So after studying the phonologies of many languages, I've noticed the pattern that consonants produced towards the front of the mouth are more likely to be voiced, while those produced towards the back of the mouth are more likely to be unvoiced. For example, it is quite common for a language with a voicing contrast among its stops to lack /p/ or /g/, but it is much rarer to lack /b/ or /k/. Also, in languages that have aspirated stops (phonetically or phonologically), "back" consonants seem to have longer voice onset times, and can therefore be said to be "more voiceless," informally speaking. In English, for example, the VOTs for [ph], [th], and [kh] are around 60, 70, and 80 ms respectively. This pattern can also be seen with non-pulmonic consonants: ejectives, which are unvoiced, are more likely to occur towards the back of the mouth (so that /k'/ and /t'/ are more common are /p'/), while implosives, which are (almost always) voiced, tend to cluster around the front of the mouth (/ɓ/ and /ɗ/ are more common than /ɠ/).

Is there an accepted phonetic/phonological explanation for this pattern? Maybe it's more difficult to produce voiced sounds at the back of the mouth for some reason?

1 Answer 1


A better way to put it is that it's more difficult to maintain voicing in stops at the back of the mouth. Voicing requires a drop in pressure across the glottis, and stops close off the oral cavity. Therefore pressure in the supraglottal cavity rises to equal subglottal pressure with the smaller cavity present in back stops, compared to front stops. Therefore, voicing is more likely to be extinguished due to aerodynamic factors with back stops, compared to front stops.

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    Yes. To put it another way, you can pump more compressed air up into a mouth closed at the lips than a mouth closed at the velum. Note how long you can keep a [b:] going, versus a [g:].
    – jlawler
    Jun 27, 2022 at 17:25

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