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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 at 0:59
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    Also Ancient Greek (which had /j/ at an early stage but lost it).
    – TKR
    Jan 5 at 1:09
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    Polynesian languages, like Hawaiian, Māori, Rapanui, Samoan, etc.
    – Yellow Sky
    Jan 5 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 at 18:17

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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 at 4:48
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    Did you mean järvi? Jan 9 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 at 20:54

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