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In phonetics and phonology, a sonorant or resonant is a speech sound that is produced with continuous, non-turbulent airflow in the vocal tract; these are the manners of articulation that are most often voiced in the world's languages. Vowels are sonorants, as are nasals like [m] and [n], liquids like [l] and [r], and semivowels like [j] and [w]. This set of sounds contrasts with the obstruents (stops, affricates and fricatives).[1]

For some authors only the term resonant is used with this broader meaning, while sonorant is restricted to consonants, referring to nasals and liquids but not vocoids (vowels and semivowels).[2]


Whereas obstruents are frequently voiceless, sonorants are almost always voiced. A typical sonorant consonant inventory found in many languages comprises the following: two nasals /m/, /n/, two semivowels /w/, /j/, and two liquids /l/, /r/.[citation needed]

In the sonority hierarchy, all sounds higher than fricatives are sonorants. They can therefore form the nucleus of a syllable in languages that place that distinction at that level of sonority; see Syllable for details.

Sonorants contrast with obstruents, which do stop or cause turbulence in the airflow. The latter group includes fricatives and stops (for example, /s/ and /t/).

Among consonants pronounced in the back of the mouth or in the throat, the distinction between an approximant and a voiced fricative is so blurred that no language is known to contrast them.[citation needed] Thus, uvular, pharyngeal, and glottal fricatives never contrast with approximants.


Voiceless sonorants are rare; they occur as phonemes in only about 5% of the world's languages.[3] They tend to be extremely quiet and difficult to recognise, even for those people whose language have them.

In every case of a voiceless sonorant occurring, there is a contrasting voiced sonorant. In other words, whenever a language contains a phoneme such as /r̥/, it also contains a corresponding voiced phoneme such as /r/).[citation needed]

Voiceless sonorants are most common around the Pacific Ocean (in Oceania, East Asia, and North and South America) and in certain language families (such as Austronesian, Sino-Tibetan, Na-Dene and Eskimo–Aleut).

One European language with voiceless sonorants is Welsh. Its phonology contains a phonemic voiceless alveolar trill /r̥/, along with three voiceless nasals: velar, alveolar and labial.

Another European language with voiceless sonorants is Icelandic, with [l̥ r̥ n̥ m̥ ɲ̊ ŋ̊] for the corresponding voiced sonorants [l r n m ɲ ŋ].

Voiceless [r̥ l̥ ʍ] and possibly [m̥ n̥] are hypothesized to have occurred in various dialects of Ancient Greek. The Attic dialect of the Classical period likely had [r̥] as the regular allophone of /r/ at the beginning of words and possibly when it was doubled inside words. Hence, many English words from Ancient Greek roots have rh initially and rrh medially: rhetoric, diarrhea.


English has the following sonorant consonantal phonemes: /l/, /m/, /n/, /ŋ/, /ɹ/, /w/, /j/.[4]

Old Irish had one of the most complex sonorant systems recorded in linguistics, with 12 coronal sonorants alone. Coronal laterals, nasals, and rhotics had a fortis–lenis and a palatalization contrast: /N, n, Nʲ, nʲ, R, r, Rʲ, rʲ, L, l, Lʲ, lʲ/. There were also /ŋ, ŋʲ, m/ and /mʲ/, making 16 sonorant phonemes in total.[5]

Sound changes

Voiceless sonorants have a strong tendency to either revoice or undergo fortition, for example to form a fricative like /ç/ or /ɬ/.[example  needed]

In connected, continuous speech in North American English, /t/ and /d/ are usually flapped to [ɾ] following sonorants, including vowels, when followed by a vowel or syllabic /l/.[6]

See also


  1. ^ Keith Brown & Jim Miller (2013) The Cambridge Dictionary of Linguistics
  2. ^ Ken Pike, Phonetics (1943:144). "The sonorants are nonvocoid resonants and comprise the lateral resonant orals and resonant nasals (e.g. [m], [n], and [l])."
  3. ^ Ian Maddieson (with a chapter contributed by Sandra Ferrari Disner); Patterns of sounds; Cambridge University Press, 1984. ISBN 0-521-26536-3
  4. ^ "Consonants". UCL DEPT OF PHONETICS & LINGUISTICS. September 19, 1995. Retrieved July 30, 2012.
  5. ^ Greene, David (1973). "The Growth of Palatalization in Irish". Transactions of the Philological Society. 72: 127–136. doi:10.1111/j.1467-968X.1973.tb01017.x.
  6. ^ "North American English: General Accents" (PDF). Universität Stuttgart - Institut für Linguistik. p. 6. Archived from the original (PDF) on 21 April 2014. Retrieved 26 April 2019.


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