I'm developing a phonology for a conlang. Many languages distinguish aspirated and unaspirated stops as different phonemes e.g. /p/ vs /ph/. Are there any languages, however, which lack an unaspirated realisation of the stop phoneme? As in, all realisations of that phoneme must contain aspiration - so /p^h/ cannot be realised as [p], for example.

I want to know how realistic it would be to make aspiration required in certain stops, and whether this constraint is found in any natural languages.

  • 1
    English lacks one of them; it has vl stop phonemes with both aspirated and unaspirated allophones. Since the aspirated one occurs in the clearest environments (before stressed vowels but not after another consonant), the English phoneme /t/ or /k/ should be considered aspirated, and English would then lack the unaspirated phoneme.
    – jlawler
    Commented Jun 13, 2016 at 17:33
  • The problem with your question is that you confuse phoneme and allophone. I suggest a better way to get what you want is to ask whether in any language voiceless stops are always phonetically aspirated (in all allophones). Jlawler suggests a story where vls stops in English might be underlyingly unaspirate, and there's an alternative analysis where they are underlyingly aspirated and deaspirate if anything precedes within the foot.
    – user6726
    Commented Jun 14, 2016 at 1:48
  • @user6726 I agree with you that one has to be carful with "confusing phoneme and allophone", but I think the wording "which lack the unaspirated phoneme" is not that blatantly wrong in that it would also be extraordinary to not have /p/ as a phoneme but only as an allophonic counterpart [p] of a default aspirated underlying phoneme /p^h/. So my claim is that it doesn't necessarily have to be the case that voicesless plosives are always aspirated, but that they are the underlying phonemes to which [p] would only be an allophone in order to "only feature /p^h/", as Leo King worded it. Commented Jun 14, 2016 at 10:27
  • (Because he said that they should only feature /p^h/, not "only [p^h]", so the existence of an unaspirated voiceless consonant would still be okay as long as it does not exist as an underlying phoneme /p/, if I understood the question correclty.) Commented Jun 14, 2016 at 10:30
  • @lemontree, I think he wants to know if there are languages which are utterly devoid of unaspirated voiceless consonants at the phonetic level. There are many such languages, and it is common to treat them as having underlying unaspirated stops that are aspirated allophonically (everywhere). The motivation for that analysis is the presumption that underlying forms are unmarked, and aspiration is marked. Given that assumption, if the question is about phonemic analysis rather than phonetic fact, the question is unanswerable.
    – user6726
    Commented Jun 14, 2016 at 15:35

3 Answers 3


The problem is that if all consonants are the same thing, what are they? Aspiration is generally understood to refer to voice onset time, with larger values being "aspirated". But there is no threshold for deeming a sound "aspirated" as opposed to "unaspirated" if all consonants are the same. You might take the VOT values of unaspirated stops in languages with an aspiration contrast to define that difference, which is to say that you ask "Are the stops of this language like the unaspirated stops of Thai, or like the aspirated stops of Thai". On those grounds, one can conclude that the voiceless stops of Spanish or Tamil are unaspirated. On those same grounds, you can conclude that the voiceless stops of Ga, Ewe, Norwegian, Khalkha (ones I know of personally: malouf gives a longer list from UPSID), and almost all Bantu languages, are aspirated. These are languages without any unaspirated allophone. I would be willing to make a money bet that languages like Spanish with VOT in the 10 msc range are less numerous than those with VOT in the 40 msc range (it's a safe bet since we don't have measurement data on more than a fraction of extant languages). The proposal to have a conlang with all stops being aspirated is perfectly natural and well-attested, though obscured by the fact that we don't write annoying phonetic detail unless it's really necessary.


In German, unvoiced consonants are frequently, if not always aspirated, and the aspirated and non-aspirated consonants are allophones which do not make a difference in meaning.
In fact, spakers of German often find it hard to even tell a difference between aspirated and non-aspirated unvoiced consonants; and similarly, speakers of German who are not used to languages which do NOT aspirate their consonsants (or in wich aspiration makes a difference in meaning) also tend to perceive a completely unapsirated unvoiced consonant as voiced, e.g. /p/ would be perceived as /b/ when pronounced without any aspiration.
So the tendency goes towards the unaspirated unvoiced consonants diverging into the more distinct counterparts, i.e. /b/ and /ph/ in the case of /p/, and one might claim that a pure, fully unaspirated unvoiced consonant does not even actually exist in German, but I don't know about any phonetics studies that would confirm that the /p/ is definitely always aspirated, probably the pure /p/ without any aspirations still exists.
So, I'm not sure one could claim that German does not have unaspirated consonants at all, but at least it is a language in which /p/ and /ph/ are not disgintuished in the sense that they can be used completely interchangeably or /ph/ is not even perceived as something other than /p/.

  • Are German fortis plosives aspirated in syllable-initial consonant clusters of /ʃ/ + a plosive? I had the impression they weren't, although it's true there is no distinctive contrast here between fortis and lenis plosives. Commented Jun 13, 2016 at 20:54
  • So basically, there are unaspirated plosives, but they're allophones of an aspirated plosive?
    – Lou
    Commented Jun 13, 2016 at 21:42
  • @sumelic good question, I don't know. Would have to look this up somewhere, I'm not an expert in German phonology. Commented Jun 14, 2016 at 10:06
  • @Leo King It is generally assumed that there are unapsirated unvoiced plosives in German or that this is the default, at lesat in all phonetic transcriptions you will find [p] rather than [p^h], and if you regard [p] as the default for /p/, it would be [p^h] which is the allophone. What I was trying to say was that there might be doubt the pure [p] exists at all and it is only transcribed so because you usually don't spell out every phonetic detail anyway ,... Commented Jun 14, 2016 at 10:06
  • ... so perhaps you wouldn't regard [p^h] as an allophone of /p/ but as the default, maybe only possible phonetic realisation. But I haven't read anything yet that would support doing away with the unaspirated plosives in German completely, plus the borders are of course hard to capture. Commented Jun 14, 2016 at 10:06

The UCLA Phonological Segment Inventory Database lists these languages as having /ph/ but not /p/:


I have my doubts about some (all?) of these languages, but at least it gives you a place to start looking!

  • Norwegian definitely does not belong on that list. /p/ in Norwegian is not usually particularly aspirated, often no more than in French or Spanish. Commented Jun 14, 2016 at 20:40

Your Answer

By clicking “Post Your Answer”, you agree to our terms of service and acknowledge you have read our privacy policy.

Not the answer you're looking for? Browse other questions tagged or ask your own question.