First off, I'm an engineer with a passing interest in linguistics, so this might well have an obvious answer--it's just not obvious to me.

The IPA, as I understand it, includes three distinct trills, the alveolar trill [r], the uvular trill [ʀ], and the bilabial trill [ʙ]. However, I find it quite easy to produce a dental trill, a sort of trilled /t/ that I'm told sounds like I'm imitating a machine gun.

I know the IPA is not meant to categorize every possible sound but only those that actually exist in known languages, so my question is not "why isn't there a symbol for this?", it's "why don't any languages have this sound?".

My best guess is that it simply takes more air to produce than most sounds, but I'm not sure if that's even true, let alone whether it's the reason for this or not.

  • 1
    When you say "dental" trill, what do you use for a lower articulator? All other trills are produced with some soft part of the mouth (lower lip or tongue) as the lower articulator. But it's possible to chatter one's teeth in a trill pattern so that both the lower and the upper articulator are teeth. And that would certainly sound like an imitation of a machine gun.
    – jlawler
    Commented May 13, 2017 at 20:01
  • The lower articulator would be the tongue. Like I said, similar to a trilled /t/.
    – Hearth
    Commented May 13, 2017 at 21:16

2 Answers 2


May be this doesn't exactly answer the question, but pure dental consonants are cross-linguistically rare. Ladefoged and Maddieson discuss in detail how stops which are generally labeled dental, are actually denti-alveolar, with the bulk of the articulation at the alveolar ridge. They also state that for languages that distinguish different types of coronal stops, the actual difference in articulation is caused by tongue shape (laminal versus apical) as opposed to tongue position (dental versus alveolar). The answer by @user6726 notes the Australian aboriginal languages as having distinct dental consonants. Now, I don't know much about Australian languages, in general, but from this Wikipedia article, it seems they too use a laminal and apical distinction. I can, however, vouch for this fact --- as a native speaker --- about the Indo-Aryan languages which have a similar distinction. The so-called retroflexes actually involve curling the tongue back (retroflexing) only in careful and slow speech, or in artificially learned speech (for example, a lot of people learn this careful retroflexed articulation in school, and therefore may have retroflexes in English --- signature Indo-Pakistani accent --- but completely lack retroflexes in their first languages). At least for me, the "retroflexes" 〈ṭ, ṭh, ḍ, ḍh〉 are always apical alveolar (with zero affrication, so they sound quite different from English) and are post-alveolar only inter-vocalically, while "dental" 〈t〉 and 〈th〉 are laminal denti-alveolar and "dental" 〈d〉 and 〈dh〉 are actually laminal alveolar! My point of saying all this is to point out that "dental" is often a placeholder for laminal, and in this sense, I can't imagine a "dental" trill, because I find laminal trills impossible, even though an apical trill is easy to make (regardless of whether its dental or alveolar).

The other interpretation of dental consonants may be inter-dental, like English 〈th〉, which are also cross-linguistically rare. The hyperlinked Wikipedia page and this page says it occurs in careful pronunciation for plosives in Australian languages. I can make an inter-dental trill, with the tip of my tongue sticking out and trilling against the sharp edge of the upper incisors, but this doesn't seem to be a very natural (for want of a better word) thing to do.

Again (as the other answer mentions), Russian and Hungarian (and Rumanian, which I know very little about) have been claimed to have dental trills (for Russian it is the palatized r), but in both these languages the said trills (at least in my experience) are very often taps, and even then are denti-alveolar.

  • An interesting answer. I wonder what you make of the three-way contrast (dental - alveolar - retroflex) in Tamil and Malayalam.
    – fdb
    Commented May 19, 2017 at 18:46
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    To be honest, I know next to nothing about Dravidian languages, but I have heard of the three-way distinction. Let's leave Tamil out since the Wikipedia articles on Tamil language and Tamil phonology differ on whether Tamil actually has the distinction!! Malayalam definitely does possess at least one clear 3-way distinction (nasal) and one not so clear (voiceless plosive). To begin, Dravidian retroflexes definitely are true retroflexes (curling the tongue back, with articulation at the palate), unlike our Indo-Aryan stops (I speak Bengali by the way). ... (continued) Commented May 22, 2017 at 18:03
  • 1
    ... I did some listening to Malayalam at UCLA phonetics archive, and it appears to me that their "alveolar" stops are apical while the "dental" stops are laminal (retroflexes are ... well ... retroflexed). Of course, this is just what my ears hear. And, the recording is from a single speaker, so I wouldn't base any judgment on that... Commented May 22, 2017 at 18:09

It is not clear whether there are no languages with dental trills.

These guys suggest they exist in Romanian, Hungarian and Russian, though that would be a phonetic claim ("dental" is not a distinctive phonological category in any of these languages, as opposed to Australian languages where it is).

Ladefoged & Maddieson in The sounds of the world's languages mention lingual trills in a number of languages but largely are non-committal about their place of articulation. They report that Toda has trills that are "fronted alveolar, alveolar, retroflex". However they report that the lingual stop places of articulation are dental, alveolar and retroflex.

Phonologically, "fronted alveolar" would pair with "alveolar", and to be honest I do not understand what fact forces them to use different terms for those places. I suspect under-reporting, rather than this being a puzzling gap that needs to be explained.

  • That's a very good point; not all languages have been studied in depth, so one can't expect the IPA to include all phonemes of all languages. Perhaps the dental trill is or will be in some language yet to be studied, and will be added to the IPA at that point.
    – Hearth
    Commented May 13, 2017 at 21:19

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