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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 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/.[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 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 five percent of the world's languages.[1] Voiceless sonorants tend to be extremely quiet and very difficult to recognise even for those people whose language does contain them.

In every case where a voiceless sonorant does occur, there is a contrasting voiced sonorant (i.e. whenever a language contains a phoneme such as /r̥/, it also contains a corresponding voiced phoneme, /r/ in this case)[citation needed]

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

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

Another European language with voiceless sonorants is Icelandic, which has [l̥ r̥ n̥ m̥ ɲ̊ ŋ̊] to 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 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/.[2]

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.[3]

Sound changesEdit

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

See alsoEdit


  1. ^ Ian Maddieson (with a chapter contributed by Sandra Ferrari Disner); Patterns of sounds; Cambridge University Press, 1984. ISBN 0-521-26536-3
  2. ^ "Consonants". UCL DEPT OF PHONETICS & LINGUISTICS,. September 19, 1995. Retrieved July 30, 2012. 
  3. ^ 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.