In English there are just two series of stops, voiced (b, d, g) and unvoiced (p, t, k). The latter are generally aspirated (though it depends on phonological context).

In many common languages of Europe and Asia the unvoiced consonants are not aspirated, this is a common difficulty for English speakers learning them.

And in some other languages that English speakers do not learn as frequently there are contrasting aspirated and unaspirated unvoiced stops.

Now I've been learning Georgian for a few months and it has three series of contrasting stop consonants (and possible affricates I suppose):

  • voiced: b, d, g, j, dz
  • unvoiced aspirated: pʰ, tʰ, kʰ, chʰ, tsʰ
  • ejective: pʼ, tʼ, kʼ, chʼ, tsʼ, qʼ

Ejectives are even harder for English speakers to master than unaspirated voiceless stops. And in fact some teaching aids I've seen don't even mention the ejective quality of these stops and instead focus on the unaspirated quality, presumably because this is easier and is sufficient to distinguish the sounds for both the learners and the Georgian native speakers they will interact with.

So this has got me thinking, are there languages which contrast all three kinds of unvoiced stops: aspirated pulmonic, unaspirated pulmonic, and unaspirated ejective?

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    Close, but not exact: Korean has the three-way contrast between lightly aspirated, heavily aspirated and tensed glottis (romanised, e.g. for velar POA, as <g>, <k>, <kk> respectively). – jogloran Apr 20 '12 at 13:06
  • As a weeguk in Korea I think I got away with pronouncing these as voiced, aspirated, and unaspirated... but I didn't put as much time or effort into Korean as I have into Georgian so I know I didn't really master it. – hippietrail Apr 20 '12 at 13:48
  • I suppose what I was getting at was two contrasting kinds of unaspirated stops, but went the long way about explaining it I suppose. – hippietrail Apr 20 '12 at 19:43
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    I notice that some people evidently theorize that Proto-Indoeuropean's consonant inventory contrasted exactly what you describe: stops are voiceless (plain), voiceless (aspirated), and ejective/glottalized. Unfortunately I can only find that in Wikipedia, and it's not sourced. – Mark Beadles Apr 22 '12 at 19:11
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    @MarkBeadles: Wow that's really interesting. In fact I was wondering something along those lines yesterday or today and thought "nah it was something about gutturals". – hippietrail Apr 23 '12 at 12:05

The Penutian language Wintu exhibits the following contrasts in the stop inventory:

║   Stops   ║ Labial  ║ Alveolar ║ Postalveolar ║ Velar ║ Uvular ║  
║ Voiced    ║ b       ║ d        ║ -            ║ -     ║ -      ║    
║ Aspirated ║ pʰ      ║ tʰ       ║ -            ║ -     ║        ║  
║ Ejective  ║ pʼ      ║ tʼ       ║ tʃʼ          ║ kʼ    ║ qχʼ    ║  
║ Voiceless ║ p       ║ t        ║ tʃ           ║ k     ║ q      ║  

For the front stops, they exhibit the contrasts you mention (in addition to a plain voiced manner).

EDIT: The inventory above is not atypical of North American languages, for example Kiowa also contrasts voiced/voiceless/aspirated/ejective. And many of Africa's !Kung languages exhibit extensive contrasting manners of articulation among the stops; Ekoka contrasts up to 5 manners at each point of articulation, and that's not including clicks. It's not clear if this is the kind of thing you're asking about, though.

  • Yes it's what I was asking about. Basically it seemed that several features go into a sound though the name might reflect only one feature. I was wondering whether each individual feature was salient or whether certain features tend to go together and add up to a contrasting sound only in combination... well I'm not expressing this well but you certainly answered my question. – hippietrail Apr 23 '12 at 11:35
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    Just to add another example, while ejectives are very rare in Austronesian languages they are found in Yapese (in Micronesia) and Waima'a (spoken in East Timor). Waima'a has a contrast between the following stop types: voiceless unaspirated, voiceless aspirated, voiceless ejective and (plain) voiced. This paper discusses the details. – Gaston Ümlaut Apr 23 '12 at 12:03

Essentially all of the Na-Dene languages make such a distinction. To take Tlingit, the language I work on, the inventory of the three types of stops & affricates is as follows:

  • Unaspirated: t, ts, tʃ, tɬ, k, kʷ, q, qʷ
  • Aspirated: tʰ, tsʰ, tʃʰ, tɬʰ, kʰ, kʰʷ, qʰ, qʰʷ
  • Ejective: tʼ, tsʼ, tʃʼ, tɬʼ, kʼ, kʼʷ, qʼ, qʼʷ

The glottal stop (ʔ, also ʔʷ for some) could be either unaspirated or ejective depending on one’s analysis. The only voiced sounds in Tlingit are the sonorants /n, j, w, ɰ/, so none of the unaspirated stops & affricates are ever voiced in careful speech, and usually aren’t in fast speech either. Tlingit was described with instrumental phonetic data by Maddieson, Smith, & Bessell (2001, Anthropological Linguistics), if you care to check.

For completeness, Tlingit also has a plain/ejective fricative distinction:

  • Plain fricative: s, ʃ, ɬ, x, xʷ, χ, χʷ, h
  • Ejective fricative: sʼ, ɬʼ, xʼ, xʼʷ, χʼ, χʼʷ

The ejective fricatives are real ejectives, articulated in much the same way as ejective stops and affricates. They have a smaller aperture and greater tension with the primary articulator (the tongue) than the plain fricatives, compensating for the ‘leaky’ property of fricatives. Note the lack of *ʃʼ, which might be the result of a historical merger of *sʼ, *ʃʼ > sʼ.

As far as I’m aware, nearly all the Athabaskan languages have the same three-way distinction between unaspirated, aspirated, and ejective stops and affricates. Navajo is particularly well documented phonetically, as is Witsuwitʼen. For the latter see Sharon Hargus’s immense grammar (Hargus 2007). I think Joyce McDonough has some solid instrumental phonetic data for Dëne Sųłiné and Slave as well, but I don’t have a reference offhand. Eyak also has the same patterns, but I don’t know of any phonetic investigation of it. The Proto-Na-Dene language is thus logically reconstructed with the same three-way distinction.


Voiced, unaspirated, aspirated, and ejective stops are distinguished in Dakota (a Souian Native American language) as well.

For example, ta with an unaspirated t is the postposition "to, towards," whereas t'a with the ejective is "to die," tʰa with the aspirated tʰ is a possessive marker (derived from the longer tʰawa) and de with the voiced d translates as "this".

The same distinctions appear for the sequence b, p, pʰ, and p' , and all but the voiced segment also appear in the sequences k, kʰ, k' and tʃ, tʃʰ, and tʃ'.

Hope this helps!

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