These (and some others) are all quite similar raspy sounds to most ears and by features other than place of articulation:

  • [χ] unvoiced uvular fricative
  • [x] unvoiced velar fricative
  • [ç] unvoiced palatal fricative

And in fact in many languages two of these are merely reflexes of a single phoneme. Sometimes all three are reflexes of the same phoneme, other times another sound may also be a reflex of the same phoneme.

But I'm unable to think of any language in which any two of /χ/, /x/, and /ç/ are separate even at the phoneme level.

Are there languages which have two, or all three, of these as separate phonemes?

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    "to most ears"? Feb 18, 2012 at 17:37
  • @MarkBeadles: To people who don't speak languages where some of these sounds contrast; people who speak languages like English with no raspy sounds, etc. I used nontechnical language on purpose. Feb 18, 2012 at 17:59
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    Oh, I figured you did! It just struck me as a little funny: most ears don't hear unfamiliar contrasts pretty much by definition. :) Feb 18, 2012 at 18:01
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    The city of Gijón in Asturias has both [x] and [χ] when pronounced in the Spanish of that area: [xiˈχõ̞ɴ]. (But compare Asturian [ʃiˈʃõŋ].) However, those are just allophones that occur to phonemic /x/ due to regressive assimilation from the vowel following. Chilean Spanish can have [ç] for /x/, in some positions, too. But none of these have minimal pairs, because they are not phonemic.
    – tchrist
    Jun 21, 2014 at 17:45

4 Answers 4


here is the UPSID profile for Haida:

Language name: HAIDA
UPSID number: 6100
Alternate name(s):
Classification: Na-Dene, Haida
This language has 49 segments
Its Frequency index is 0.234082990 (average percentage of segments; 0.1: many very rare segments; 0.39: average; 0.7: many common segments)
The language has these sounds: p ph "t "th c k kh q ? ch kWh kW qh qWh qW c' k' kW' qW' q' tSh tS' "tlF' "tlF "dlF tS C x X h "hlF xW XW m "n N m* "n* N* "l* "l w j w* j* i a U "t'

Source(s): Sapir, E. 1923. The phonetics of Haida. International Journal of American Linguistics 3-4: 143-58.

  • Thanks jlovegren. Is it possible to know whether by "sounds" they mean phones or phonemes? And can we know what sounds are referred to? I don't know what transcription scheme they are using. Feb 18, 2012 at 14:59
  • I see that Wikipedia also regards Haida as having at least contrasting /x/ and /χ/ (as well as /h/). Feb 18, 2012 at 15:10
  • Skidegate Haida has the fricatives /s/, /ɬ/, /x/, /χ/, and /h/ according to John Enrico (2004). He makes no mention of any palatal fricatives. In Northern Haida the uvulars changed to pharyngeal sounds, and then uvulars were borrowed back from Tlingit, so the inventory is /x/, /χ/, /ħ/ as well as the others. Enrico, John. 2004. Toward Proto-Na-Dene. Anthropological Linguistics 46.3: 229–302.
    – James C.
    Feb 18, 2012 at 23:17
  • According to this fragment of a Haida dictionary its phoneme inventory includes pharyngeal, uvular, velar and alveolar fricatives, but no palatal. Feb 18, 2012 at 23:19
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    Probably Sapir was mistaken. He didn’t actually work on the language as I recall, but rather worked from John R. Swanton’s materials. Swanton was poor at transcription even for the era and was not very good at figuring out phonemes versus phonetic variation.
    – James C.
    Feb 21, 2012 at 19:59

Ubykh evidently contrasts alveolo-palatal /ɕ/, /ɕʷ/, velar /x/, uvular /χʲ/, /χ/, /χʷ/, /χˤ/, /χˤʷ/, and glottal /h/ - four places of articulation and four secondary articulation (labialized, palatalized, pharyngealized, and labialized/pharyngealized).

This is not exactly what you asked as it has an alveo-palatal /ɕ/ instead of a pure palatal /ç/, but you might consider it close. It is impressive; luckily it only has 2 phonemic vowels.

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    Ah yes the wonderfully extreme Ubykh! I would love to go experience it if the border was open as I'm in the south Caucasus right now! Feb 18, 2012 at 18:02
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    Well, borders often make languages - unfortunately they can make finding them difficult too. Feb 18, 2012 at 18:05
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    Oh no - it's extinct )-: Only a few hundred miles away too )-: Feb 18, 2012 at 18:14

Tlingit phonemically distinguishes /x/, /xʷ/, /xʼ/, /xʼʷ/, /χ/, /χʷ/, /χʼ/, and /χʼʷ/ (whew!). It is the only language documented to have the ejective versions of these fricatives. No palatal fricatives though – Tlingit only has a palatal /j/ and nothing else. The /x/ and /xʼ/ can be phonetically palatal when in the environment of a high front vowel, as one would expect. But this is strictly phonetic variation, and it is not obligatory so that /xi/ can be either [xi] or [çi] freely, and some speakers never seem to palatalize much at all.

  • I didn't even know there were such a thing as ejective fricatives (having just mastered some ejective stops and affricates). Feb 19, 2012 at 10:58
  • They are quite rare cross-linguistically. See the following for a bit of the phonetics: Maddieson, Ian; Smith, Caroline L.; & Bessell, Nicola. 2001. Aspects of the phonetics of Tlingit. Anthropological Linguistics 43.2: 135–176.
    – James C.
    Feb 21, 2012 at 19:57

All the Salishan languages have distinctive front and back velar phonemes. They generally distinguish several velar fricative phonemes, which in Lushootseed are /xʷ/, /χ/, and /χʷ/. There is no /x/, but there is a /h/.

There are eight velar stop phonemes in Lushootseed: plain /k/, /q/, /kʷ/, /qʷ/, and glottalized /k'/, /q'/, /k'ʷ/, /q'ʷ/.

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