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 consonants like /m/ and /l/: approximants, nasals, flaps or taps, and most trills.
In older usage, only the term resonant was used with this meaning, and sonorant was a narrower term, referring to all resonants except vowels and semivowels.
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/.
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.
Among consonants pronounced in the back in 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. Thus, uvular, pharyngeal, and glottal fricatives never contrast with approximants.
Voiceless resonants are rare; they occur as phonemes in only about 5% of the world's languages. Voiceless sonorants tend to be extremely quiet and difficult to recognise, even for those people whose language has 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/).
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).
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 ɳ].
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.
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.
- Ian Maddieson (with a chapter contributed by Sandra Ferrari Disner); Patterns of sounds; Cambridge University Press, 1984. ISBN 0-521-26536-3
- "Consonants". UCL DEPT OF PHONETICS & LINGUISTICS,. September 19, 1995. Retrieved July 30, 2012.
- Greene, David (1973). "The Growth of Palatalization in Old Irish". Transactions of the Philological Society. 72 (1): 127–136. doi:10.1111/j.1467-968X.1973.tb01017.x.