Tuesday 7 April 2009

[h]: fricative or approximant?

María Alicia Maldonado wrote to say that she had come across a textbook in which English /h/ was described as a “voiceless glottal approximant”. Given that in LPD I classify it as a “voiceless glottal fricative”, she wonders which is right.
First, I am not alone in classifying [h] as a fricative. That is how it is categorized on the IPA Chart; that is how Cruttenden, Roach, Collins, Ashby & Maidment and other respected writers on English phonetics categorize it.
Secondly, however, it is clear that [h] is different from the other English voiceless fricatives [f, θ, s, ʃ], in that it does not involve a constriction within the mouth cavity. Conventionally we classify it as a glottal fricative, but the constriction giving rise to the turbulence that we hear as friction may be not so much located at the glottis itself as distributed throughout the whole of the upper vocal tract.
That is why Ladefoged and Maddison in The Sounds of the World’s Languages (Blackwell 1996), at the beginning of their chapter on fricatives, comment
Forms of h, ɦ in which a turbulent airstream is produced at the glottis are also sometimes classed as fricatives […], but it is more appropriate to consider them in the chapter on vowels.
At the end of the vowels chapter they mention the possible description of [h] as the voiceless counterpart of the vowel that follows.
In such cases it is more appropriate to regard h and ɦ as segments that have only a laryngeal specification, and are unmarked for all other features.
But in some languages, including Hebrew and Arabic, a glottal constriction is observable during the production of these sounds.

One problem with classifying [h] as an approximant is that voiceless approximants are by definition inaudible. (Or by one definition, at least. Approximants used to be known as “frictionless continuants”.) If there’s no friction and no voicing, there’s nothing to hear. Anything you can hear during a voiceless [h] must be some sort of weak friction, resulting from some sort of weak turbulence, which means that [h] is some sort of weak fricative — but still a fricative.
The English /h/ phoneme does not behave like a vowel. We say a house, not *an house. We say ðə house, not ði house. You get a linking r in you’re out, but not in your house — except among non-standard speakers who drop h.
The tradition in generative phonology is to class [h] as a glide, along with [j] and [w]. That’s fine phonologically, but not very helpful phonetically.
For practical teaching, it’s convenient to call [h] a fricative. But you do have to emphasize that there is no friction at the uvular or velar place (of the sort you get in [x] and [χ]). Many EFL learners can be helped by thinking of [h] as just a voiceless onset to the following vowel.
Advanced students can be asked to write an essay on the problem of defining the terms fricative and approximant.


  1. Thank you very much, Professor Wells, for your clear and detailed explanation.
    I just want to point out that it was never my intention to discuss whether your definition was right or wrong. I would never dare to discuss your opinion.
    Since I also respect late Ms. Recamán, I thought her description had to be right as well. I wanted to find a sensible explanation and I resorted to a real authority in Phonetics: you.
    Thank you very much, again.

  2. Blackfoot has an orthographic h which represents the velar fricative [x]. However, I think, as you discussed above, that in some ways it is more accurate to describe this phoneme as a devoiced vowel (and in fact this is how some authors represent the sound). In Blackfoot the frication is much more present (hence [x] instead of [h]), but the location of that frication varies according to the vowel it follows ([x] is always in coda position in Blackfoot), ranging from uvular after /a/ to palatal after /i/.

  3. Ryan: Interesting. French (especially the "upper class" variety) has the same devoicing of vowels in coda position. It's not phonemic and not represented in the orthography, but you can hear it very clearly with some speakers. For example, il est parti will be pronounced something like [ilepaχtihʲ] or even [ilepaχtç̩]. I guess one could represent it as [ilepaχti̥].

  4. That's how I explain the pronunciation of [h] to a French person who claims the French can't pronounce it. They do every day in words like Paris [b̥æʁih].

  5. Dear sir,
    We found your blog incidently and became fan of yours instantly. we are PhD students of linguistics in UMT Lahore, Pakistan. We have been assigned to write a project on Glottal Fricative h. We want to see the phonology of h sound at word final position, especially in Urdu language. We request you to give your comments and if possible send any relevant research data or articles.
    Azhar Pevaiz, Tahir Ghafoor Malik; PhD Students at UMT, Pakistan

  6. I am sorry but my lexicon has gone to it's limit with this one, what does fricative mean. Not even the examples help me to make sense of that word. A little light in the path is more than welcome.


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