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Term Definition

Fricatives are consonants that are formed by impeding the flow of air somewhere in the vocal apparatus so that a friction-sound is produced. Because of the way the flow of breath is heard in producing fricatives, fricatives are also called spirants.

Introduction to fricatives

The fricative is the name for a consonant that is produced by a mouth through a kind of blockage of airflow when pronouncing the sound. This is called a fricative because the blocked airflow produces friction when coming into contact with parts of the mouth. Another name for the fricative is the spirant. This is a reference to the fact that the production of a fricative involves the alteration of airflow (regarding spirant, think respiration, or breathing). 

The sound made when pronouncing a fricative resembles a sort of audible hiss, since the air needed for making the sound is both being blocked and trying to leave the speaker's mouth at the same time. 

Examples in the English language

Some of the main examples of the fricative in the English language are "f", "v", and "th", "s", and "z". Try saying each of these sounds, and you will notice a pattern in how your mouth is moving. Basically, your tongue curves up a little to block the airflow; and when the air passes through this narrowed tunnel, it makes a kind of hissing sound. This sound is the hallmark of the fricative. 

The fricative is thus an example of a concept used by linguists to classify the movement of the mouth, tongue, and throat in the pronunciation of consonants. Several other examples of such concepts can be found within the present glossary of linguistics terms.

Basically, the only rule for the fricative is that the tongue and mouth must move in this specific way such that friction is produced when the relevant sound is being pronounced. The fricative may be somewhat easier for the layperson to identify than other consonantal sounds due to the simple presence of the actual hissing sound produced when the consonants are spoken. 

Categorizing fricatives

Within the field of linguistics, there are a plethora of ways for further categorizing the fricative. This is due to the fact that in general, the fricative is simply defined by the blockage of airflow when producing a sound in such a way that friction is produced. However, airflow can be blocked in a variety of different ways; and this leads to a variety of different categories of the fricative, depending on how specifically the mouth moves to block airflow when a given consonant is pronounced. 

This classification schema for the fricative can get pretty complex and involved, and it is probably not of special interest to most people outside of the field of linguistics. In general, native speakers of a given language naturally know of to produce the forms of fricative within that language, without really thinking about pronunciation in a conscious way. Conscious awareness of the pronunciation of the forms of the fricative, however, may be relevant and useful within the areas of speech therapy and foreign language studies, insofar as these are areas in which the speaker usually must learn how to pronounce sounds (such as forms of the fricative) that he has not naturally learned to pronounce for one reason or another. 

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Synonyms: fricative

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