A fricative [frik-uh-tiv] is a consonant that is made when you squeeze air through a small hole or gap in your mouth. For example, the gaps in between your teeth can make fricative consonants. When the gaps in the teeth are used, these fricatives are called sibilants (e.g. ‘voiceless coronal sibilant,’ as in ‘sip’; ‘voiced coronal sibilant,’ as in ‘zip’). There are also non-sibilant fricatives (e.g. ‘voiceless labiodental fricative,’ as in ‘fine’; ‘voiced dental fricative,’ as in ‘that’).

A small number of languages including Navajo and Welsh have lateral fricatives (consonants, in which the airstream proceeds along the sides of the tongue, blocked by the tongue from going through the middle of the mouth). Many languages also have pseudo-fricatives (unvoiced vowels, e.g. ‘voiceless glottal transition,’ as in ‘hat’).

Fricatives are 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 voiceless labiodental fricative; the back of the tongue against the soft palate, in the case of German voiceless velar fricative, the final consonant of ‘Bach’; or the side of the tongue against the molars, in the case of Welsh voiceless alveolar lateral fricative. This turbulent airflow is called frication.

Ubykh (last spoken in 1992 by the Ubykh in what is today western Russia) may be the language with the most fricatives (29). This number actually outstrips the number of all consonants in English (24). By contrast, approximately 8.7% of the world’s languages display no phonemic fricatives at all. This is a typical feature of Australian Aboriginal languages, where the few fricatives that exist result from changes to plosives (a speech sound produced by complete closure of the oral passage and subsequent release accompanied by a burst of air) or approximants (A speech sound produced by narrowing but not blocking the vocal tract, as by placing an articulator, such as the tongue, near another part of the vocal tract), but also occurs in some indigenous languages of New Guinea and South America that have especially small numbers of consonants. Approximants are consonants pronounced by bringing two parts of the mouth close to each other. However, it is not close enough to cause the air to be blocked, like in a fricative consonant. Also, the parts are not far apart enough to become a vowel.

Voicing contrasts in fricatives are largely confined to Europe, Africa, and Western Asia. Languages of South and East Asia typically do not have voiced fricatives, which are very familiar to European speakers. 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. 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. This phenomenon occurs because voiced fricatives have developed from lenition (‘softening’) of plosives or fortition (‘strengthening’) 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.

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.