Manners of articulation
Plosive (occlusive)
See also: Place of articulation
This page contains phonetic information in IPA, which may not display correctly in some browsers. [Help]

In phonetics and phonology, a semivowel (or glide) is a sound, such as English /w/ or /j/ ("y"), 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 vowels is [ ̯ ] (U+032F  ̯ combining inverted breve below)[7]. Additionally, there is "the established classification" and separate symbols for four semivowels that correspond to the four close cardinal vowel sounds:[3]

(approximant consonant)
Element of diphthong
Monophthong (syllabic)
[j] (palatal approximant) [i̯] [i] (close front unrounded vowel)
[ɥ] (labio-palatal approximant) [y̯] [y] (close front rounded vowel)
[ɰ] (velar approximant) [ɯ̯] [ɯ] (close back unrounded vowel)
[w] (labiovelar approximant) [u̯] [u] (close back rounded vowel)

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, but not others. Central semivowels, such as Korean [ȷ̈], are uncommon.

Contrast with vowels

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 /flai̯/, 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,[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:[9]

  • /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.[10]

Contrast with fricatives/spirant approximants

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.[11] 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'),[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 [ẽ̞ɲɟʝe̞ˈsaɾ] ('to plaster') aniego [ãnje̞ɣo̞] ('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 [(ɟ)ʝaˈβisto̞] ('I have already seen') vs y ha visto [jaˈβisto̞] ('and he has seen').[15] 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



Further reading

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

Wikimedia Foundation. 2010.

Look at other dictionaries:

  • Semivowel — Sem i*vow el, n. (Phon.) (a) A sound intermediate between a vowel and a consonant, or partaking of the nature of both, as in the English w and y. (b) The sign or letter representing such a sound. [1913 Webster] …   The Collaborative International Dictionary of English

  • semivowel — [sem′i vou΄əl] n. Phonet. a vowel like sound occurring in consonantal positions in the same syllable with a true vowel, characterized by brief duration and rapid change from one position of articulation to another [the English glides (w) and (y)… …   English World dictionary

  • semivowel — noun Date: 1530 1. a speech sound (as y, w, or r) that has the articulation of a vowel but that is shorter in duration and is treated as a consonant in syllabication 2. a letter representing a semivowel …   New Collegiate Dictionary

  • semivowel — noun a) A sound in speech which has some qualities of a consonant and some qualities of a vowel b) A letter which represents a semivowel sound, such as w or y in English. Syn: glide, semiconsonant …   Wiktionary

  • semivowel — /sem ee vow euhl/, n. Phonet. a speech sound of vowel quality used as a consonant, as /w/ in wet or /y/ in yet. [1520 30; SEMI + VOWEL; r. semivocal < L semivocalis half vowel] * * * …   Universalium

  • semivowel — sem|i|vow|el [ semi,vauəl ] noun count LINGUISTICS a speech sound that sounds like a vowel but is a consonant, for example w …   Usage of the words and phrases in modern English

  • semivowel — n. speech sound which has the articulation of a vowel but is treated as a consonant (Phonetics) …   English contemporary dictionary

  • semivowel — noun a speech sound intermediate between a vowel and a consonant, e.g. w or y …   English new terms dictionary

  • semivowel — semi·vowel …   English syllables

  • semivowel — sem•i•vow•el [[t]ˈsɛm ɪˌvaʊ əl[/t]] n. phn a speech sound of vowel quality used as a consonant, as (w) in wet or (y) in yet[/ex] • Etymology: 1520–30 …   From formal English to slang

Share the article and excerpts

Direct link
Do a right-click on the link above
and select “Copy Link”

We are using cookies for the best presentation of our site. Continuing to use this site, you agree with this.