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Retroflex consonant
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Retroflex consonant

Subapical retroflex plosive
Subapical retroflex plosive

A retroflex consonant is a coronal consonant where the tongue has a flat, concave, or even curled shape, and is articulated between the alveolar ridge and the hard palate. They are sometimes referred to as cerebral consonants, especially in Indology. Other terms occasionally encountered are domal and cacuminal.

In the International Phonetic Alphabet, retroflex consonants are indicated with a hook in the bottom right, such as . Alternatively, especially for those sounds with a relatively forward articulation (e.g. in the or postalveolar region rather than the hard palate), they can be indicated with a retracted diacritic (underbar); this occurs especially for . (Other sounds indicated this way, such as , tend to refer to alveolo-palatal rather than retroflex consonants.)

Contents


Compared with other sounds

Retroflex sounds need to be distinguished from other consonants made in the same parts of the mouth (postalveolar, , or ):

  • the palato-alveolar sounds (e.g. ),such as the sh, ch and "zh" occurring in English words like ship, chip and vision
  • the alveolo-palatal sounds (e.g. ), such as the q, j and x occurring in Mandarin Chinese
  • the consonants (e.g. ), such as the ch in German ich or the in Spanish a o
  • the consonants (e.g. ), such as the s and z occurring in English words like sip and zip

The first three types of sounds above have a convex tongue shape, which gives them an additional secondary articulation of palatalization. The last type has a groove running down the center line of the tongue, which gives it a strongly hissing quality. The retroflex sounds, however, have a flat or concave shape, with no associated palatalization, and no groove running down the tongue. The term "retroflex", in fact, literally means "bent back" (concave), although consonants with a flat tongue shape are commonly considered retroflex as well.

Types of retroflex consonants

Retroflex consonants, like other coronal consonants, come in several varieties, depending on the shape of the tongue. The tongue may be either flat or concave, or even with the tip curled back. The point of contact on the tongue may be with the tip (), with the blade (), or with the underside of the tongue (). The point of contact on the roof of the mouth may be with the alveolar ridge (, the area behind the alveolar ridge (), or the hard palate (). Finally, both sibilant ( or ) and nonsibilant (, , , ) consonants can have a retroflex articulation.

The greatest variety of combinations occurs with sibilants, because for these, small changes in tongue shape and position cause significant changes in the resulting sound. Retroflex sounds in general have a duller, lower-pitched sound than other alveolar or postalveolar consonants, and especially the sibilants. The farther back the point of contact with the roof of the mouth, the more concave is the shape of the tongue, and the duller (lower pitched) is the sound, with sub-apical consonants being the most extreme.

The main combinations normally observed are:

  • Laminal post-alveolar, with a flat tongue. These occur, for example, in in Polish cz, sz, (rz), d and Mandarin zh, ch, sh, r.
  • Apical post-alveolar, with a somewhat concave tongue. These occur, for example, in Hindi and other Indo-Aryan languages. (Hindi has no retroflex sibilants, although some of the other Indo-Aryan languages do.)
  • Sub-apical palatal, with a highly concave tongue. These occur particularly in the Dravidian languages. These are the dullest and lowest-pitched type, and when following a vowel often add strong r-coloring to the vowel, sounding as if an American English r occurs between the vowel and consonant. These are not a place of articulation, as the IPA chart implies, but a shape of the tongue analogous to laminal and apical.[1]
  • Apical alveolar, with a somewhat concave tongue. These occur, for example, in peninsular Spanish and Basque. These sounds don't quite fit on the front-to-back, laminal-to-subapical continuum, with a relatively dull but higher pitched sound.

The sub-apical sounds are sometimes called "true retroflex" because of the curled-back shape of the tongue, while the other sounds sometimes go by other names. For example, Ladefoged and Maddieson[2] prefer to call the laminal post-alveolar sounds "flat post-alveolar", and the apical alveolar sounds are often referred to simply as "apico-alveolar" (which is ambiguous with, and often confused with, other apical alveolar sounds such as the apical variety of the voiceless alveolar sibilant (English ).

Occurrence

Although data is not precise, about 20 percent of the world's languages contain retroflex consonants of one sort or another[3]. About half of these possess only retroflex continuants, with most of the rest having both stops and continuants. Retroflex consonants are concentrated in the Indo-Aryan and Dravidian languages of the Indian subcontinent.

The Nuristani languages of eastern Afghanistan also have retroflex consonants. Among Eastern Iranian languages, they are common in Pashto, Wakhi, Sanglechi-Ishkashimi, and Munji-Yidgha. They also occur in some other Asian languages such as Mandarin Chinese, Javanese and Vietnamese. The other major concentration is in the indigenous languages of Australia and the Western Pacific (notably New Caledonia). Here, most languages have retroflex plosives, nasal and approximants.

Retroflex consonants are relatively rare among European languages, occurring for example in Sardinian, in Sicilian, some Italian dialects such as Calabrian, Salentino and Lunigianese, in most forms of Swedish and in Norwegian. In the two latter, a sequence of r plus a coronal consonant may be replaced by the coronal's retroflex equivalent, e.g. the name Martin would be pronounced . This is sometimes done for several consonants in a row after an rHornstull is pronounced ). The type also occurs in peninsular Spanish and in Basque, although the phonological descriptions of these languages rarely refer to these sounds as "retroflex", preferring the (ambiguous) term "apico-alveolar".

The retroflex approximant is an allophone of the alveolar approximant in many dialects of American English, particularly in the Midwestern United States. Polish and Russian possess retroflex sibilants, but no stops or liquids at this place of articulation.

Retroflex consonants are largely absent from indigenous languages of the Americas with the exception of the extreme south of South America, an area in Southwestern US as in Hopi and Papago, and in Alaska and the Yukon Territory as in the Athabaskan languages Gwich in and H n. In African languages retroflex consonants are also very rare, reportedly occurring in a few Nilo-Saharan languages. In southwest Ethiopia, phonemically distinctive retroflex consonants are found in Bench and Sheko, two contiguous, but not closely related, Omotic languages.[4]

There are several retroflex consonants not yet recognized by the IPA. For example, the Iwaidja language of northern Australia has a retroflex lateral flap as well as a retroflex tap and retroflex lateral approximant ; and the Dravidian language Toda has a subapical retroflex lateral fricative and a retroflexed trill . Because of the regularity of deriving retroflex symbols from their alveolar counterparts, people will occasionally use a font editor to create the appropriate symbols for such sounds. (Here they were written with diacritics.) The Ngad'a language of Flores has been reported to have a retroflex implosive , but in this case the expected symbol is coincidentally supported by Unicode. Subapical retroflex clicks occur in Central Juu and in Damin.

Most languages with retroflex sounds typically have only one retroflex sound with a given manner of articulation. An exception, however, is the Toda language, with a two-way distinction among retroflex sibilants between apical (post)alveolar and subapical palatal.

In the IPA

Retroflex consonants are transcribed in the International Phonetic Alphabet as follows:

IPA Description    Example
Language     Orthography   IPA                      Meaning      
retroflex nasal Swedish V nern V nern
voiceless retroflex plosive Hindi ( p ) island
voiced retroflex plosive Swedish nord north
voiceless retroflex fricative Mandarin (Sh ngh i) Shanghai
voiced retroflex fricative Russian
Polish

aba
frog
retroflex approximant Tamil (Tamil) Tamil
retroflex lateral approximant Swedish Karlstad Karlstad
retroflex flap Hausa shaara sweeping
retroflex lateral flap Pashto blind
(voiced) retroflex click Central Juu water

Note: In the International Phonetic Alphabet, the symbols for retroflex consonants are typically the same as for the alveolar consonants, but with the addition of a right-facing hook to the bottom of the symbol. Some linguists restrict these symbols for the "true" retroflex consonants with subapical palatal articulation, and use the alveolar symbols with the obsolete IPA underdot symbol for an apical post-alveolar articulation: . Another solution, more in keeping with the official IPA, would be to use the rhotic diacritic for the apical retroflexes: . Laminal retroflexes, as in Polish and Russian, are often transcribed with a retraction diacritic, as , etc. Otherwise they are typically but inaccurately transcribed as if they were palato-alveolar, as , etc.

See also

References

ar: bn: bar:Retroflex br:Kensonenn tro-gil ca:Retroflexa cs:Retroflexn souhl ska cy:Cytsain olblyg de:Retroflex es:Consonante retrofleja eo:Retroflekso fr:Consonne r troflexe gv:Corockle cooyl-chroymmit ko: id:Konsonan tarik-belakang it:Consonante retroflessa he: lv:Retroflekss l dzskanis mk: ms:Konsonan gelungan nl:Retroflex ja: no:Retrofleks pl:Retrofleksja (fonetyka) pt:Consoante retroflexa ru: fi:Kakuminaali sv:Retroflex konsonant zh:






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