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Ejective consonant

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In phonetics, ejective consonants are voiceless consonants that are pronounced with simultaneous closure of the glottis. In the phonology of a particular language, ejectives may contrast with aspirated or tenuis consonants. Additionally, some languages have sonorants with creaky voice that pattern with ejectives while other languages have ejectives that pattern with implosives—this has led to phonologists positing a phonological class of glottalized consonants (see glottalic consonant and below for further discussion).


In producing an ejective, the stylohyoid muscle and digastric muscle contract—causing the hyoid bone and the connected glottis to raise—while the forward articulation (at the velum in the case of [kʼ]) is held, raising air pressure greatly in the mouth, so that when the oral articulators separate, there is a dramatic burst of air.[1] The Adam's apple may be seen moving when the sound is pronounced. In the languages where they are more obvious, ejectives are often described as sounding like “spat” consonants; but ejectives are often quite weak and, in some contexts, and in some languages, are easy to mistake for tenuis or even voiced stops.[2] These weakly ejective articulations are sometimes called intermediates in older American linguistic literature and are notated with different phonetic symbols: C! = strongly ejective, = weakly ejective. Strong and weak ejectives have not been found to be contrastive in any natural language.

In strict, technical terms, ejectives are glottalic egressive consonants. The most common ejective is [kʼ], not because it is easier to produce than other ejectives like [tʼ] or [pʼ] (it isn’t) but because the auditory distinction between [kʼ] and [k] is greater than with other ejectives and voiceless consonants of the same place of articulation.[3] In proportion to the frequency of uvular consonants, [qʼ] is even more common, as would be expected from the very small oral cavity used to pronounce a voiceless uvular stop.[citation needed] [pʼ], on the other hand, is quite rare. This is the opposite pattern to what is found in the implosive consonants, in which the bilabial is common and the velar is rare.[4] Ejective fricatives are rare for presumably the same reason: with the air escaping from the mouth while the pressure is being raised, like inflating a leaky bicycle tire, it is harder to distinguish the resulting sound as salient as a [kʼ].

Occurrence in languages

Ejectives occur in about 20% of the world's languages.[3] Ejectives that phonemically contrast with pulmonic consonants occur in about 15% of languages around the world. They are extremely common in northwest North America, and frequently occur throughout the western parts of both North and South America. They are also common in eastern and southern Africa. In Eurasia, the Caucasus forms an island of ejective languages. Elsewhere they are rare.

Language families which distinguish ejective consonants include all three families of the Caucasus (the Northwest Caucasian languages such as Abkhaz, the Northeast Caucasian languages such as Chechen, and the Kartvelian languages such as Georgian); the Athabaskan, Siouan and Salishan families of North America, along with the many diverse families of the Pacific Northwest from central California to British Columbia; the Mayan family and Aymara; the southern varieties of Quechua (Qusqu-Qullaw); many members of the Afro-Asiatic family (notably most of the Cushitic and Omotic languages, Hausa, and South Semitic languages like Amharic and Tigrinya) and a few Nilo-Saharan languages; Sandawe, Hadza, and the Khoisan families of southern Africa. Among the scattered languages with ejectives elsewhere are Itelmen of the Chukotko-Kamchatkan languages and Yapese of the Austronesian family. According to the glottalic theory, the Proto-Indo-European language had a series of ejectives (or, in some versions, implosives), although no extant Indo-European language has retained “ancestral” ejectives[a]; ejectives are found today in Ossetic and Eastern Armenian due to influence of the nearby Northeast Caucasian and/or Kartvelian language families.

It had once been predicted that ejectives and implosives would not be found in the same language,[citation needed] but this is now shown to be incorrect, both being found phonemically at several points of articulation in at least the Nilo-Saharan languages Gumuz, Me'en, and T'wampa; the Mayan language Yucatec; the Salishan language Lushootseed; and the Oto-Manguean language Mazahua. Nguni languages such as Zulu have an implosive b alongside a series of allophonically ejective stops. Dahalo of Kenya has both ejectives and implosives, as well as clicks.

Types of ejectives

The vast majority of ejective consonants noted in the world's languages consists of stops or affricates, and all ejective consonants are obstruents. [kʼ] is the most common ejective, and [qʼ] is common among languages which have uvulars, [tʼ] less so, and [pʼ] is uncommon. Among affricates, [tsʼ], [tʃʼ], [tɬʼ] are all quite common, and [kxʼ] is not unusual (and is particularly common among the Khoisan languages), which is surprising since non-ejective [kx] is not a common sound.

A few languages utilise ejective fricatives: in some dialects of Hausa, the standard affricate [tsʼ] is a fricative [sʼ]; Ubykh (Northwest Caucasian, now extinct) had an ejective lateral fricative [ɬʼ]; and the related Kabardian also has ejective labiodental and alveolopalatal fricatives, [fʼ], [ʃʼ], and [ɬʼ]. Tlingit is an extreme case, with ejective alveolar, lateral, velar, and uvular fricatives, [sʼ], [ɬʼ], [xʼ], [xʷʼ], [χʼ], [χʷʼ]; it may be the only language with the latter. Upper Necaxa Totonac is unusual and perhaps unique in that it has ejective fricatives (alveolar, lateral, and postalveolar [sʼ], [ʃʼ], [ɬʼ]) but completely lacks ejective stops or affricates (Beck 2006). Other languages with ejective fricatives are Yuchi, which in some sources is analyzed as having [ɸʼ], [sʼ], [ʃʼ], and [ɬʼ] (note this is not the analysis of the Wikipedia article), Keres dialects, with [sʼ], [ʂʼ] and [ɕʼ],[citation needed] and Lakota, with [sʼ], [ʃʼ], and [xʼ] .[citation needed] Amharic is interpreted by many as having an ejective fricative [sʼ], at least historically, but it has been also analyzed as now being a sociolinguistic variant (Takkele Taddese 1992).

Strangely, although an ejective retroflex stop is easy to make and quite distinctive in sound, it is very rare. Retroflex ejective stops and affricates, [ʈʼ, ʈʂʼ], are reported from Yawelmani and other Yokuts languages, as well as Tolowa, Keresan (with only retroflex affricates), and Gwich'in; however, the retroflex ejective affricate is also found in most Northwest Caucasian languages.

Because the complete closing of the glottis required to form an ejective makes voicing impossible, the allophonic voicing of ejective phonemes causes them to lose their glottalization; this occurs in Blin (modal voice) and Kabardian (creaky voice). A similar historical sound change also occurred in Veinakh and Lezgic in the Caucasus, and has been postulated by the glottalic theory for Indo-European.[2] Some Khoisan languages have voiced ejective clicks; however, these actually contain mixed voicing, and the ejective release is voiceless.[5]

Ejective trills are rare, if they exist as distinct sounds at all. An ejective [rʼ] would necessarily be voiceless,[6] but the vibration of the trill, combined with a lack of the intense voiceless airflow of [r̥], gives an impression rather like that of voicing.

Other ejective sonorants are not known to occur. When sonorants are transcribed with an apostrophe in the literature, as if they were ejective, they actually involve a different airstream mechanism: they are glottalized consonants and vowels, where glottalization interrupts an otherwise normal voiced pulmonic airstream, somewhat like English uh-uh (either vocalic or nasal) pronounced as a single sound.


In the International Phonetic Alphabet, ejectives are indicated by writing a stop consonant with a "modifier letter apostrophe" ʼ. Note that a reversed apostrophe is sometimes used to represent aspiration, as in Armenian linguistics p‘ t‘ k‘; this usage is obsolete in the IPA. In other transcription traditions, the apostrophe represents palatalization, e.g., = IPA .

In alphabets using the Latin script, an IPA-like apostrophe for ejective consonants is common. However, there are other conventions. In Zulu and Xhosa, where the ejection is variable between speakers, plain consonant letters are used: p t k ts tsh kr for /pʼ tʼ kʼ tsʼ tʃʼ kxʼ/. In some conventions for Haida and Hadza, double letters are used: tt kk qq ttl tts for /tʼ kʼ qʼ tɬʼ tsʼ/ (Haida) and zz jj dl gg for /tsʼ tʃʼ cʼ kxʼ/ (Hadza).

List of ejective consonants


See also


a The Sindhi language still retains implosives.


  1. ^ Ladefoged (2005:147–148)
  2. ^ a b Fallon, 2002. The synchronic and diachronic phonology of ejectives
  3. ^ a b Ladefoged (2005:148)
  4. ^ Greenberg (1970:?)
  5. ^ The same is probably true of the voiced ejective stops, which are often transcribed with mixed voicing.
  6. ^ John Esling (2010) "Phonetic Notation", in Hardcastle, Laver & Gibbon (eds) The Handbook of Phonetic Sciences, 2nd ed., p 700.


  • Beck, David (2006). "The emergence of ejective fricatives in Upper Necaxa Totonac". University of Alberta Working Papers in Linguistics 1: 1–18. 
  • Campbell, Lyle. 1973. On Glottalic Consonants. International Journal of American Linguistics 39, 44–46. JSTOR 1264659
  • Chirikba, V.A. Aspects of Phonological Typology. Moscow, 1991 (in Russian).
  • Fallon, Paul. 2002. The Synchronic and Diachronic Phonology of Ejectives. Routledge. ISBN 0-415-93800-7, ISBN 978-0-415-93800-6.
  • Hogan, J. T. (1976). "An analysis of the temporal features of ejective consonants." Phonetica 33: 275–284. doi:10.1159/000259776
  • Greenberg, Joseph H. (1970), "Some generalizations concerning glottalic consonants, especially implosives.", International Journal of American Linguistics 36: 123–145, doi:10.1086/465105 
  • Ladefoged, Peter (2005), Vowels and Consonants (Second ed.), Blackwell, ISBN 0-631-21411-9 
  • Ladefoged, Peter; Maddieson, Ian (1996). The Sounds of the World's Languages. Oxford: Blackwell. ISBN 0-631-19814-8. 
  • Lindau, M. (1984). "Phonetic differences in glottalic consonants." Journal of Phonetics, 12: 147–155. doi:10.1121/1.2019283
  • Lindsey, Geoffrey; Hayward, Katrina; Haruna, Andrew (1992). "Hausa Glottalic Consonants: A Laryngographic Study". Bulletin of the School of Oriental and African Studies 55: 511–527. doi:10.1017/S0041977X00003682. 
  • Taddese, Takkele (1992). "Are sʼ and tʼ variants of an Amharic variable? A sociolinguistic analysis". Journal of Ethiopian Languages and Literature 2: 104–21. 
  • Wright, Richard; Hargus, Sharon; Davis, Katharine (2002). "On the categorization of ejectives: data from Witsuwit'en.". Journal of the International Phonetic Association 32: 43–77. doi:10.1017/S0025100302000142. 

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