I had an idea for a voiced fricative being an approximant. I tried to say a voiced h and I noticed how similar it was to the schwa vowel. I just want to know if this is a possible approximant sound.

  • 3
    What do you mean by "a voiced fricative being an approximant"?
    – Draconis
    Commented May 8, 2020 at 0:54
  • Welcome to the World of Phonetics! "Voiced h" is actually [ɦ], voiced glottal fricative. As for approximants, there's [ɰ], voiced velar approximant. There is also the creaky-voiced glottal approximant [ʔ̞]. Many of them exist, actually. Could you specify the place of articulation of your sound?
    – Yellow Sky
    Commented May 8, 2020 at 2:24
  • Glottal fricative (ɦ). I tried to say it and it sounded like an approximant. Commented May 8, 2020 at 14:12
  • 1
    Glottal fricative [ɦ] is a fricative, a usual consonant in Ukrainian, my native language, and also in Czech and Slovak. It's not an approximant, and definitely it's not a vowel.
    – Yellow Sky
    Commented May 8, 2020 at 16:39
  • I didn't say it was a vowel. I said the pronounciation SEEMED like an approximant. Maybe it is an approximant of an approximant. Commented May 8, 2020 at 17:44

3 Answers 3


[h], customarily referred to as a voiceless glottal fricative, in reality denotes any voiceless articulation with no interruption of the airflow in the oral cavity, with no defined configuration of the tongue or the lips. [ɦ] is the same except the vocal folds oscillate to some extent. So some argue they are best regarded as placeless consonants.

So if you try to produce [h] in isolation with the normal articulatory setting, the position of the tongue and lips probably resembles that when producing [ə], so that if you voice it you will be producing [ə].

The only difference between a vowel and an approximant is that the former constitutes the peak of a syllable, which is a distinction made in the domain of phonology rather than phonetics and is language-dependent. Approximants are typically articulated like high vowels, but approximant versions of lower vowels are also found, like [o̯] found in some varieties of Spanish in words like poeta, and [ə̯] found in non-rhotic varieties of English in words like here, though such sounds are more often referred to as non-syllabic vowels, glides or semivowels than as approximants.

[ɚ] found in rhotic varieties of English is essentially a syllabic version of [ɹ], making equivalent [ɚ] and [ɹ̩], and, conversely, [ɹ] and [ɚ̯].

  • 2
    The distinctions that vowels are syllable peaks and approximants aren’t is also not cut and dry. [l], an approximant, is perfectly happy to act as a syllable peak, for instance, but is not usually termed a vowel. Indeed, some other continuants which are neither approximants nor vowels, such as [s] or [ʃ], are also perfectly happy to be syllable peaks in some languages, but are not considered vowels. Commented May 8, 2020 at 6:25
  • @JanusBahsJacquet Syllabic consonants are, in some definitions, vowels.
    – Nardog
    Commented May 8, 2020 at 7:14
  • I was intrigued by the idea that you might be able to work out the articulatory setting of a language from the spectrograph of h, and investigated a bit. In the token I have, the bands of the aspirated part correspond to an open vowel in the neighbourhood of a. If the consonants are spoken in isolation, the pseudo-vowel you end up with in the release is not nearly as open as that, but its F2 and F3 do seem to match the bands of the h. Any thoughts on how to interpret that? Is there any reason why h would have a band at ~800Hz that you wouldn't get in a vowel with the same tongue position?
    – rchivers
    Commented May 12, 2020 at 18:02
  • @Nardog When [e̯] [o̯] [ə̯] [a̯] are treated as approximants rather than vowels, where would they be placed on the standard IPA consonant chart wrt place of articulation? Commented Jul 30, 2023 at 1:03
  • 1
    @PavelMinaev [i̯ u̯] are equivalent to [j w] (canonically that is; [i̯ u̯] often represents nonsyllabic versions of [i u] in the given language, which may not be as constricted as [j w]). [ɑ̯] is equivalent to [ʕ̞]. [ɐ̯] often represents [ʁ̞] in e.g. German and Danish, though the actual quality may be more back. See also Catford's polar chart.
    – Nardog
    Commented Jul 30, 2023 at 22:56

A small cap H has been used by some structuralist phonemicists to stand for the centralizing glide which is very prominent in some American dialects. Perhaps someone who knows that literature better than I can tell us just where this got started, though I cannot, but my guess is that the basis for it is not any phonetic similarity between offset [H] and onset [h], but rather that they are in complementary distribution. As we will recall, this was once regarded as an important criterion for grouping allophones into one phoneme.

I don't think that, as a matter of fact, there is any significant phonetic similarity between the two.


As a phonetic term, approximants refer to a class of consonants which covers liquids and glides (which includes laryngeal glides), so a vowel is not an approximant. In the SPE feature tradition, vowels and glides have in common the property of being [–consonantal]. The most likely reason why it sounds to you like a schwa is that many consonants cannot be "satisfactorily" produced without a following vocoid which allows you to tell what the consonant is (obviously with /t/, also /d/). At least for English speakers, the most natural vocalic accompaniment is something like schwa. The tongue is in what's called "the neutral position", neither raised nor lowered, fronted or backed. That is probably why it seems to sound like schaw.

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.