Dialects of Scotland I-V Dublin Institute for Advanced Studies (1997) ISBN 1-85500-165-9