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In phonetics and phonology, a semivowel (or glide) is a sound, such as English /w/ or /j/, that is phonetically similar to a vowel sound but functions as the syllable boundary rather than as the nucleus of a syllable.[1]


Semivowels form a subclass of approximants.[2][3] Although "semivowel" and "approximant" are sometimes treated as synonymous,[4] most authors agree that not all approximants are semivowels, although the exact details may vary from author to author. For example, Ladefoged & Maddieson (1996) don't consider the labiodental approximant [ʋ] to be a semivowel,[5] while Martínez-Celdrán (2004) proposes that it should be considered one.[6]

In the International Phonetic Alphabet, the diacritic attached to non-syllabic vowel letters is U+032F  ̯ combining inverted breve below. Additionally, there are dedicated symbols for four semivowels that correspond to the four close cardinal vowel sounds:[3]

Semivowel (non-syllabic) Vowel (syllabic)
[j] (palatal approximant) [i] (close front unrounded vowel)
[ɥ] (labio-palatal approximant) [y] (close front rounded vowel)
[ɰ] (velar approximant) [ɯ] (close back unrounded vowel)
[w] (labiovelar approximant) [u] (close back rounded vowel)

The pharyngeal approximant [ʕ̞] is also equivalent to the semivowel articulation of the open back unrounded vowel [ɑ̯].[5]

In addition, some authors[5][6] consider the rhotic approximants [ɹ], [ɻ ] to be semivowels corresponding to R-colored vowels such as [ɚ]. As mentioned above, the labiodental approximant [ʋ] is considered a semivowel in some treatments. A central semivowel, [ ȷ̈ ] (also written [ ɉ ]), is uncommon. The semivowel corresponding to the close mid front unrounded vowel,[clarification needed] here provisionally defined as "semipalatal semilateral" approximant, is currently attested only[dubious ] in some varieties of Venetian as an allophone of the lateral consonant /l/ and can also be reduced to zero.[citation needed]

Contrast with vowels[edit]

Semivowels, by definition, contrast with vowels by being non-syllabic. In addition, they are usually shorter than vowels.[2] In languages as diverse as Amharic, Yoruba, and Zuni, semivowels are produced with a narrower constriction in the vocal tract than their corresponding vowels.[5] Nevertheless, semivowels may be phonemically equivalent with vowels. For example, the English word fly can be considered either as an open syllable ending in a diphthong [flaɪ̯], or as a closed syllable ending in a consonant [flaj].[7]

It is unusual for a language to contrast a semivowel and a diphthong containing an equivalent vowel,[citation needed] however, Romanian contrasts the diphthong /e̯a/ with /ja/, a perceptually similar approximant–vowel sequence. The diphthong is analyzed as a single segment while the approximant–vowel sequence is analysed as two separate segments. In addition to phonological justifications for the distinction (such as the diphthong alternating with /e/ in singular–plural pairs), there are phonetic differences between the pair:[8]

  • /ja/ has a greater duration than /e̯a/
  • The transition between the two elements is longer and faster for /ja/ than /e̯a/ with the former having a higher F2 onset (i.e. greater constriction of the articulators).

Although a phonological parallel exists between /o̯a/ and /wa/, the production and perception of phonetic contrasts between the two is much weaker, likely due to a lower lexical load for /wa/ (which is limited largely to loanwords from French) and a difficulty in maintaining contrasts between two back rounded glides in comparison to front ones.[9]

Contrast with fricatives/spirant approximants[edit]

According to the standard definitions, semivowels (such as [j]) contrast with fricatives (such as [ʝ]) in that fricatives produce turbulence, while semivowels do not. In discussing Spanish, Martínez-Celdrán suggests setting up a third category of "spirant approximant", contrasting both with semivowel approximants and with fricatives.[10] Though the spirant approximant is more constricted (having a lower F2 amplitude), longer, and unspecified for rounding (e.g. viuda [ˈbjuða] 'widow' vs ayuda [aˈʝʷuða] 'help'),[11] the distributional overlap is limited. The spirant approximant can only appear in the syllable onset (including word-initially, where the semivowel never appears). The two overlap in distribution after /l/ and /n/: enyesar [ẽɲɟʝeˈsaɾ] ('to plaster') aniego [ãnjeɣo] ('flood')[12] and, although there is dialectal and ideolectal variation, speakers may also exhibit other near-minimal pairs like abyecto ('abject') vs abierto ('opened').[13] One potential minimal pair (depending on dialect) is ya visto [(ɟ)ʝaˈβisto] ('I have already seen') vs y ha visto [jaˈβisto] ('and he has seen').[14] Again, this is not present in all dialects. Other dialects differ in either merging the two or in enhancing the contrast by moving the former to another place of articulation (e.g. [ʒ]).

See also[edit]



Further reading[edit]

  • Ohala, John; Lorentz, James, "The story of [w]: An exercise in the phonetic explanation for sound patterns", in Whistler, Kenneth; Chiarelloet, Chris; van Vahn, Robert Jr., Proceedings of the 3rd Annual Meeting of the Berkeley Linguistics Society, Berkeley: Berkeley Linguistic Society, pp. 577–599 

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