Voiceless alveolar fricative

A voiceless alveolar fricative is a type of fricative consonant pronounced with the tip or blade of the tongue against the alveolar ridge (gum line) just behind the teeth. This refers to a class of sounds, not a single sound. There are at least six types with significant perceptual differences:

The first three types are sibilants, meaning that they are made with the teeth closed and have a piercing, perceptually prominent sound.

Voiceless coronal fricatives
Dental Denti-
Alveolar Post-alveolar
Retracted Retroflex Palato-
Sibilant ʂ ʃ ɕ
Non-sibilant θ θ̠/θ͇/ɹ̝̊ ɻ̝̊

Voiceless alveolar sibilant

Voiceless alveolar sibilant
IPA number 132
Entity (decimal) s
Unicode (hex) U+0073
Kirshenbaum s
Braille ⠎ (braille pattern dots-234)
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Voiceless laminal dentalized alveolar sibilant
Voiceless alveolar retracted sibilant
Entity (decimal) s̺
Unicode (hex) U+0073U+033A
source · help

The voiceless alveolar sibilant is a common consonant sound in vocal languages. It is the sound in English words such as sea and pass, and is represented in the International Phonetic Alphabet with s. It has a characteristic high-pitched, highly perceptible hissing sound. For this reason, it is often used to get someone's attention, using a call often written as sssst! or psssst!.

The voiceless alveolar sibilant [s] is one of the most common sounds cross-linguistically. If a language has fricatives, it will most likely have [s].[2] However, some languages have a related sibilant sound, such as [ʃ], but no [s]. In addition, sibilants are absent from Australian Aboriginal languages, in which fricatives are rare; even the few indigenous Australian languages that have developed fricatives do not have sibilants.

The voiceless alveolar retracted sibilant (commonly termed the voiceless apico-alveolar sibilant) is a fricative that is articulated with the tongue in a hollow shape, usually with the tip of the tongue (apex) against the alveolar ridge. It is a sibilant sound and is found most notably in a number of languages in a linguistic area covering northern and central Iberia. It is most well known from its occurrence in the Spanish of this area. In the Middle Ages, it occurred in a wider area, covering Romance languages spoken throughout France, Portugal, and Spain, as well as Old High German and Middle High German.

There is no single IPA symbol used for this sound. The symbol is often used, with a diacritic indicating an apical pronunciation. However, that is potentially problematic in that not all alveolar retracted sibilants are apical (see below), and not all apical alveolar sibilants are retracted. The ad hoc non-IPA symbols and S are often used in the linguistic literature even when IPA symbols are used for other sounds, but is a common transcription of the retroflex sibilant [ʂ].

Often, to speakers of languages or dialects that do not have the sound, it is said to have a "whistling" quality, and to sound similar to palato-alveolar [ʃ]. For this reason, when borrowed into such languages or represented with non-Latin characters, it is often replaced with [ʃ]. This occurred, for example, in English borrowings from Old French (e.g. push from pousser, cash from caisse); in Polish borrowings from medieval German (e.g. kosztować from kosten, żur from sūr (contemporary sauer); and in representations of Mozarabic (an extinct medieval Romance language once spoken in southern Spain) in Arabic characters. The similarity between retracted [s̺] and [ʃ] has resulted in many exchanges in Spanish between the sounds, during the medieval period when Spanish had both phonemes. Examples are jabón (formerly xabón) "soap" from Latin sapō/sapōnem, jibia "cuttlefish" (formerly xibia) from Latin sēpia, and tijeras "scissors" (earlier tixeras < medieval tiseras) from Latin cīsōrias (with initial t- due to influence from tōnsor "shaver").

One of the clearest descriptions of this sound is from Obaid:[3] "There is a Castilian s, which is a voiceless, concave, apicoalveolar fricative: The tip of the tongue turned upward forms a narrow opening against the alveoli of the upper incisors. It resembles a faint /ʃ/ and is found throughout much of the northern half of Spain".

Many dialects of Modern Greek have a very similar-sounding sibilant that is pronounced with a laminal articulation.[4]

It occurs as the normal voiceless alveolar sibilant in Astur-Leonese, Castilian Spanish, Catalan, Galician, working-class Glaswegian English, northern European Portuguese, and some Occitan dialects. It also occurs in Basque and Mirandese, where it is opposed to a different voiceless alveolar sibilant, the more common [s]; the same distinction occurs in a few dialects of northeastern Portuguese. Outside this area, it also occurs in a few dialects of Latin American Spanish (e.g. Antioqueño, in Colombia), and in many dialects of Modern Greek (with a laminal articulation).

In medieval times, it occurred in a wider area, including the Romance languages spoken in most or all of France and Iberia (Old Spanish, Galician-Portuguese, Catalan, French, etc.), as well as in the Old and Middle High German of central and southern Germany.[4] In all of these languages, the retracted "apico-alveolar" sibilant was opposed to a non-retracted sibilant much like English [s], and in many of them, both voiceless and voiced versions of both sounds occurred. In general, the retracted "apico-alveolar" variants were written s or ss, while the non-retracted variants were written z, c or ç. In the Romance languages, the retracted sibilants derived from Latin /s/, /ss/ or /ns/, while the non-retracted sibilants derived from earlier affricates [t͡s] and [d͡z], which in turn derived from palatalized /k/ or /t/. The situation was similar in High German, where the retracted sibilants derived largely from Proto-Germanic /s/, while the non-retracted sibilants derived from instances of Proto-Germanic /t/ that were shifted by the High German sound shift. Minimal pairs were common in all languages. Examples in Middle High German, for example, were wizzen "to know" (Old English witan, cf. "to wit") vs. wissen "known" (Old English wissen), and weiz "white" (Old English wīt) vs. weis "way" (Old English wīs, cf. "-wise").

This distinction has since vanished from most of these languages:

Because of the widespread medieval distribution, it has been speculated that retracted [s̺] was the normal pronunciation in spoken Latin. However, it equally well could have been an areal feature inherited from the prehistoric languages of Western Europe, as evidenced by its occurrence in modern Basque.

Comparison with the Spanish apico-alveolar sibilant

The term "voiceless alveolar sibilant" is potentially ambiguous in that it can refer to at least two different sounds. Various languages of northern Iberia (e.g. Astur-Leonese, Catalan, Basque, Galician, Portuguese and Spanish) have a so-called "voiceless apico-alveolar sibilant" that lacks the strong hissing of the [s] described in this article but has a duller, more "grave" sound quality somewhat reminiscent of a voiceless retroflex sibilant. Basque, Mirandese and some Portuguese dialects in northeast Portugal (as well as medieval Spanish and Portuguese in general) have both types of sounds in the same language.

There is no general agreement about what actual feature distinguishes these sounds. Spanish phoneticians normally describe the difference as apical (for the northern Iberian sound) vs. laminal (for the more common sound), but Ladefoged and Maddieson[5] claim that English /s/ can be pronounced apical, which is evidently not the same as the apical sibilant of Iberian Spanish and Basque. Also, Adams[6] asserts that many dialects of Modern Greek have a laminal sibilant with a sound quality similar to the "apico-alveolar" sibilant of northern Iberia.

Some authors have instead suggested that the difference lies in tongue shape. Adams[6] describes the northern Iberian sibilant as "retracted". Ladefoged and Maddieson[5] appear to characterize the more common hissing variant as grooved, and some phoneticians (such as J. Catford) have characterized it as sulcal (which is more or less a synonym of "grooved"), but in both cases, there is some doubt about whether all and only the "hissing" sounds actually have a "grooved" or "sulcal" tongue shape.


Features of the voiceless alveolar sibilant:


Dentalized laminal alveolar

Language Word IPA Meaning Notes
Arabic Gulf[8] مسجد [mɐˈs̪iːd̪] 'mosque'
Armenian Eastern[9] սար  [s̪ɑɾ]  'mountain'
Azerbaijani[10] su [s̪u] 'water'
Basque[11] gauza [ɡäus̪ä] 'thing' Contrasts with an apical sibilant.[11]
Belarusian[12] стагоддзе [s̪t̪äˈɣod̪d̪͡z̪ʲe] 'century' Contrasts with palatalized form. See Belarusian phonology
Bulgarian[13] всеки [ˈvs̪ɛki] 'everyone' Contrasts with palatalized form
Chinese Mandarin[14][15] sān [s̪a̋n] 'three' See Mandarin phonology
Czech[16] svět [s̪vjɛt̪] 'world' See Czech phonology
English Auckland[17] sand [s̪ɛnˑd̥] 'sand' See English phonology
Multicultural London[18] [s̪anˑd̥]
French[19][20][21] façade [fäs̪äd̪] 'front' See French phonology
Hungarian[22] sziget [ˈs̪iɡɛt̪] 'island' See Hungarian phonology
Kazakh[24] сом [s̪u̯ʊm] 'pure'
Kyrgyz[25] сабиз [s̪äˈbis̪] 'carrot'
Latvian[26] sens [s̪en̪s̪] 'ancient' See Latvian phonology
Macedonian[27] скока [ˈs̪kɔkä] 'jump' See Macedonian phonology
Mirandese Contrasts seven sibilants altogether, preserving medieval Ibero-Romance contrasts.
Polish[7][28] sum  [s̪um]  'catfish' See Polish phonology
Romanian[29] surd [s̪ur̪d̪] 'deaf' See Romanian phonology
Russian[30] волосы  [ˈvo̞ɫ̪əs̪ɨ̞]  'hair' Contrasts with palatalized form. See Russian phonology
Scottish Gaelic[31] Slàinte [ˈs̪ɫ̪äːn̪t̪ʰʲə] 'cheers' See Scottish Gaelic phonology
Serbo-Croatian[32][33] сам sam [s̪ȃ̠m] 'alone' See Serbo-Croatian phonology
Slovak svet [s̪vɛt̪] 'world'
Slovene[34] svet [s̪ʋéːt̪] 'world' See Slovene phonology
Spanish European[35] estar [e̞s̪ˈt̪är] 'to be' Allophone of /s/ before dental consonants.[35] See Spanish phonology
Swedish[36] Central Standard[37][38] säte [ˈs̪ɛːt̪e] 'seat' Retracted in some southern dialects.[39] See Swedish phonology
Toda[40][41] [kɔs̪] 'money'
Turkish[19][42] su [s̪u] 'water' See Turkish phonology
Ukrainian[43] село [s̪ɛˈɫ̪ɔ] 'village' See Ukrainian phonology
Upper Sorbian[44] sowa [ˈs̪ovä] 'owl'
Uzbek[45] soat [ˈs̪o̞æt̪] 'hour'
Vietnamese Hanoi[46] xa [s̪äː] 'far' See Vietnamese phonology

Non-retracted alveolar

Language Word IPA Meaning Notes
Adyghe сэ [sa] 'I'
Arabic Modern Standard[47] جَلَسَ [ˈdʒælæsɐ] 'to sit' See Arabic phonology
Assyrian Neo-Aramaic sepa [seːpaː] 'sword'
Bengali রাস্তা [raːst̪a] 'street' See Bengali phonology
Burmese [sə sá bjì] 'I am eating now'
Chinese Cantonese sim2 [siːm˧˥] 'twinkle' See Cantonese phonology
Dutch[48][49] staan [s̻t̻aːn̻] 'to stand' Laminal; may have only mid-to-low pitched friction in the Netherlands.[48][49] See Dutch phonology
Estonian sõna ['sɤnɑ] 'word'
English sand [sænd] 'sand' See English phonology
Faroese sandur [sandʊɹ] 'sand'
Georgian[50] ამი [ˈsɑmi] 'three'
Hebrew ספר [ˈsefeʁ] 'book' See Modern Hebrew phonology
Hindi साल [saːl] 'year' See Hindustani phonology
Icelandic[51][52] segi [ˈs̺ɛːjɪ] 'I say' Apical.[51][52] See Icelandic phonology
Italian Marked accents
of Emilia-Romagna[53]
sali [ˈs̺ʲäːli] 'you go up' Palatalized apical;[53] may be [ʂ] or [ʃ] instead.[53] See Italian phonology
Japanese[54] 複数形 fukusūkē [ɸɯkɯsɯːkeː] 'plural' See Japanese phonology
Kabardian сэ [sa] 'I'
Korean so [so] 'ox' See Korean phonology
Malay satu [satu] 'one'
Maltese iebes [eaˈbes] 'hard'
Marathi सपाट [səpaːʈ] 'flat' See Marathi phonology
Occitan Limousin maichent [mejˈsẽ] 'bad'
Persian سیب sib [sib] 'apple' See Persian phonology
Portuguese[55] caço [ˈkasu] 'I hunt' See Portuguese phonology
Punjabi ਸੱਪ [səpː] 'snake'
Spanish[56] Latin American saltador [s̻al̪t̪aˈð̞o̞r] 'jumper' See Spanish phonology and Seseo
Equatorial Guinean
Urdu سال [saːl] 'year' See Hindustani phonology
Vietnamese[57] xa [saː˧] 'far' See Vietnamese phonology
West Frisian[58] sâlt [s̺ɔːt] 'salt' Apical.[58]
Yi sy [sɿ˧] 'die'

Retracted alveolar

Language Word IPA Meaning Notes
Asturian pasu [ˈpäs̺u] 'step' Apical.
Basque[11][59] su [s̺u] 'fire' Apical. Contrasts with a dentalized laminal sibilant.[11][59]
Catalan[60][61] Most dialects set [ˈs̺ɛt̪] 'seven' Apical. See Catalan phonology
Some Valencian speakers[62] peix [ˈpe̠js̺ʲ] 'fish' Normally transcribed as /ʂ/; realized as pre-palatal [ɕ] in Standard Catalan and Valencian.
Some Valencian speakers[62] patisc [pɐ̞ˈt̪ɪ̝s̺ʲk] 'I serve'
English Glasgow[63] sun [s̺ʌn] 'sun' Working-class pronunciation, other speakers may use a non-retracted [s]
Galician saúde [s̺äˈuðe] 'health' Apical.
Italian Central Italy[64] sali [ˈs̠äːli] 'you go up' Present in Lazio north of Cape Linaro,[64] most of Umbria[64] (save Perugia and the extreme south),[64] Marche and south of Potenza.[64]
Northern Italy[65][66] Apical.[67] Present in many areas north of the La Spezia–Rimini Line.[68][69] See Italian phonology
Sicily[64] Present south and west of a line drawn from Syracuse to Cefalù.[64]
Leonese pasu [ˈpäs̺ʊ] 'step' Apical.
Low German[39]
Mirandese passo [ˈpäs̺u] 'step' Apical. Contrasts with /s̪/.
Occitan Gascon dos [d̻ys̺] 'two' See Occitan phonology
Languedocien [d̻us̺]
Portuguese[55][70] European,
inland northern
cansaço [kə̃ˈs̺äs̻u] 'weariness' Apical. Contrasts with /s̻/. See Portuguese phonology
coastal northern
cansaço [kə̃ˈs̺äs̺u] Merges with /s̻/. See Portuguese phonology
Inland and
southern capixaba
pescador [pe̞s̺käˈd̻oχ] 'fisherman' Realization of Portuguese coda sibilant, which may be postalveolars, depending on dialect
Carioca do brejo escadas [is̺ˈkäd̻ɐs̺] 'stairs'
Spanish Andean saltador [s̺äl̪t̪äˈð̞o̞ɾ] 'jumper' Apical. See Spanish phonology and Seseo
Paisa region
Swedish Blekinge[39] säte [ˈs̠ɛːte] 'seat' See Swedish phonology


Language Word IPA Meaning Notes
Danish[71][72][73] sælge [ˈseljə] 'sell' Most often non-retracted apical, but can be dentalized laminal for some speakers.[71][72][73] See Danish phonology
Finnish[74] sinä [sinæ] 'you' Varies between non-retracted and retracted.[74] See Finnish phonology
German Standard[75] Biss [bɪs] 'bite' Varies between dentalized laminal, non-retracted laminal and non-retracted apical.[75] See Standard German phonology
Greek[76] σαν san [sɐn] 'as' Varies between non-retracted and retracted, depending on the environment.[76] See Modern Greek phonology
Norwegian Standard Eastern[77] sand [sɑnː] 'sand' Most often dentalized laminal, but can be non-retracted apical for some speakers.[77] See Norwegian phonology
Italian Standard[78] sali [ˈsäːli] 'you go up' Varies between dentalized laminal and non-retracted apical.[78] See Italian phonology
Ticino[67] Varies between dentalized laminal and non-retracted apical.[79] Both variants may be labiodentalized.[67] See Italian phonology

Voiceless alveolar non-sibilant fricative

Voiceless alveolar non-sibilant fricative
IPA number 130 414
Entity (decimal) &#952;&#817;
Unicode (hex) U+03B8U+0331
source · help

The voiceless alveolar non-sibilant fricative (also known as a "slit" fricative) is a consonantal sound. As the International Phonetic Alphabet does not have separate symbols for the alveolar consonants (the same symbol is used for all coronal places of articulation that are not palatalized), this sound is usually transcribed θ̠, occasionally θ͇ (retracted or alveolarized [θ], respectively), or ɹ̝̊ (constricted voiceless [ɹ]).



Language Word IPA Meaning Notes
Dutch[80] rood [θ̠oːt]'red' One of many possible realizations of /r/; distribution unclear. See Dutch phonology
English Australian[81] Italy [ˈɪ̟θ̠əɫɪi̯] 'Italy' Occasional allophone of /t/.[81] See Australian English phonology
Received Pronunciation[82] [ˈɪθ̠əlɪi̯] Common allophone of /t/.[82]
Irish[83] [ˈɪθ̠ɪli] Allophone of /t/. See English phonology
Scouse[84][85] attain [əˈθ̠eɪn] 'attain'
Icelandic[52][86] þakið [θ̠akið̠] 'the roof' Laminal.[52][86] See Icelandic phonology
Italian Bologna[67] sali [ˈθ̠äːli] 'you go up' Laminal; a hypercorrective variant of /s/ for some young speakers. Either non-sibilant, or "not sibilant enough".[67] See Italian phonology

See also


  1. Pandeli et al. (1997), p. ?.
  2. Maddieson (1984), p. ?.
  3. Obaid (1973), p. ?.
  4. 1 2 Adams (1975), p. ?.
  5. 1 2 Ladefoged & Maddieson (1996), p. ?.
  6. 1 2 Adams (1975), p. 283.
  7. 1 2 Puppel, Nawrocka-Fisiak & Krassowska (1977:149), cited in Ladefoged & Maddieson (1996:154)
  8. Qafisheh (1977), pp. 2, 9.
  9. Kozintseva (1995), p. 7.
  10. Axundov (1983), pp. 115, 128-131.
  11. 1 2 3 4 Hualde, Lujanbio & Zubiri (2010:1). Although this paper discusses mainly the Goizueta dialect, the authors state that it has "a typical, conservative consonant inventory for a Basque variety".
  12. Padluzhny (1989), p. 47.
  13. Klagstad Jr. (1958), p. 46.
  14. Lee & Zee (2003), pp. 109-110.
  15. Lin (2001), pp. 17-25.
  16. Palková (1994), p. 228.
  17. Bauer & Warren (2004), p. 594.
  18. "English speech services | Accent of the Year / sibilants in MLE". Retrieved 2 December 2015.
  19. 1 2 Adams (1975), p. 288.
  20. Fougeron & Smith (1999), p. 79.
  21. Grønnum (2005), p. 144.
  22. Szende (1999), p. 104.
  23. Jerzy Treder. "Fonetyka i fonologia".
  24. Kara (2002), p. 10.
  25. Kara (2003), p. 11.
  26. Nau (1998), p. 6.
  27. Lunt (1952), p. 1.
  28. Rocławski (1976), pp. 149.
  29. Ovidiu Drăghici. "Limba Română contemporană. Fonetică. Fonologie. Ortografie. Lexicologie" (PDF). Retrieved April 19, 2013.
  30. Chew (2003), p. 67.
  31. Lamb (2003), p. 18.
  32. Kordić (2006), p. 5.
  33. Landau et al. (1999), p. 66.
  34. Pretnar & Tokarz (1980:21)
  35. 1 2 Martínez-Celdrán, Fernández-Planas & Carrera-Sabaté (2003), p. 258.
  36. Ladefoged & Maddieson (1996), p. 171.
  37. Engstrand (1999), pp. 140-141.
  38. Engstrand (2004), p. 167.
  39. 1 2 3 4 5 6 Adams (1975), p. 289.
  40. Ladefoged & Maddieson (1996), p. 157.
  41. Ladefoged (2005), p. 168.
  42. Zimmer & Orgun (1999), p. 154.
  43. S. Buk; J. Mačutek; A. Rovenchak (2008). "Some properties of the Ukrainian writing system". arXiv:0802.4198Freely accessible.
  44. Šewc-Schuster (1984), pp. 22, 38 and 39.
  45. Sjoberg (1963), p. 11.
  46. Thompson (1987), pp. 8-9.
  47. Thelwall (1990), p. 37.
  48. 1 2 Gussenhoven (1999), p. 75.
  49. 1 2 Collins & Mees (2003), p. 190.
  50. Shosted & Chikovani (2006), p. 255.
  51. 1 2 Kress (1982:23–24) "It's never voiced, as s in sausen, and it's pronounced by pressing the tip of the tongue against the alveolar ridge, close to the upper teeth – somewhat below the place of articulation of the German sch. The difference is that German sch is labialized, while Icelandic s is not. It's a pre-alveolar, coronal, voiceless spirant."
  52. 1 2 3 4 Pétursson (1971:?), cited in Ladefoged & Maddieson (1996:145)
  53. 1 2 3 Canepari (1992), p. 73.
  54. Okada (1991), p. 94.
  55. 1 2 Cruz-Ferreira (1995:91)
  56. 1 2 Martínez-Celdrán, Fernández-Planas & Carrera-Sabaté (2003:258)
  57. Thompson (1959), pp. 458–461.
  58. 1 2 Sipma (1913), p. 16.
  59. 1 2 Hualde, J. Basque Phonology (1991) Routledge ISBN 0-415-05655-1
  60. Carbonell & Llisterri (1992), p. 54.
  61. Torreblanca (1988), p. 347.
  62. 1 2 Saborit (2009), p. 12.
  63. Annexe 4: Linguistic Variables
  64. 1 2 3 4 5 6 7 Adams (1975), p. 286.
  65. Adams (1975), pp. 285-286.
  66. Canepari (1992), pp. 71-72.
  67. 1 2 3 4 5 Canepari (1992), p. 72.
  68. Canepari (1992), p. 71.
  69. Adams (1975), p. 285.
  70. (Italian) Accenti romanze: Portogallo e Brasile (portoghese) – The influence of foreign accents on Italian language acquisition
  71. 1 2 Basbøll (2005), pp. 61 and 131.
  72. 1 2 Thorborg (2003:80). The author states that /s/ is pronounced with "the tip of the tongue right behind upper teeth, but without touching them." This is confirmed by the accompanying image.
  73. 1 2 Grønnum (2005:144). Only this author mentions both alveolar and dental realizations.
  74. 1 2 Suomi, Toivanen & Ylitalo (2008), p. 27.
  75. 1 2 Mangold (2005), p. 50.
  76. 1 2 Arvaniti (2007), p. 12.
  77. 1 2 Skaug (2003), pp. 130–131.
  78. 1 2 Canepari (1992), p. 68.
  79. Canepari (1992), pp. 68 and 72.
  80. Collins & Mees (2003:199). Authors don't say where exactly it's used.
  81. 1 2 Loakes & McDougall (2007), pp. 1445-1448.
  82. 1 2 Buizza (2011), pp. 16-28.
  83. Hickey (1984), pp. 234–235.
  84. Marotta & Barth (2005), p. 385.
  85. Watson (2007), pp. 352-353.
  86. 1 2 Ladefoged & Maddieson (1996), pp. 144-145.


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