Retroflex consonant

Retroflex consonant

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Tongue shape




See also: Manner of articulation
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Subapical retroflex plosive

A retroflex consonant is a coronal consonant where the tongue has a flat, concave, or even curled shape, and is articulated between the alveolar ridge and the hard palate. They are sometimes referred to as cerebral consonants, especially in Indology. Other terms occasionally encountered are domal and cacuminal.

In the International Phonetic Alphabet, retroflex consonants are indicated with a hook in the bottom right, such as [ʂ ʐ ʈ ɖ ɳ ɭ ɽ ɻ]. Alternatively, especially for those sounds with a relatively forward articulation (e.g. in the alveolar or postalveolar region rather than the hard palate), they can be indicated with a retracted diacritic (underbar); this occurs especially for [s̱ ẕ]. (Other sounds indicated this way, such as [ṉ ḻ ḏ], tend to refer to alveolo-palatal rather than retroflex consonants.)


Compared with other sounds

Retroflex sounds need to be distinguished from other consonants made in the same parts of the mouth (postalveolar, alveolar, or palatal):

  • the palato-alveolar sounds (e.g. [ʃ ʒ]),such as the sh, ch and "zh" occurring in English words like ship, chip and vision
  • the alveolo-palatal sounds (e.g. [ɕ ʑ]), such as the q, j and x occurring in Mandarin Chinese
  • the dorsal palatal consonants (e.g. [ç ʝ ɲ]), such as the ch [ç] in German ich or the ñ [ɲ] in Spanish año
  • the grooved alveolar consonants (e.g. [s z]), such as the s and z occurring in English words like sip and zip

The first three types of sounds above have a convex tongue shape, which gives them an additional secondary articulation of palatalization. The last type has a groove running down the center line of the tongue, which gives it a strongly hissing quality. The retroflex sounds, however, have a flat or concave shape, with no associated palatalization, and no groove running down the tongue. The term "retroflex", in fact, literally means "bent back" (concave), although consonants with a flat tongue shape are commonly considered retroflex as well.

Types of retroflex consonants

Retroflex consonants, like other coronal consonants, come in several varieties, depending on the shape of the tongue. The tongue may be either flat or concave, or even with the tip curled back. The point of contact on the tongue may be with the tip (apical), with the blade (laminal), or with the underside of the tongue (subapical). The point of contact on the roof of the mouth may be with the alveolar ridge (alveolar, the area behind the alveolar ridge (postalveolar), or the hard palate (palatal). Finally, both sibilant (fricative or affricate) and nonsibilant (stop, nasal, lateral, rhotic) consonants can have a retroflex articulation.

The greatest variety of combinations occurs with sibilants, because for these, small changes in tongue shape and position cause significant changes in the resulting sound. Retroflex sounds in general have a duller, lower-pitched sound than other alveolar or postalveolar consonants, and especially the grooved alveolar sibilants. The farther back the point of contact with the roof of the mouth, the more concave is the shape of the tongue, and the duller (lower pitched) is the sound, with sub-apical consonants being the most extreme.

The main combinations normally observed are:

  • Laminal post-alveolar, with a flat tongue. These occur, for example, in in Polish cz, sz, ż (rz), dż and Mandarin zh, ch, sh, r.
  • Apical post-alveolar, with a somewhat concave tongue. These occur, for example, in Hindi and other Indo-Aryan languages. (Hindi has no retroflex sibilants, although some of the other Indo-Aryan languages do.)
  • Sub-apical palatal, with a highly concave tongue. These occur particularly in the Dravidian languages. These are the dullest and lowest-pitched type, and when following a vowel often add strong r-coloring to the vowel, sounding as if an American English r occurs between the vowel and consonant.
  • Apical alveolar, with a somewhat concave tongue. These occur, for example, in peninsular Spanish and Basque. These sounds don't quite fit on the front-to-back, laminal-to-subapical continuum, with a relatively dull but higher pitched sound.

The sub-apical sounds are sometimes called "true retroflex" because of the curled-back shape of the tongue, while the other sounds sometimes go by other names. For example, Ladefoged and Maddieson[1] prefer to call the laminal post-alveolar sounds "flat post-alveolar", and the apical alveolar sounds are often referred to simply as "apico-alveolar" (which is ambiguous with, and often confused with, other apical alveolar sounds such as the apical variety of the voiceless alveolar sibilant (English [s]).


Although data is not precise, about 20 percent of the world's languages contain retroflex consonants of one sort or another[2]. About half of these possess only retroflex continuants, with most of the rest having both stops and continuants. Retroflex consonants are concentrated in the Indo-Aryan and Dravidian languages of the Indian subcontinent.

The Nuristani languages of eastern Afghanistan also have retroflex consonants. Among Eastern Iranian languages, they are common in Pashto, Wakhi, Sanglechi-Ishkashimi, and Munji-Yidgha. They also occur in some other Asian languages such as Mandarin Chinese, Javanese and Vietnamese. The other major concentration is in the indigenous languages of Australia and the Western Pacific (notably New Caledonia). Here, most languages have retroflex plosives, nasal and approximants.

Retroflex consonants are relatively rare among European languages, occurring for example in Sardinian, in Sicilian, some Italian dialects such as Calabrian, Salentino and Lunigianese, in most forms of Swedish and in Norwegian. In the two latter, a sequence of r plus a coronal consonant may be replaced by the coronal's retroflex equivalent, e.g. the name Martin would be pronounced ['maʈːin] or ['mɑʈːin]. This is sometimes done for several consonants in a row after an rHornstull is pronounced [huːɳʂ'ʈɵlː]). The apical alveolar type also occurs in peninsular Spanish and in Basque, although the phonological descriptions of these languages rarely refer to these sounds as "retroflex", preferring the (ambiguous) term "apico-alveolar".

The retroflex approximant /ɻ/ is an allophone of the alveolar approximant /ɹ/ in many dialects of American English, particularly in the Midwestern United States. Polish and Russian possess retroflex sibilants, but no stops or liquids at this place of articulation.

Retroflex consonants are largely absent from indigenous languages of the Americas with the exception of the extreme south of South America, an area in Southwestern US as in Hopi and Papago, and in Alaska and the Yukon Territory as in the Athabaskan languages Gwichʼin and Hän. In African languages retroflex consonants are also very rare, reportedly occurring in a few Nilo-Saharan languages. In southwest Ethiopia, phonemically distinctive retroflex consonants are found in Bench and Sheko, two contiguous, but not closely related, Omotic languages.[3]

There are several retroflex consonants not yet recognized by the IPA. For example, the Iwaidja language of northern Australia has a retroflex lateral flap [ɺ̢] ([]) as well as a retroflex tap [ɽ] and retroflex lateral approximant [ɭ]; and the Dravidian language Toda has a subapical retroflex lateral fricative [ɬ̢] ([]) and a retroflexed trill [ɽ͡r]. Because of the regularity of deriving retroflex symbols from their alveolar counterparts, people will occasionally use a font editor to create the appropriate symbols for such sounds. (Here they were written with diacritics.) The Ngad'a language of Flores has been reported to have a retroflex implosive [ᶑ], but in this case the expected symbol is coincidentally supported by Unicode. Subapical retroflex clicks occur in Central Juu and in Damin.[citation needed]

Most languages with retroflex sounds typically have only one retroflex sound with a given manner of articulation. An exception, however, is the Toda language, with a two-way distinction among retroflex sibilants between apical (post)alveolar and subapical palatal.

In the IPA

Retroflex consonants identified by the International Phonetic Alphabet are:

IPA Description    Example
Language     Orthography   IPA                      Meaning      
Xsampa-n'.png retroflex nasal Swedish Vänern [vɛː.neɳ] Vänern
Xsampa-t'.png voiceless retroflex plosive Hindi टापू (āpū) [ʈaːpuˑ] island
Xsampa-d'.png voiced retroflex plosive Swedish nord [nuːɖ] north
Xsampa-s'.png voiceless retroflex fricative Mandarin 上海 (Shànghǎi) [ʂɑ̂ŋ.xàɪ] Shanghai
Xsampa-z'.png voiced retroflex fricative Russian
[ʐaba] frog
Xsampa-rslash'.png retroflex approximant Tamil தமிழ் (Tamil) [t̪ɐmɨɻ] Tamil
Xsampa-l'.png retroflex lateral approximant Swedish Karlstad [kʰɑːɭ.sta] Karlstad
Xsampa-r'.png retroflex flap Hausa shaara [ʃáːɽa] sweeping
ɺ̢ () retroflex lateral flap Pashto ړوند [ɺ̢und] blind
ǃ˞ (voiced) retroflex click Central Juu [ɡǃ˞ú] water

Note: In the International Phonetic Alphabet, the symbols for retroflex consonants are typically the same as for the alveolar consonants, but with the addition of a right-facing hook to the bottom of the symbol. Some linguists restrict these symbols for the "true" retroflex consonants with subapical palatal articulation, and use the alveolar symbols with the obsolete IPA underdot symbol for an apical post-alveolar articulation: [ṭ, ḍ, ṇ, ṣ, ẓ, ḷ, ɾ̣, ɹ̣]. Another solution, more in keeping with the official IPA, would be to use the rhotic diacritic for the apical retroflexes: [t˞, d˞, n˞, s˞, z˞, l˞, ɾ˞, ɹ˞]. Laminal retroflexes, as in Polish and Russian, are often transcribed with a retraction diacritic, as [s̠], etc. Otherwise they are typically but inaccurately transcribed as if they were palato-alveolar, as *[ʃ], etc.

See also


  1. ^ Ladefoged, Peter; Maddieson, Ian (1996). The Sounds of the World's Languages. Oxford: Blackwell. ISBN 0-631-19814-8. 
  2. ^ Ian Maddieson (with a chapter contributed by Sandra Ferrari Disner); Patterns of sounds; Cambridge University Press, 1984. ISBN 0-521-26536-3
  3. ^ Breeze, Mary. 1988. "Phonological features of Gimira and Dizi."‭ In Marianne Bechhaus-Gerst and Fritz Serzisko (eds.), Cushitic - Omotic: papers from the International Symposium on Cushitic and Omotic languages, Cologne, January 6-9, 1986, 473-487. Hamburg: Helmut Buske Verlag.

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