I am busy researching the aspiration of consonants among languages. Specifically whether consonants are pre-aspirated or post-aspirated and whether the aspiration occurs in complementary distribution (allophones) or in contrastive distribution.

I have not found any research that answers the questions of 'why aspiration occurs' and what determines whether aspiration is pre or post.

So, my question is; why does aspiration occur?

  • 4
    questions of why a given phenomenon occurs are often not answerable so you may be disappointed
    – Tristan
    Jun 11 '20 at 12:18
  • As for me, a much more interesting question is why aspiration disappears. All the European languages lost the original PIE aspirated consonants, have them merged with non-aspirated ones. But why?
    – Yellow Sky
    Jun 11 '20 at 13:25
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    "I have not found any research that answers [...] what determines whether aspiration is pre or post." - Surely a cursory look into any phonetics textbook or Wikipedia or Google Scholar would answer such a simple question, methinks.
    – Nardog
    Jun 11 '20 at 13:48
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    @Nardog Really? I am not aware of any phonetics textbook that describes the determining factors behind whether preaspiration or postaspiration applies in a given case. Naturally, some cases are obvious (utterance-initial preaspiration it exceedingly difficult to produce, for example), but what determines that the word bacach should be [ˈbˠakʰax] (postapirated /k/) in Irish, but [ˈbˠaʰkax] (preaspirated /k/) in Scottish? It’s the same word in two very closely related languages, but the aspiration differs. Jun 11 '20 at 21:39
  • @JanusBahsJacquet Oh, I simply read the question as one whose answer is "if it's [ʰC] it's pre and if it's [Cʰ] it's post." Maybe your interpretation is right, and I suspect what factors contribute to a language having or lacking aspiration or preaspiration would indeed be very difficult if not impossible to ascertain, but that's the case with any other phonetic feature, or any feature, period.
    – Nardog
    Jun 12 '20 at 7:20

The simplest answer is that it is a natural outcome of the mechanism for producing a voiceless consonant. The vocal folds are generally spread during production of voiceless consonants (to keep them from vibrating). In the transition from voiceless to following voiced (sonorant), the vocal folds must be adducted, but this takes some time. That lag is called "aspiration" if it is long enough.

The question that hasn't been subjected to a very systematic investigation is, what is the shortest lag time from C to V, and how is that lag affected by the existence of two or more phonatory types of consonants? Lag time in Korean unaspirated consonants is significantly greater than that of many other languages with an aspiration contrast, and that of Thai is shorter, so there are language-specific limits – what are the minimum values? A lot of languages have not been studied.

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