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According to Wikipedia, there's a phonemic contrast between /ɕ/ and /ʃ/ in Ubykh, North Qiang, South Qiang and Luxembourgish (though they are merging). Do any other languages exhibit this distinction?

Edit: On a second reading, Wikipedia does not claim that Toda has /ɕ/; I must have misread the article.

  • What about Polish (sz[ʃ]eś[ɕ]ć)? – Klaas Edema Jan 28 '15 at 6:28
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    I thought sz was /ʂ/ – charlotte Jan 30 '15 at 17:54
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You should take any such claims with a large grain of salt. While there is no question that Toda has a contrast, it is not evident that the phonetic realization is [ɕ] vs. [ʃ]. Ladefoged & Maddieson in The sounds of the world's languages 156ff list the Toda sibilants as [s̻ s̱ ʃ ʂ] and [ɕ] is not listed. They also list the Ubykh sibilants as [s ŝ ɕ s̥], without [ʃ] (they state that [ʃ] does not occur in Ubykh and Abkhaz). Although the wiki entry on ɕ lists Norwegian as having that sound, Kristofferson in The phonology of Norwegian lists it as [ʂ], and the wiki entry on Norwegian likewise does not include [ɕ]. Ladefoged & Maddieson put their charcoal where their informants' mouths are and substantiate the claim that Toda has [s̻ s̱ ʃ ʂ]. I argue that to make that specific a claim (that a language has [ɕ] rather than [ʃ] or [ʂ]), one must use some articulatory-measurement method, or, one must be Ian Catford or Peter Ladefoged (both of whom, alas, have another thing in common).

Edit: corrected ɕ/ʂ typo

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  • Thanks! I assume you mean't to say "that a language has [ɕ] rather than [ʃ] or [ʂ]"? – charlotte Jan 25 '15 at 19:02
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As a native Polish speaker I would say that @Klaas Edema statement about Polish language was correct.

Polish speakers consecutively tend to classify [ʃ] in English words as [ʂ]. Moreover, in my opinion, in some words newly introduced to Polish were [ʂ] is followed by [i] (in native Polish words "sz" = [ʂ] is never followed by "i" = [i] but by "y" = [ɨ], and "ś" = [ɕ] is never followed by "y" but by "i") like "czipsy" = /ʈ͡ʂipsɨ/ = [t͡ʃipsɨ] (meaning "chips") or when pronouncing some English names with /i/ after /ʃ/ (e.g. "Sheeran") most speakers will actually pronounce it as [ʃ] not [ʂ] (personally I find [ʂi] almost unpronounceable).

Therefore I would say that in Polish [ʃ] is an allophone of [ʂ] while [ɕ] is a distinctive sound. So, given that, it could be said that Polish contrasts /ɕ/ and /ʃ/.

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Sanskrit contrasted three sibilants, two of which most probably were [ɕ] and [ʂ] (or [ʃ]). The former was an outcome of an Proto-Indo-Iranian affricate that developed from PIE voiceless palatalised velar stop whilst the latter had its roots in PIE /*s/.

Again here comes the matter of the exact phonetical nature of the second, non-palatal sound, retroflex [ʂ] or post-alveolar [ʃ]. In my view that doesn't matter so much, since Sanskrit didn't contrast all four places of articulation within sibilants (that is dental, post-alveolar, palatal and retroflex). The situation in Sanskrit would be similar to the one in Polish, described by Arsen before. Both [ʂ] and [ʃ] would be allophones of a phoneme that doesn't have to be specifically retroflex or specifically post-alveolar, it just has to contrast with the other two sibilants. In the light of that, it is safe to say that indeed ɕ contrast with ʃ.

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This is also based on information from Wikipedia, but Adyghe contrasts /ɕ/, /ʃ/, /ʂ/, /ʂʷ/, /ʃʼ/, and /ʃʷʼ/, and Kabardian contrasts /ʃ/, /ɕ/, and /ɕʼ/.

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The usage of [ʃ] is not consistent according the Wikipedia, with different scholars use it for different sounds because they cannot tell difference between soft and hard consonants.

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    What is meant by "hard" and "soft" consonants? – hippietrail Jan 29 '15 at 6:40
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    I suspect Anixx is referring to palatalisation: Russian, and some other Slavonic languages, systematically distinguish palatalised from unpalatalised consonants, and the traditional terms for these are 'hard' and 'soft'. (Irish does as well, and there the traditional terms are 'broad' and 'slender'). My first reaction to this question was to say Russian, because the distinction between ш and щ in modern Muscovite Russian is somewhat like the distinction the OP was asking about (rather than the traditional [ʃ] vs [ʃtʃ]). But only somewhat like it, it's not quite the same opposition, I think. – Colin Fine Jan 31 '15 at 22:48
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    -1 'Soft' and 'hard' are terms that are opaque to those unfamiliar with Slavic linguistics. Also, 'soft' and 'hard' are used by some non-linguists to refer to voiced and voiceless sounds. As @ColinFine points out, the term 'palatalised' should be used to avoid confusion. – robert Sep 27 '15 at 14:18
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    @robert practice shows that "palatalized" is often confused with "palatal". – Anixx Sep 27 '15 at 14:50

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