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In phonetics and phonology, a semivowel or glide is a sound that is phonetically similar to a vowel sound but functions as the syllable boundary, rather than as the nucleus of a syllable.[1] Examples of semivowels in English are the consonants y and w, in yes and west, respectively. Written in IPA, y and w are near to the vowels ee and oo in seen and moon, written in IPA. The term glide may alternatively refer to any type of transitional sound, not necessarily a semivowel.[2]


Semivowels form a subclass of approximants.[3][4] Although "semivowel" and "approximant" are sometimes treated as synonymous,[5] most authors use the term "semivowel" for a more restricted set; there is no universally agreed-upon definition, and the exact details may vary from author to author. For example, Ladefoged & Maddieson (1996) do not consider the labiodental approximant [?] to be a semivowel,[6] while Martínez Celdrán (2004) proposes that it should be considered one.[7]

In the International Phonetic Alphabet, the diacritic attached to non-syllabic vowel letters is an inverted breve placed below the symbol representing the vowel:  ̯  COMBINING INVERTED BREVE BELOW. When there is no room for the tack under a symbol, it may be written above, using  ̑  COMBINING INVERTED BREVE. Before 1989, non-syllabicity was represented by  ̆  COMBINING BREVE, which now stands for extra-shortness.

Additionally, there are dedicated symbols for four semivowels that correspond to the four close cardinal vowel sounds:[4]

Semivowel (non-syllabic) Vowel (syllabic)
(palatal approximant) (close front unrounded vowel)
(labio-palatal approximant) (close front rounded vowel)
(velar approximant) (close back unrounded vowel)
(labiovelar approximant) (close back rounded vowel)

The pharyngeal approximant [] is also equivalent to the semivowel articulation of the open back unrounded vowel [?].[6]

In addition, some authors[6][7] consider the rhotic approximants , to be semivowels corresponding to R-colored vowels such as . As mentioned above, the labiodental approximant is considered a semivowel in some treatments. An unrounded central semivowel, [j?] (or [j?]), equivalent to [?], is uncommon, though rounded [?] (or [w?]), equivalent to [?], is found in Swedish and Norwegian.

Contrast with vowels

Semivowels, by definition, contrast with vowels by being non-syllabic. In addition, they are usually shorter than vowels.[3] In languages as diverse as Amharic, Yoruba, and Zuni, semivowels are produced with a narrower constriction in the vocal tract than their corresponding vowels.[6] 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 [fla] or as a closed syllable ending in a consonant [flaj].[8]

It is unusual for a language to contrast a semivowel and a diphthong containing an equivalent vowel,[] but Romanian contrasts the diphthong /e?a/ with /ja/, a perceptually similar approximant-vowel sequence. The diphthong is analyzed as a single segment, and the approximant-vowel sequence is analyzed 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:[9]

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

Although a phonological parallel exists between /o?a/ and /wa/, the production and perception of phonetic contrasts between the two is much weaker, likely because of lower lexical load for /wa/, which is limited largely to loanwords from French, and speakers' difficulty in maintaining contrasts between two back rounded semivowels in comparison to front ones.[10]

Contrast with fricatives/spirant approximants

According to the standard definitions, semivowels (such as [j]) contrast with fricatives (such as [?]) in that fricatives produce turbulence, but 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.[11] Though the spirant approximant is more constricted (having a lower F2 amplitude), longer, and unspecified for rounding (viuda ['bjuða] 'widow' vs. ayuda [a'uða] 'help'),[12] 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 [e'sa?] ('to plaster') aniego [ã'nje?o] ('flood')[13] and although there is dialectal and ideolectal variation, speakers may also exhibit other near-minimal pairs like abyecto ('abject') vs. abierto ('opened').[14] One potential minimal pair (depending on dialect) is ya visto [(?)?a'?isto] ('already seen') vs. y ha visto [ja'?isto] ('and he has seen').[15] Again, it is not present in all dialects. Other dialects differ in either merging the two or enhancing the contrast by moving the former to another place of articulation ([?]), like in Rioplatense Spanish.

See also


  1. ^ Ladefoged & Maddieson (1996), p. 322.
  2. ^ Crystal (2008), p. 211.
  3. ^ a b Crystal (2008), pp. 431-2.
  4. ^ a b Martínez Celdrán (2004), p. 9.
  5. ^ Meyer (2005), p. 101.
  6. ^ a b c d Ladefoged & Maddieson (1996), p. 323.
  7. ^ a b Martínez Celdrán (2004), p. 8.
  8. ^ Cohen (1971), p. 51.
  9. ^ Chitoran (2002), pp. 212-214.
  10. ^ Chitoran (2002), p. 221.
  11. ^ Martínez Celdrán (2004), p. 6.
  12. ^ Martínez Celdrán (2004), p. 208.
  13. ^ Trager (1942), p. 222.
  14. ^ Saporta (1956), p. 288.
  15. ^ Bowen & Stockwell (1955), p. 236.


  • Bowen, J. Donald; Stockwell, Robert P. (1955), "The Phonemic Interpretation of Semivowels in Spanish", Language, 31 (2): 236-240, doi:10.2307/411039, JSTOR 411039
  • Chitoran, Ioana (2002), "A perception-production study of Romanian diphthongs and glide-vowel sequences" (PDF), Journal of the International Phonetic Association, 32 (2): 203-222, CiteSeerX, doi:10.1017/S0025100302001044 open access
  • Crystal, David (2008), A Dictionary of Linguistics and Phonetics (6th ed.), Blackwell, ISBN 978-1-4051-5297-6
  • Cohen, Antonie (1971), The phonemes of English: a phonemic study of the vowels and consonants of standard English (third ed.), Springer, ISBN 978-90-247-0639-6
  • Martínez Celdrán, Eugenio (2004), "Problems in the Classification of Approximants" (PDF), Journal of the International Phonetic Association, 34 (2): 201-210, doi:10.1017/S0025100304001732, archived from the original (PDF) on 2010-07-11, retrieved
  • Meyer, Paul Georg (2005), Synchronic English Linguistics: An Introduction (third ed.), Tübingen: Gunter Narr Verlag, ISBN 978-3-8233-6191-6
  • Saporta, Sol (1956), "A Note on Spanish Semivowels", Language, 32 (2): 287-290, doi:10.2307/411006, JSTOR 411006
  • Trager, George (1942), "The Phonemic Treatment of Semivowels", Language, 18 (3): 220-223, doi:10.2307/409556, JSTOR 409556

Further reading

  • 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. (eds.), Proceedings of the 3rd Annual Meeting of the Berkeley Linguistics Society, Berkeley: Berkeley Linguistic Society, pp. 577-599

  This article uses material from the Wikipedia page available here. It is released under the Creative Commons Attribution-Share-Alike License 3.0.



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