Articulatorily, velarization and pharyngealization are distinct, but they are often conflated in linguistic analyses I've seen:

  • Conflating them is common enough, I presume, that the IPA allocates the tilde-overlay diacritic for velarized/pharyngealized (in addition to the more specific /ˠ/ and /ˤ/).
  • Most descriptions of the Russian (un-palatalized) л /l/ call it either "plain" or "velarized", but this Wikipedia page says "/l/ is often strongly pharyngealized but this feature is nondistinctive".
  • Similarly, while the English dark l is commonly described as a velarized alveolar lateral approximant, in my own speech it seems strongly pharyngealized when in the syllable coda. (That is, it sounds very distinct if I eliminate the pharyngeal articulation; while I think it's somewhat velarized that doesn't affect the sound much.),

Is it true that languages often don't distinguish (phonemically) between velarization and pharyngealization? If so, why? Are they acoustically similar?


There is an affinity between uvularization and pharygealization, described by Jørgen Rischel in Topics in West Greenlandic Phonology, and if some things called "velarized" are actually uvularized, as I believe to be the case, then that may get us further on the way to finding out why sometimes tongue backing evokes pharyngealization.

Recall the feature description of velar/uvular/pharyngeal in The Sound Pattern of English, which I think is good for this. All have backing of the tongue body, which for velars is accompanied by raising of the tongue body and for pharyngeals is accompanying by lowering of the tongue body. But uvulars just have backing. The idea, I gather, is that the mass of the tongue is pushed back and down to narrow the pharyngeal cavity (though I think muscles of the pharynx are also involved). However, notice that pharyngealized sounds are in a sense contrary to velarized ones, since the first lower the tongue body while the latter raise it. So if there is an affinity between velarization and pharyngealization, that's a problem.

Actually, I think the affinity is between uvularization and pharyngealization (as Rischel found for WG Eskimo), and the matter seems puzzling only because uvularization has been misdescribed as "velarization". Those who speak a dialect of American English with supposedly velarized syllable offset [l] can experiment saying words like "fall" and see if they can feel any tongue raising for the "velarized" [l]. I get backing, but not raising, so I think this is actually uvularization. (Maybe American English syllable onset [l] is velarized.)


You may find this ultrasound study useful, since it discusses the inconsistent claims about Russian (concluding that there is both uvularization and velarization and not pharyngealization, depending on the consonant). However, note that her framework (Esling's) makes some definitional assumptions about larynx raising and pharyngealization. Not that I dispute that position, it's just not "the usual". Secondary pharyngealization ("emphasis") in Arabic has sometimes been called "velarization". You can't expect much precision without fancy instrumental studies, plus some clear evidence that there can be distinct categories (e.g. the realization that there are really two lower back places, pharyngeal and epiglottal). See this paper for a study showing that Chechen (abstract) "pharyngealization" involves pharyngealization, uvularization and epiglottalization, determined by what specific consonant is involved. Shahin "Acoustics of pharyngealization vs. uvularization harmony" (Perspectives on Arabic Linguistics X) argues that there are two types of retraction harmony, but again this is governed by choice of consonant (tˁ vs ʕ) and is not contrastive.

As far as I know, pharyngealization and velarization do not contrast. Both properties are uncommon, so you would not expect to find both contrasting in one language. Both cause significant lowering of F2 and a bit of raising of F1 (I think what makes them different is a lowering of F3 with pharyngeals).

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