In the languages I know more about I can't think of any cases of consonant phoneme clusters that are not made up entirely of consonant phonemes which also occur on their own in the language.

But I'm wondering if this is not a universal phonology rule at all and if that's the case, what are some languages and consonant clusters that don't fit this pattern?

  • 3
    Russian has such consonant clusters in its interjections, e. g. "тпру!", a sound to stop a horse, it has a voiced bilabial trill that no other word uses.
    – Yellow Sky
    Oct 16, 2014 at 16:11
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    How would you show that you were dealing with a sequence of two phonemes if the constituent sounds never appeared independently? The simplest analysis would be that you were dealing with a single phoneme with a complex phonetic realization (like an affricate, for example). Oct 20, 2014 at 13:53
  • I'm sure we have a question about the difference between affricates and consonant clusters and that both of pair can exist in the same language ... yep here it is. Oct 20, 2014 at 13:59
  • That's not relevant to my point. I've tried to clarify my point in the form of an answer below. Oct 20, 2014 at 15:25
  • 1
    @Yellow Sky actually any trill is a realization of the same phoneme in Russian.
    – Anixx
    Dec 15, 2014 at 19:06

5 Answers 5


If there were some consonant than only appeared in clusters, the standard analytic assumption would be to reduce it to some consonant that does not appear in clusters, thus if [γ] only appeared in clusters and [h] never did, then we would simply assume that [γ] comes from /h/. To show that such an analysis is impossible, you'd have to have a language that allows pretty much any possible cluster, which is extremely rare. That said: glottal stop only appears before nasals in North Saami. Which leads to another path of re-analysis, where "glottal stop" is interpreted as the surface realization of glottalization on nasals.

Although the question is perfectly sensible, I think there are so many ways to wiggle that it is effectively impossible to answer.

Following up given OPs question... I'd be happy with rewording to eliminate wiggle-room, but I don't know what that wording would be. I don't think the problem is ambiguity in the question, it's the looseness of our underlying theories. Reduction in underlying inventory has long been a desideratum of analysis, hence we don't posit both aspirated and unaspirated voiceless stops in the English underlying inventory. This means that you are virtually compelled to analyze out of existence putative cases of segments with defective distribution. What principle could we adopt that would prevent this practice (and should we)?

If the question is stated in terms of phonetic outputs, then the answer is "there are plenty", such as English [ɬ] which only appears after [s,f] and aspirated stops; or [ʈ] (in some dialects, phonetic value approximate) which only appears before /ɹ/. So to favor a positive answer to the question, we would need to limit abstract analysis; to favor a negative answer, we would encourage (require) such analysis.

  • What about if we could come up with a wording that ruled out all kinds of wiggles and focused on the non-wiggle possibilities only? Dec 15, 2014 at 10:05

In many dialects of Pashto, only occurs in clusters. It only occurs in clusters (mostly before [r ~ ɾ] and [l]). It never occurs alone and contrasts with x (and xw in some words) for example /xre/ means “(you're a) female donkey” and /xʷre/ [with rising intonation] means “(are you) eating?”. Some other examples and minimal pairs are:

  • [xʷrɐm] “(I am) eating” but [xwrɐm] means “a person with big nose”
  • [xʷrɐ] “(you) eat!” (imperative) but [xrɐ] means “a female donkey”
  • [xʷre] "(are you) eating?" but [xre] means “(you are) a female donkey”
  • [xʷlɜ] “mouth”
  • Is it phonemically reducible to something like /xure/ or /xore/, though, with a syncope and remnant labialisation? Jul 6, 2021 at 15:43
  • @JanusBahsJacquet: In my dialect, no. Also, there isn't much info about Pashto on the internet so I can't corroborate my claims. /// Although I've heard [xure] in other dialects (and it sounds unnatural to my native ears). I'd say yes, it's reducible to /xure/ (but not /xore/). Incidentally, the Wikipedia article on Pashto phonology doesn't list phonemic /xʷ/. I'm disappointed. Jul 6, 2021 at 16:21

I think you need to think about the theoretical implications of what you are asking. The question presupposes that you know going into an analysis that a certain sequence of speech sounds in a language is the realization of multiple phonemes in that language. But the usual criterion for assigning phonemic status to the subparts of a sequence of speech sounds is precisely what you are saying would be lacking for this hypothetical language--the observation that the subparts (or sounds that could conceivably be realizations of those subparts) occur independently elsewhere in the language.

Imagine a language that is just like English except that it doesn't have [t] or [ʃ] in isolation (while still having [tʃ]). The most sensible phonemic analysis of such data would be that [tʃ] represents a single phoneme, /tʃ/. Now substitute any other sounds for [t] and [ʃ] in this example. How would you ever argue that the constituent sounds represent individual phonemes if they never appear independently?

  • I guess you can force me to ask a new question which doesn't allow affricates but only clearly analysable pairs like /sk/ while lacking at least either /s/ or /k/ alone. Or I could branch another question whether there are cases of non-affricate-like cluster-like phonemes such as /fl/, /br/, /str/, etc in any languages. I would find any of these surprising and interesting. Oct 21, 2014 at 1:03
  • @hippietrail My point would still apply to cases like the hypothetical examples you raise, although I'd be surprised to come across them in real life. That's why I said to substitute any sounds for [t] and [ʃ] in my example. What would be your justification for treating /sk/ as two phonemes (the definition of a cluster in the phonological sense)? And if not treating them as separate phonemes, then your question really is about phonetics and not about phonology. Oct 21, 2014 at 1:58
  • My justification is that I've never come across, read about, or heard of any such complex phoneme in any language. If things are as you say then I think I lack the vocabulary to ask a question about the existence of such things. Oct 21, 2014 at 2:51
  • This page gives a good overview of the most commonly observed types of complex consonant articulations. The type you are interested in would fall under the category they call transitional or sequential (as opposed to simultaneous) complex articulations. Within this category, the most commonly observed types of articulatory sequences are nasal-oral stop, oral stop-nasal, stop-fricative (affricate), and stop-glide (sequential labialization, palatalization, and velarization). Oct 21, 2014 at 22:10
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    Perhaps a good preliminary question for you to ask is whether phonemes with stop-liquid [br], fricative-liquid [fl], or fricative-stop [sk] sequential articulations have been observed in any languages. Oct 21, 2014 at 22:12

This depends on whether we are talking about phonology or about phonetics (you do not specify). If it is phonetics then there are lots of examples of allophones that occur only in clusters and not on their own, for example in English the unaspirated [t] in ‘stop’. But I suspect that phonology is another matter.

  • I guess I assumed consonant clusters were really in the realm of one of phonology so I was thinking of the phoneme level and assuming at the phone level various analyses might apply that make the question not make much sense. So yep I'm looking for more surprising things than aspiration changes among allophones. In fact I did include the phonology tag but I'll improve the question text to match the tagging. Oct 20, 2014 at 11:28

As one can see there are still words derived from it, like Тпрусё and some variations like птрути. I could ask if there are more cases if interested. In Sanskrit I'm not aware of such a phenomena. You can see my list of ligatures (=consonant clusters) at https://groups.google.com/forum/#!topic/nagari/nW3k9-gFKao Liste-460-Rigveda-Ligaturen-Statistik-G.pdf

  • This interested me so I went ahead and requested entries for тпрусё and птрути in Wiktionary. So far though they've been found to exist only as "mentions" and not as "uses" and so probably not to warrant entries )-: Oct 21, 2014 at 1:05

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