I've been reading up on pharyngealization and I have the somewhat foggy idea that it might be triggered by pharyngeal (obviously) and other "back of the mouth" sounds, but I haven't found any well-rounded study of the likely or attested (diachronic) origins of (phonemic) pharyngealization across languages and language families. My first question would be whether there's a cross-linguistic theory of the origins of pharyngealization, or something that might approach that.

The second question would be: what sounds are most likely to undergo distinctive pharyngealization? The Semitic examples I've read about seem to imply that alveolar consonants are prime targets for it, but is that so? Are labial or velar consonants then less likely to be pharyngealized? What do they do instead, if anything, in the same context where an alveolar consonant is pharyngealized?

3 Answers 3


Pharyngealization is encountered in Semitic; some Interior Salishan languages; some Caucasian like Ubykh, Tsakhur and Udi; !Xóõ; Chilcotin; Berber languages; Even.

In some cases, it is a feature of vowels (Udi, !Xóõ). Sometimes it is involves consonants, but in a way that points to effect-on-vowel as an important feature of pharyngealization.

There is a connection between some Central Semitic pharyngealized (emphatic, uvularized) consonants and ejectives in South Semitic (Ethiopic and South Arabian, where the outcome is mixed and variable in South Arabian languages). There are various positions as to whether ejectives became pharyngealized or the converse: my limited grasp of the facts favors the "originally pharyngealized" hypothesis given the existence of pharyngealized in Arabic corresponding to ʕ in some forms of Aramaic, plus the fact that there's no such thing as "ejective d". I do think that it would be great to get a detailed Semitic-specific answer.

In Arabic and Berber it is typically analyzed as a feature of certain consonants, though it also phonetically affects adjacent vowels (in Arabic, the influence on vowels is large enough that it can be the only cue indicating a pharyngealized consonant). The consonants which are phonemically pharyngealized are mainly coronal, but there are pharyngealized dorsals reported for some dialects of Arabic in Yemen, and low-frequency emphatic labials are reported in Syrian Arabic. In Berber, the proto-language apparently had just "ḍ, ẓ" but other coronals have been picked up under Arabic influence; some analyses treat pharyngealization as a high-level prosody that starts at one point and continues to the end (analogous to the situation described by Hoberman in his Language article on Aramaic). Proto-Afro Asiatic reconstruction have been essayed by Dolgopolsky, but reconstruction of earlier phonetic values is fraught with difficulties.

In the case of Interior Salishan, there were primary pharyngeal consonants in the proto-language, which seem to have given rise to a distinction between retracted and non-retracted (pharyngealized) vowels and consonants in Lilooet and some related languages, and the source of the retracted series seems to be a general vowel harmony which managed to give rise to a retracted lateral (the only consonant with the feature). Comparative work on proto-Salishan isn't thick on the ground, so the situation there is less than clear.

In Chilcotin, it's an automatic feature of alveolars (the language, which is Athabaskan, is coronal-rich, contrasting dentals, alveolars and palatals). It is not clear that there is a phonetic difference in the consonants, and one could treat them as the same as dentals, which trigger "flattening" (a vowel harmony process, roughly equivalent to spread of retraction in neighboring Interior Salishan which is the presumed source of this process).

The case of Even seems to be a phonetic development from an ATR system.

In other words, there aren't any clear generalizations.

  • In coastal Salishan, phonemic pharyngealization of resonants (laterals and nasals) is common. Indeed, in Lushootseed, which has lost its plain nasals completely, the only nasal phonemes in the language are pharyngeal /m̓/ (and in the Snohomish dialect also /n̓/). Pharyngealized resonants are the systematic counterpart to the (many) ejective stops in the language, and are marked the same and participate in many of the same phenomena.
    – jlawler
    Sep 7, 2017 at 10:59
  • In interior Salishan, pharyngealized resonants include up to 4 or 5 phonemic /r/'s. These are hard to distinguish and even harder to study these days since there are so few native speakers left. They occur only in roots (these are polysynthetic languages with short, usually monosyllabic roots) and never in the morphology attached to them (which can get horrendously complex). Obviously a very old phenomenon, probably representing some previous system that's all but disappeared.
    – jlawler
    Sep 7, 2017 at 11:04

(partial answer)

Actually, the uvular stop in Semitic languages is often thought to have developed from an earlier "emphatic" velar stop. I think there are some extant Semitic languages where it is realized with some kind of secondary articulation rather than a simple uvular POA.

Wikipedia says that emphatic "p" also occurs/occured in some Semitic languages (Hebrew and Ge'ez), although it might have been a secondary development related to loanwords.

However, aside from that, I don't know the answer to your question because pharyngealized consonants seem to be relatively rare and in Semitic, the most well-known group of languages that have them, they are already present in the reconstructed proto-language (although descendent languages may have somewhat different distributions)

In loanwords into Semitic, words that in the source language had unaspirated voiceless stops or back vowels have sometimes been given naturalized pronunciations with "emphatic" consonants.


I believe that "emphatic p" (in the context of Semitic languages) is the ejective /p'/, not /pˤ/, and thus is not a example of pharyngealization (contra sumelic's answer).

In fact, the only instance of a language with a pharyngealized labial consonant as listed here is Ubykh (which seems to have an exceptionally large consonant inventory). Wikipedia says about Ubykh that "the pharyngealised labial consonants /pˁ/ /pˁʼ/ are almost exclusively noted in words where they are associated with another pharyngealised consonant."

Since the only cases (at least in the list I quoted) have their pharyngealized consonants inherited, I'm not sure if it's possible to pinpoint in which cases a consonant becomes pharyngealized, but you might find it easier to look at cases such as:

  • Sandhi and other internal sound changes: e.g. ת assimilates to emphatic ט in Hebrew when next to emphatic צ; in Akkadian, ṭ dissimilates to t when in the same root as ṣ (e.g. Akkadian ṣbt as compared to Hebrew צבט)

  • Borrowing between languages: e.g. Greek σ sometimes ends up as emphatic צ in Hebrew

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