I am working on a conscript and want to make sure I can handle all of Earth's languages. In some Indian languages they have the aspirated consonants like bh like bhavya. It is basically a breathy b. But other languages like Swahili have mh like mhenga, in which the m and h are pronounced separately. First tangential question is, how is that second case represented in IPA?

Second, the main question, is are there languages which have sound-sequences of a consonant followed by a regular h, like bh-, dh-, th-, tʃh, or dʒh, etc.? By that I mean, the Indian languages described use that syntax for defining aspiration, but it's not like b-havya, with the b and h pronounced separately. It's more like the b is extended to have breath. But if I had a writing system which put <consonant><h>, that would have to mean one or the other, not both. So mhenga would be a breathy/aspirated m for example, instead of m-henga.

To summarize, how do I think about this? How do you write both cases in IPA? Are there cases of consonants followed by an h sound that isn't just aspiration? If so, what are some brief examples. I don't think I've come across a case outside of m and n an h sound follows. But I may have just overlooked that.

What if I wanted to say b-havya, how would I write that in IPA?

2 Answers 2


IPA distinguishes [bʰ] and [bh], the former being aspiration of [b], the latter being a cluster "b plus h". As for "mh", the diaresis-below diacritic serves as the indicator of a breathy nasal, whish is what "mh" is in a number of languages. However, in Swahili, the correct transcription is [m̩h], e.f. [m̩haŋga] "aardvark" – a trisyllabic word with a syllabic [m] plus a second syllable [ha] (likewise mhenga).

No language has yet been reported that contrast aspiration of a stop versus a stop-h cluster. In various works, Golston and Kehrein have used this fact as an argument that in principle there can be no contrast, because aspiration (also glottalization) is not a property of the individual segment, it is a property of the prosodic node (onset, coda) that dominates them.

  • What does a cluster "b plus h" sound like then? Is it the same thing as the m + h (with that little line below)? What is that little line below called so I can find it online? I don't get why you need a syllabic consonant marker.
    – Lance
    Commented Jun 4, 2022 at 5:47
  • Your question is about phonology, what things sound like is about phonetics. I'd start with the question of what bʰ, pʰ sound like – it varies across languages. Certifiable examples of C+h clusters arise in Semitic languages and include s+h. Compare "latex" vs "late hex" for a start.
    – user6726
    Commented Jun 4, 2022 at 15:08

I'm not sure whether your question is specific to bh, or, as in the introductory sentence, covers "all languages".

You mention "sound sequences", and reading your comment "what does 'b plus h' sound like", I first thought about "abhor".

In English, can distinguish the pronunciation of aspirated t vs t+h in "at home" and "a tome"?

In German, you have p+h in "abholen" vs aspirated p in "Apostel".

It's all a question of how you define "sound sequence" and "constrast".

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