It seems to me that high voles like i would more naturally follow alveolo-palatal consonants because the need to "spread the lips" (in the popular description of the latter) seem to more easily entice one to produce a high vowel thereafter. And the opposite seems to be the case for retroflex non-palatalized consonants: the need to move the tip of the tongue up for these seems to make room between the middle of the tongue and the palate so that low vowels are more likely to (easily) follow.

For example, in Polish siny [ɕinɨ] vs szyny [ʂɨnɨ] seem to follow this rule.

On the other hand, there seem to be plenty of Chinese words like the (pretty popular) Xu surname (徐), which buck this rule. Personally, I find Xu harder to pronounce (properly) than Xi though. I mean it's a lot easier for me to mispronounce Xu like Shu or Xiu.

So, using the corpus of a language like Polish or Chinese, is my hunch correct that high vowels are more likely to follow in a word after alveolo-palatal consonants and low vowels after retroflex consonants?

(It seems to me that this idea has some similarity with an assimilation rule, but that rather than one sound taking features from a another, discordant sounds would seem less likely to occur in sequence, which is perhaps what drives assimilation rules in the first place.)

  • Xu is followed by a high front vowel /y/. Regardless, it seems like you're talking about high front vowels specifically, /u/ is still a high vowel
    – Tristan
    Nov 30, 2021 at 10:00
  • @Tristan: probably front vs. back vowels would have been a better hypothesis. Nov 30, 2021 at 10:07
  • 1
    in fact, Mandarin alveolo-palatals only occur before high-front vowels (or a palatal approximant, either rounded or unrounded). In pinyin this means there's always a <i> or <u> after an x, q, or j, with <u> here representing either a /y/ or a /ɥ/
    – Tristan
    Nov 30, 2021 at 10:10
  • @Tristan Phonetically, Mandarin alveolo-palatals occur before most vowels: [ɕi ɕy ɕe ɕɥe ɕa ɕɑŋ ɕoʊ ɕʊŋ]. Phonemically, depending on your system of choice, they can be reduced to only occurring before palatal medials. Nov 30, 2021 at 18:06
  • @JanusBahsJacquet good point
    – Tristan
    Dec 1, 2021 at 9:49

1 Answer 1


In both Polish and Mandarin, the alveolo-palatal spirants (fricatives or affricates) originated from other spirants before (high) front vowels. The vowels may have shifted a little since, but the tendency for them to occur before those vowels persists. As this is a common origin for alveolo-palatal sounds cross-linguistically, this tendency likely holds globally (although to greater or lesser extents in each language.

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