Approximant consonant

Approximant consonant

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Approximants are speech sounds that involve the articulators
Manner of articulation
In linguistics, manner of articulation describes how the tongue, lips, jaw, and other speech organs are involved in making a sound. Often the concept is only used for the production of consonants, even though the movement of the articulars will also greatly alter the resonant properties of the...

 approaching each other but not narrowly enough or with enough articulatory precision to create turbulent airflow. Therefore, approximants fall between fricatives
Fricative consonant
Fricatives are consonants produced by forcing air through a narrow channel made by placing two articulators close together. These may be the lower lip against the upper teeth, in the case of ; the back of the tongue against the soft palate, in the case of German , the final consonant of Bach; or...

, which do produce a turbulent airstream, and vowel
In phonetics, a vowel is a sound in spoken language, such as English ah! or oh! , pronounced with an open vocal tract so that there is no build-up of air pressure at any point above the glottis. This contrasts with consonants, such as English sh! , where there is a constriction or closure at some...

s, which produce no turbulence. This class of sounds includes lateral
Lateral consonant
A lateral is an el-like consonant, in which airstream proceeds along the sides of the tongue, but is blocked by the tongue from going through the middle of the mouth....

 approximants like [l] (as in less), non-lateral approximants like [ɹ] (as in rest), and semivowels like [j] and [w] (as in yes and west, respectively).

Before Peter Ladefoged
Peter Ladefoged
Peter Nielsen Ladefoged was an English-American linguist and phonetician who traveled the world to document the distinct sounds of endangered languages and pioneered ways to collect and study data . He was active at the universities of Edinburgh, Scotland and Ibadan, Nigeria 1953–61...

 coined the term "approximant" in the 1960s the term "frictionless continuant" referred to non-lateral approximants.


Some approximants resemble vowels in acoustic and articulatory properties and the terms semivowel
In phonetics and phonology, a semivowel is a sound, such as English or , that is phonetically similar to a vowel sound but functions as the syllable boundary rather than as the nucleus of a syllable.-Classification:...

and glide are often used for these non-syllabic vowel-like segments. The correlation between semivowels and vowels is strong enough that cross-language differences between semivowels correspond with the differences between their related vowels.

Vowels and their corresponding semivowels alternate in many languages depending on the phonological environment, or for grammatical reasons, as is the case with Indo-European ablaut
Indo-European ablaut
In linguistics, ablaut is a system of apophony in Proto-Indo-European and its far-reaching consequences in all of the modern Indo-European languages...

. Similarly, languages often avoid configurations where a semivowel precedes its corresponding vowel. A number of phoneticians distinguish between semivowels and approximants by their location in a syllable. Although he uses the terms interchangeably, remarks that, for example, the final glides of English par and buy differ from French par ('through') and baille ('tub') in that, in the latter pair, the approximants appear in the syllable coda
Syllable coda
In phonology, a syllable coda comprises the consonant sounds of a syllable that follow the nucleus, which is usually a vowel. The combination of a nucleus and a coda is called a rime. Some syllables consist only of a nucleus with no coda...

, whereas, in the former, they appear in the syllable nucleus. This means that opaque (if not minimal) contrasts can occur in languages like Italian
Italian language
Italian is a Romance language spoken mainly in Europe: Italy, Switzerland, San Marino, Vatican City, by minorities in Malta, Monaco, Croatia, Slovenia, France, Libya, Eritrea, and Somalia, and by immigrant communities in the Americas and Australia...

 (with the i-like sound of piede 'foot', appearing in the nucleus: [ˈpi̯eˑde], and that of piano 'slow', appearing in the syllable onset: [ˈpjaˑno]) and Spanish (with a near minimal pair being abyecto [aβˈjekto] 'abject' and abierto [aˈβi̯erto] 'opened').
Approximant-vowel correspondences
Vowel Corresponding
Place of
i j Palatal Spanish amplío ('I extend') vs. ampliamos ('we extend')
y ɥ Labiopalatal French aigu ('sharp') vs. aiguille ('needle')
ɯ ɰ Velar Korean 쓰다 ('wear something') vs. 우다 ('someone makes somebody wears something')
u w Labiovelar Spanish actúo ('I act') vs. actuamos ('we act')
ɚ ɻ Retroflex American English waiter vs. waitress
ɑ ʕ̞ Pharyngeal
Because of the articulatory complexities of the American English rhotic, there is some variation in its phonetic description. A transcription with the IPA character for an alveolar approximant ([ɹ]) is common, though the sound is more postalveolar
Postalveolar consonant
Postalveolar consonants are consonants articulated with the tongue near or touching the back of the alveolar ridge, further back in the mouth than the alveolar consonants, which are at the ridge itself, but not as far back as the hard palate...

. Actual retroflexion may occur as well and both occur as variations of the same sound. However, makes a distinction between the vowels of American English (which he calls "rhotacized") and vowels with "retroflexion" such as those that appear in Badaga
Badaga language
The Badaga language is a southern Dravidian language spoken by approximately 400,000 people in the Nilgiri Hills in Southern India. It is known for its retroflex vowels. The word Badaga refers to the Badaga language as well as the Badaga community/tribe...

; , on the other hand, labels both as r-colored
R-colored vowel
In phonetics, an R-colored or rhotic vowel is a vowel that is modified in a way that results in a lowering in frequency of the third formant...

 and notes that both have a lowered third formant
Formants are defined by Gunnar Fant as 'the spectral peaks of the sound spectrum |P|' of the voice. In speech science and phonetics, formant is also used to mean an acoustic resonance of the human vocal tract...


In articulation and often diachronically, palatal
Palatal consonant
Palatal consonants are consonants articulated with the body of the tongue raised against the hard palate...

 approximants correspond to front vowel
Front vowel
A front vowel is a type of vowel sound used in some spoken languages. The defining characteristic of a front vowel is that the tongue is positioned as far in front as possible in the mouth without creating a constriction that would be classified as a consonant. Front vowels are sometimes also...

s, velar
Velar consonant
Velars are consonants articulated with the back part of the tongue against the soft palate, the back part of the roof of the mouth, known also as the velum)....

 approximants to back vowel
Back vowel
A back vowel is a type of vowel sound used in spoken languages. The defining characteristic of a back vowel is that the tongue is positioned as far back as possible in the mouth without creating a constriction that would be classified as a consonant. Back vowels are sometimes also called dark...

s, and labialized approximants to rounded vowels. In American English, the rhotic
Rhotic consonant
In phonetics, rhotic consonants, also called tremulants or "R-like" sounds, are liquid consonants that are traditionally represented orthographically by symbols derived from the Greek letter rho, including "R, r" from the Roman alphabet and "Р, p" from the Cyrillic alphabet...

 approximant corresponds to the rhotic vowel. This can create alternations (as shown in the above table).

In addition to alternations, glides can be inserted to the left or the right of their corresponding vowels when occurring next to a hiatus. For example, in Ukrainian
Ukrainian language
Ukrainian is a language of the East Slavic subgroup of the Slavic languages. It is the official state language of Ukraine. Written Ukrainian uses a variant of the Cyrillic alphabet....

, medial /i/ triggers the formation of an inserted [j] that acts as a syllable onset so that when the affix /-ist/ is added to футбол ('football') to make футболіст ('football player'), it's pronounced [futˈbo̞list] but маоїст ('maoist' from Mao Zedong
Mao Zedong
Mao Zedong, also transliterated as Mao Tse-tung , and commonly referred to as Chairman Mao , was a Chinese Communist revolutionary, guerrilla warfare strategist, Marxist political philosopher, and leader of the Chinese Revolution...

), with the same affix, is pronounced [ˈmaojist] with a glide. Dutch
Dutch language
Dutch is a West Germanic language and the native language of the majority of the population of the Netherlands, Belgium, and Suriname, the three member states of the Dutch Language Union. Most speakers live in the European Union, where it is a first language for about 23 million and a second...

 has a similar process that extends to mid vowels:
  • bioscoop → [bijɔskoːp] ('cinema')
  • zee + en → [zeːjə(n)] ('seas')
  • fluor → [flyɥɔr] ('fluor')
  • reu + en → [røɥə(n)] ('male dogs')
  • Rwanda → [ruʋandɐ] ('Rwanda
    Rwanda or , officially the Republic of Rwanda , is a country in central and eastern Africa with a population of approximately 11.4 million . Rwanda is located a few degrees south of the Equator, and is bordered by Uganda, Tanzania, Burundi and the Democratic Republic of the Congo...

  • Boaz → [boʋas] ('Boaz
    Boaz is a major figure in The Book of Ruth in the Bible. The term is found 24 times in the Scriptures, being two in Greek ....


Similarly, vowels can be inserted next to their corresponding glide in certain phonetic environments. Sievers' law
Sievers' law
Sievers' law in Indo-European linguistics accounts for the pronunciation of a consonant cluster with a glide before a vowel as it was affected by the phonetics of the preceding syllable. Specifically it refers to the alternation between and , and possibly and , in Indo-European languages...

 describes this behaviour for Germanic
Germanic languages
The Germanic languages constitute a sub-branch of the Indo-European language family. The common ancestor of all of the languages in this branch is called Proto-Germanic , which was spoken in approximately the mid-1st millennium BC in Iron Age northern Europe...


Non-high semivowels also occur. In colloquial Nepali
Nepali language
Nepali or Nepalese is a language in the Indo-Aryan branch of the Indo-European language family.It is the official language and de facto lingua franca of Nepal and is also spoken in Bhutan, parts of India and parts of Myanmar...

 speech, a process of glide-formation occurs, wherein one of two adjacent vowels becomes non-syllabic; this process includes mid vowels so that [dʱo̯a] ('cause to wish') features a non-syllabic mid vowel. Spanish features a similar process and even nonsyllabic /a/ can occur so that ahorita ('right away') is pronounced [a̯o̞ˈɾita]. It is not often clear, however, whether such sequences involve a semivowel (a consonant) or a diphthong (a vowel), and in many cases that may not be a meaningful distinction.

Although many languages have central vowel
Central vowel
A central vowel is a type of vowel sound used in some spoken languages. The defining characteristic of a central vowel is that the tongue is positioned halfway between a front vowel and a back vowel...

s [ɨ, ʉ], which lie between back/velar [ɯ, u] and front/palatal [i, y], there are few cases of a corresponding approximant [ȷ̈]. One is in the Korean diphthong [ȷ̈i] or [ɨ̯i], and Mapudungun
The Mapuche language, Mapudungun is a language isolate spoken in south-central Chile and west central Argentina by the Mapuche people. It is also spelled Mapuzugun and sometimes called Mapudungu or Araucanian...

 may be another: It has three high vowel sounds, /i/, /u/, /ɨ/ and three corresponding consonants, /j/, and /w/, and a third one is often described as a voiced unrounded velar fricative; some texts note a correspondence between this approximant and /ɨ/ that is parallel to /j/–/i/ and /w/–/u/. An example is liq /ˈliɣ/ ([ˈliɨ̯]?) ('white').

Approximants versus fricatives

In addition to less turbulence, approximants also differ from fricatives in the precision required to produce them.
When emphasized, approximants may be slightly fricated (that is, the airstream may become slightly turbulent), which is reminiscent of fricatives. For example, the Spanish
Spanish language
Spanish , also known as Castilian , is a Romance language in the Ibero-Romance group that evolved from several languages and dialects in central-northern Iberia around the 9th century and gradually spread with the expansion of the Kingdom of Castile into central and southern Iberia during the...

 word ayuda ('help') features a palatal approximant that is pronounced as a fricative in emphatic speech. However, such frication is generally slight and intermittent, unlike the strong turbulence of fricative consonants.

Because voicelessness has comparatively reduced resistance to air flow from the lungs, the increased pulmonic pressure creates more turbulence, making acoustic distinctions between voiceless approximants (which are extremely rare cross-linguistically) and voiceless fricatives difficult. This is why, for example, the voiceless labialized velar approximant [ʍ] has traditionally been labeled a fricative, and no language is known to contrast it with a voiceless labialized velar fricative [xʷ]. Similarly, Tibetan
Tibetan language
The Tibetan languages are a cluster of mutually-unintelligible Tibeto-Burman languages spoken primarily by Tibetan peoples who live across a wide area of eastern Central Asia bordering the Indian subcontinent, including the Tibetan Plateau and the northern Indian subcontinent in Baltistan, Ladakh,...

 has a voiceless lateral
Lateral consonant
A lateral is an el-like consonant, in which airstream proceeds along the sides of the tongue, but is blocked by the tongue from going through the middle of the mouth....

 approximant, [l̥], and Welsh
Welsh phonology
The phonology of Welsh is characterised by a number of sounds that do not occur in English and are typologically rare in European languages, such as the voiceless lateral fricative and voiceless nasal consonants...

 has a voiceless lateral fricative [ɬ], but the distinction is not always clear from descriptions of these languages. Again, no language is known to contrast the two.

For places of articulation further back in the mouth, languages do not contrast voiced fricatives and approximants. Therefore the IPA allows the symbols for the voiced fricatives to double for the approximants, with or without a lowering diacritic
A diacritic is a glyph added to a letter, or basic glyph. The term derives from the Greek διακριτικός . Diacritic is both an adjective and a noun, whereas diacritical is only an adjective. Some diacritical marks, such as the acute and grave are often called accents...


Occasionally, the glottal "fricatives" are called approximants, since [h] typically has no more frication than voiceless approximants, but they are often phonation
Phonation has slightly different meanings depending on the subfield of phonetics. Among some phoneticians, phonation is the process by which the vocal folds produce certain sounds through quasi-periodic vibration. This is the definition used among those who study laryngeal anatomy and physiology...

s of the glottis without any accompanying manner or place of articulation.

Central approximants

  • bilabial approximant [β̞] (usually transcribed ⟨β⟩)
  • labiodental approximant
    Labiodental approximant
    The labiodental approximant is a type of consonantal sound, similar to an English double-u pronounced with the teeth and lips held in the position used to articulate the letter vee, used in some spoken languages...

  • dental approximant [ð̞] (usually transcribed ⟨ð⟩)
  • alveolar approximant [ɹ]
  • retroflex approximant [ɻ] (a consonantal [ɚ])
  • palatal approximant
    Palatal approximant
    The palatal approximant is a type of consonantal sound used in many spoken languages. The symbol in the International Phonetic Alphabet that represents this sound is '...

     [j] (a consonantal [i])
  • velar approximant [ɰ] (a consonantal [ɯ])
  • uvular approximant [ʁ̞] (usually transcribed ⟨ʁ⟩)
  • pharyngeal approximant [ʕ̞] (a consonantal [ɑ]; usually transcribed ⟨ʕ⟩)
  • epiglottal approximant [ʢ̞] (usually transcribed ⟨ʢ⟩)

Lateral approximants

In lateral approximants, the center of tongue makes solid contact with the roof of the mouth. However, the defining location is the side of the tongue, which only approaches the teeth.
  • voiced alveolar lateral approximant
    Alveolar lateral approximant
    The alveolar lateral approximant, also known as clear l, is a type of consonantal sound used in some spoken languages. The symbol in the International Phonetic Alphabet that represents dental, alveolar, and postalveolar lateral approximants is , and the equivalent X-SAMPA symbol is l.As a...

  • retroflex lateral approximant [ɭ]
  • palatal lateral approximant
    Palatal lateral approximant
    The palatal lateral approximant is a type of consonantal sound used in some spoken languages. The symbol in the International Phonetic Alphabet that represents this sound is , a rotated lowercase letter ⟨y⟩ , and the equivalent X-SAMPA symbol is L.-Features:Features of the palatal lateral...

  • velar lateral approximant [ʟ]
  • velarized alveolar lateral approximant
    Velarized alveolar lateral approximant
    -See also:* Lateral consonant* Velarization* l-vocalization* Ł...


Coarticulated approximants with dedicated IPA symbols

  • voiced labialized velar approximant [w] (a consonantal [u])
  • voiceless labialized velar approximant [ʍ] (a consonantal [u̥])
  • labialized palatal approximant
    Labial-palatal approximant
    The labialized palatal approximant, also called the labial–palatal or labio-palatal approximant, is a type of consonantal sound, used in some spoken languages. It has two constrictions in the vocal tract: with the tongue on the palate, and rounded at the lips. The symbol in the International...

    [ɥ] (a consonantal [y])