Voiced and unvoiced consonant pairs exist for /z/ and /s/, /g/ and /k/, /b/ and /p/, and many others.

But I've never heard it for /ɹ/ or /l/. I think it's totally possible to use the vocal cords for those consonants, as well as not using the vocal cords for them. After all, we can easily whisper words with /l/ or /ɹ/ in them.

Edit: I'm talking about the untrilled r in normal American English. I can't do trilled r's so I can't experiment to see if it's unvoiceable, but I suspect it's whisperable like every other sound I can think of.

So does such a distinction happen in any language?

6 Answers 6


As leoboiko mentioned, there are languages with voiceless liquids, like Icelandic.

In the IPA, they are simply transcribed with a voicelessness ring diacritic: [r̥] and [l̥].

In Icelandic, these sounds can be analyzed as allophonic realizations of /r/ and /l/ in some contexts, or as the sequences /hr/ and /hl/ in other contexts. It's similar to how in English, the "wh" sound has been analyzed either as a single phoneme /ʍ/, or a sequence /hw/.

Also, similar to how the voiceless counterparts of non-lateral approximants such as [j], [w], [ʋ], [ɰ] often tend toward being fricatives ([ç], [ʍ], [f], [x] respectively), the voiceless counterpart of [l] is often realized more as a fricative than as an approximant. This voiceless lateral fricative is transcribed in IPA as [ɬ]. This is the standard realization of Welsh "ll" (so the corresponding Welsh phoneme is standardly transcribed /ɬ/), and it is said to be a common realization of the Icelandic /l̥/ phoneme.

Actually, I don't know of any language where /ɬ/ and /l̥/ exist as distinct phonemes (Peter Ladefoged says the same thing in Preliminaries to Linguistic Phonetics (1971), p. 53). But it is definitely possible to distinguish them from a phonetic standpoint. An article of possible interest is "A Comparative Study of Estonian Swedish Voiceless Laterals: Are Voiceless Approximants Fricatives?" by Eva Liina Asu, Francis Nolan and Susanne Schötz.

An exact voiced counterpart to the fricative [ɬ] also exists; it is the voiced lateral fricative [ɮ]. In some languages, it is an allophone of a /l/ phoneme, while in others such as Zulu there is a phonemic contrast between /l/ and /ɮ/ (Zulu also has /ɬ/).

  • I decided to accept your answer instead since it's a lot more detailed.
    – DrZ214
    Commented Jun 26, 2017 at 13:45
  • 2
    Lushootseed (like lots of other languages in the Northwest Coast Sprachbund) have a series of lateral consonants, voiced and unvoiced; liquid, fricated, and affricated; glottalized and plain. Lushootseed laterals include /l/ (vd lateral resonant), /ɬ/ (vl lateral fricative), /l̓/ (pharyngealized vd lateral resonant), and /ƛ̓/ (vl ejective lateral affricate). Laterals pattern in the Lushootseed phonological system as if "Lateral" were a place rather than a mode of articulation.
    – jlawler
    Commented Jun 26, 2017 at 17:35

Welsh has 'rh' and 'll' as the unvoiced counterparts of 'r' and 'l'.


I'm sure there's a lot, but one example would be Icelandic.

  • hlít /l̥iːt/ ‘throughly’
  • lít /liːt/ ‘I look; you look’

  • hraða /r̥aːða/ ‘to speed up’

  • raða /raːða/ ‘to put in order; to employ’

Of course, that depends on the kind of ‘r’ you're talking about; the above is the alveolar trill. If you mean the unusual English approximant, then I don't know a language which contrasts it for voice phonemically.

  • The IPA spelling looks like the same /r and /l in both cases. Is there a different symbol in some other format to distinguish the voiced/unvoiced for r and l?
    – DrZ214
    Commented Jun 26, 2017 at 8:16
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    The unvoiced variants should have a small circle under them; the small circle means 'unvoiced'. If the circle isn't showing, it's because the font your computer picked for this site lacks the relevant 'composing' feature. At any rate, the words starting with 'h' are the unvoiced ones. Commented Jun 26, 2017 at 8:20
  • 1
    @DrZ214 Try zooming in using 'ctrl + +' at about 5 times the usual magnification it becomes a circle for me.
    – DRF
    Commented Jun 26, 2017 at 10:57
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    @leoboiko It's not the fonts fault. It's just that at the size of font I use to read SE on my computer, the circle collapses to 4 pixels. Can't make a circle with 4 pixels. (and I lied I only need two zoom-ins for the circle to show. It's just still very tiny at that point.
    – DRF
    Commented Jun 26, 2017 at 13:28
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    Isn't Faroese voiceless /ɹ/ actually a retroflex sibilant [ʂ] instead of a real voiceless [ɹ̥]? At least that's what it sounds to me here: youtube.com/watch?v=NOsFQ-VUeMw (at about 2:17). Commented Jun 27, 2017 at 0:36

I'll just add a bit of fuel to the above fire. As Sumelic notes, Zulu (and other Nguni languages) have /ɮ, ɬ, l/. The fact that /ɮ, l/ contrast suggests that /ɬ/ which is a voiceless version of /ɮ/ is not "voiceless l", it is a voiceless lateral fricative (as he notes), and not a voiceless /l/. Similarly, the existence of /ɬ/ in Lushootseed and numerous other PNW languages, plus the fact that there aren't other voiceless versions of sonorants, indicates that Lushootseed /ɬ/ is a voiceless lateral fricative, not a voiceless /l/. Same goes for lateral fricatives in Chadic.

Contrarily, evidence from Klamath indicates that would-be voiceless sonorants are phonologically aspirated. The language has /l l' ɬ/, that is plain, glottalized and "voiceless" /l/ (there is also a plain, glottalized and voiceless contrast in obstruents and sonorants). When /l/ or /n/ stand before /ɬ l'/, the result is [lʔ, lh]. This makes sense if /ɬ/ is really an aspirated sonorant, and the rule splits a geminated aspirated sonorant into a plain sonorant plus the corresponding laryngeal glide. Ito & Mester 1989 in their Rendaku paper mention a number of reasons for treating the "voiceless sonorants" of Burmese as being aspirated. (A similar argument from Lhasa Tibetan could probably be made, based on aspiration throwback in negative verb, but I don't have a datum on any /ɬ/-initial H toned verb).

It has been observed for English that r,l "devoice" in "pray, clay", but not "spray, splay", but this is exactly where you get aspiration differences on stops in English. Although English does not have "voiceless" liquids, it does (in some dialects) have voiceless glides, e.g. "which; human". There is evidence that these should be treated as "aspirated". The argument centers on the general distribution of aspiration in English: it has to be foot-initial (at the beginning of a syllable, and not immediately preceded by a stressed syllable unless the syllable with aspiration is also stressed). This not only determines aspiration of voiceless stops, it also explains the distribution of h and its deletion in prò(h)ibítion vs. prohíbit. This also affects the realization of wh which is "voiceless" in where, what, but voiced in anywhere, somewhat.

So it has been conjectured that there are no "voiceless sonorants", instead, there are aspirated sonorants (and glottalized sonorants), and plain sonorants. I have not seen a convincing example of [-voice] sonorants in any languages, though that is the usual description of how aspirated sonorants are produced.

  • So to give a list, /lɬ, nɬ/ → [lh], /ll',nl'/ → [lʔ]. Also btw /nl → [ll], so /n/ becomes l before a lateral and then geminate laterals "diphthongize" into liquid + laryngeal.
    – user6726
    Commented Jun 26, 2017 at 22:56
  • So you think Icelandic [l̥] is a fricative [ɬ] too, or do you think it's a different case because it can be analyzed as a surface realization of /hl/? How do other voiceless sonorants fit this proposal, like [r̥] [n̥] (click for occurrences)? Commented Jun 27, 2017 at 6:43
  • I'd say they are aspirated. Note that they show in clusters exactly where there would be preaspiration. Assuming /hl/, all that's needed is merger of the features of h and l. Most instances of r̥ are non-phonological, some are non contrastive (i.e. "r is always voiceless").
    – user6726
    Commented Jun 27, 2017 at 13:51

Mehri has voiced and voiceless laterals, conventionally transcribed as “l” and “ś” respectively. Many scholars ascribe this contrast to proto-Semitic.


Both of Tolkien's most popularized languages, Quenya and Sindarin, possess voiced\voiceless pairs for L and R, though word-initially only. There are such minimal pairs as S lheweg 'ear' vs. leweg 'worm', and Q hráva 'wild, savage' vs. ráva 'bank of a river'.

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