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Voiceless retroflex sibilant

Voiceless retroflex sibilant
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IPA number 136
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Kirshenbaum s.
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The voiceless retroflex sibilant is a type of consonantal sound, used in some spoken languages. The symbol in the International Phonetic Alphabet that represents this sound is ʂ. Like all the retroflex consonants, the IPA letter is formed by adding a rightward-pointing hook to the bottom of the ess (the letter used for the corresponding alveolar consonant). A distinction can be made between laminal, apical, and sub-apical articulations. Only one language, Toda, appears to have more than one voiceless retroflex sibilant, and it distinguishes subapical palatal from apical postalveolar retroflex sibilants; that is, both the tongue articulation and the place of contact on the roof of the mouth are different.

Some scholars transcribe the laminal variant of this sound as /ʃ/, even though it is not palatalized. In such cases the voiceless palato-alveolar sibilant is transcribed /ʃʲ/.


Features of the voiceless retroflex fricative:

  • Its manner of articulation is sibilant fricative, which means it is generally produced by channeling air flow along a groove in the back of the tongue up to the place of articulation, at which point it is focused against the sharp edge of the nearly clenched teeth, causing high-frequency turbulence.
  • Its place of articulation is retroflex, which prototypically means it is articulated subapical (with the tip of the tongue curled up), but more generally, it means that it is postalveolar without being palatalized. That is, besides the prototypical sub-apical articulation, the tongue contact can be apical (pointed) or laminal (flat).
  • Its phonation is voiceless, which means it is produced without vibrations of the vocal cords. In some languages the vocal cords are actively separated, so it is always voiceless; in others the cords are lax, so that it may take on the voicing of adjacent sounds.
  • It is an oral consonant, which means air is allowed to escape through the mouth only.
  • It is a central consonant, which means it is produced by directing the airstream along the center of the tongue, rather than to the sides.
  • The airstream mechanism is pulmonic, which means it is articulated by pushing air solely with the lungs and diaphragm, as in most sounds.


In the following transcriptions, diacritics may be used to distinguish between apical [ʂ̺] and laminal [ʂ̻].

Language Word IPA Meaning Notes
Abkhaz амш [amʂ] 'day' See Abkhaz phonology
Adyghe пшъашъэ About this sound [pʂaːʂa]  'girl'
Faroese rs [fʊʂ] 'eighty'
Italian Marked accents of Emilia-Romagna[1] sali [ˈʂäːli] 'you go up' Apical;[1] may be [s̺ʲ] or [ʃ] instead.[1] It corresponds to [s] in standard Italian. See Italian phonology
Khanty Most northern dialects шаш [ʂɑʂ] 'knee' Corresponds to a voiceless retroflex affricate /ʈ͡ʂ/ in the southern and eastern dialects.
Malayalam കഷ്ടി [kəʂʈi] 'scarce'
Mandarin shí [ʂ̺ɻ̩˧˥] 'stone' Laminal. See Mandarin phonology
Norwegian forsamling [fɔˈʂɑmːlɪŋ] 'gathering' Allophone of the sequence /ɾs/ in many dialects, including Standard Eastern Norwegian. See Norwegian phonology
Pashto Southern dialect ښودل [ʂ̺odəl] 'to show'
Polish Standard[2] szum About this sound [ʂ̻um]  'rustle' After voiceless consonants it is also represented by rz. When written so, it can be instead pronounced as the voiceless raised alveolar non-sonorant trill by few speakers.[3] It is transcribed /ʃ/ by most Polish scholars. See Polish phonology
Southeastern Cuyavian dialects[4] schowali [ʂxɔˈväli] 'they hid' Some speakers. It's a result of hypercorrecting the more popular merger of /ʂ/ and /s/ into [s].
Suwałki dialect[5]
Romanian Moldavian dialects[6] șură [ʂurə][stress?] 'barn' Apical.[6] See Romanian phonology
Transylvanian dialects[6]
Russian[2] шут [ʂut̪] 'jester' See Russian phonology
Serbo-Croatian шума / šuma [ʂûmä] 'forest' Laminal. It may be palato-alveolar instead, depending on the dialect. See Serbo-Croatian phonology.
Sicilian[citation needed] strata [ˈʂɽːaːta] 'street'
Slovak[7] šatka [ˈʂatka] 'kerchief'
Swedish fors [fɔʂ] 'rapids' Allophone of the sequence /rs/ in many dialects, including Central Standard Swedish. See Swedish phonology
Telugu అభిలాషి [ʌbʱilaːʂi] 'person who wishes'
Toda[8] [pɔʂ] (clan name) Subapical
Torwali[9] ? [ʂeʂ] 'thin rope'
Ubykh [ʂ̺a] 'head' See Ubykh phonology
Vietnamese Southern dialects[10] sữa [ʂɨə˧ˀ˥] 'milk' See Vietnamese phonology
Yi shy [ʂ̺ɿ̄˧] 'gold'
Zapotec Tilquiapan[11] [example needed] Allophone of /ʃ/ before [a] and [u].

See also