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There are many languages without the /w/ sound as in English world, as in French oiseau, as in Spanish fuego, and as in Mandarin wang (the last three respectively mean bird, fire, and king). Some famous examples include: Russian, Yiddish, Albanian, Armenian, Greek, and Turkish.

But, languages without the /j/ sound as in English yellow, and French caillou (which means pebble) seem to be extremely rare.

So, why is the /j/ sound so common in human languages?

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    Spanish, at least some varieties (Venezuelan?). Also Wutung (Sko family, Papua New Guinea). Jan 5, 2022 at 0:59
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    Also Ancient Greek (which had /j/ at an early stage but lost it).
    – TKR
    Jan 5, 2022 at 1:09
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    Polynesian languages, like Hawaiian, Māori, Rapanui, Samoan, etc.
    – Yellow Sky
    Jan 5, 2022 at 13:54
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    They exist, but it's true they're rare. Cf. this database, which lists /j/ as the third most frequent consonant at 90%, significantly above /w/ at 82%.
    – user54748
    Jan 5, 2022 at 18:17
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    Korean absolutely does have both /w/ and /j/ sounds (phonemes), it just lacks standalone letters for these sounds. (In Korean orthography, they are combined to the following vowels.)
    – jick
    Sep 6, 2023 at 15:45

2 Answers 2

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Some examples drawn from Phoible are Ket, Khasi, Garo, Malay (Standard), Iai, Kaliai, Maori, Hawaiian, Asmat, Kunimaipa, Nasioi, Kalaallisut, Eastern Ojibwa, Ticuna, Ocaina, Guarani, Liberian Kpelle and Khoekhoe. However, one should also dig into the original data sources. A non-original data source, Wikipedia, cites [qàj] 'elk' in Ket; the unglossed root <layang> = [lajaŋ] is given in the Wiki page on Malay phonology. Wiki includes [j] in the inventory for Kalaallisut, but Phoible also lists [j] as an allophone of the phoneme /ʝ/ (dunno why the phoneme is deemed to be /ʝ/ and not /j/). It also lists [j] as an allophone of /ɲ/ in Liberian Kpelle, but also drawing on a different source, it is a full-fledged phoneme. Having worked on the Guinean dialect, I would agree that /j/ is a phoneme of Kpelle, and certain exists as a sound of the language. In other words, some of the gaps are artifacts of analysis. The one case that I am mostly convinced of is Khoekhoe, having worked on the language: it has no [j] at any level, though Hagman in his grammar suggests that [j] exists in loanwords (no examples are given).

A bizarre "example" is Finnish, which according to one Phoible source (Stanford Phonology Archive) has no j (!!!?), because the phoneme is actually /e̯/ and [j] is merely an allophone. There's really no doubt that Finnish has /j/ (jarvi, jalka, joki).

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    How come that Standard Malay has no /j/?.. What about words like Melayu /məlaju/ “Malay”, saya /saja/ “I”, yang /jaŋ/ “which”? Consider the Jawi (Arabic alphabet) spelling of yang, a frequent word, which is يڠ <yŋ> – if it began with a vowel like /iaŋ/, it would begin with an alif ا, which is always the case with word-initial vowels.
    – Yellow Sky
    Jan 6, 2022 at 4:48
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    Did you mean järvi? Jan 9, 2022 at 9:23
  • I learned a little Liberian Kpelle. It definitely has an initial /j/ in words like "ya," meaning "water"; "yɛɛ" meaning "in that way"; and in the semi bound form "yee," meaning "hand." In normal citation form, these words might have an added low-tone non-syllabic palatal nasal phoneme (nyai, nyɛɛ, and nyee) that might have complicated a linguist's analysis to make them believe [j] could not exist on its own. Jan 26, 2022 at 20:54
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    Greenlandic (Kalaallisut) definitely has /j/. I don’t think there’s any real need to distinguish between [j] and [ʝ] – I believe they’re in pretty free variation word-initially, and intervocalically I’ve only ever heard [j]. In initial position, I think it’s only found in loan words like juulli ‘Christmas’ (from Danish jul); but intervocalically, it’s not uncommon in native roots as well, such as ajor- ‘be bad’. Sep 6, 2023 at 13:24
  • How can you be certain that Finnish [j] is not an allophone of /e̯/? Is there a minimal pair? Sep 7, 2023 at 11:50
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In Russian, the consonants are arranged into 4-member squads: hard voiceless, hard voiced, soft voiceless, soft voiced. The [й'] sound is voiced counterpart of [х'], and voiced soft counterpart of [х]. Thus, this squad is lacking only voiced hard member. This sound, by the way, can be found in Ukrainian.

So, I think, having voiceless velar fricative [х] in your language or its allophones (such as uvular fricative) strongly prompt you to have its contrasting soft, voiced and soft voiced squadmates.

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  • [й'] has a completely different place of articulation from [х'] though Sep 7, 2023 at 10:31
  • @Lorraine For me, no. The only difference is voicing.
    – Anixx
    Sep 7, 2023 at 10:33
  • Really? I am not native Russian speaker, but I believe you are. Do you pronounce отдохни with a soft х? Does it sound like отдойни? Or, can you think of a better example? Sep 7, 2023 at 10:45
  • @Lorraine no, in отдохни [х] is hard.
    – Anixx
    Sep 7, 2023 at 11:16
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    @Lorraine try "хер. ер." in this synthesizer: voicebot.su
    – Anixx
    Sep 9, 2023 at 13:53

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