Palatal consonant

Palatal consonant

Tongue shape

Palatal consonants are consonants articulated with the body of the tongue raised against the hard palate (the middle part of the roof of the mouth). Consonants with the tip of the tongue curled back against the palate are called retroflex.


The most common type of palatal consonant is the extremely common approximant [j], which ranks as among the ten most common sounds in the world's languages. The nasal [ɲ] is also common, occurring in around 35 percent of the world's languages,[1] in most of which its equivalent obstruent is not the stop [c], but the affricate [t͡ʃ]. Only a few languages in northern Eurasia, the Americas and central Africa contrast palatal stops with postalveolar affricates - as in Hungarian, Czech, Latvian, Macedonian, Slovak, Turkish and Albanian.

Consonants with other primary articulations may be palatalized, that is, accompanied by the raising of the tongue surface towards the hard palate. For example, English [ʃ] (spelled sh) has such a palatal component, although its primary articulation involves the tip of the tongue and the upper gum (this type of articulation is called palatoalveolar).

In phonology, alveolo-palatal, palatoalveolar and palatovelar consonants are commonly grouped as palatals, since these categories rarely contrast with true palatals. Sometimes palatalized alveolars or dentals can be analyzed in this manner as well.

Palatal vs. palatalized vs. sequences with /j/

It is important to distinguish between true palatal consonants, palatalized consonants, and sequences of a consonant and a /j/. Palatal consonants have their primary articulation toward or in contact with the hard palate, whereas palatalized consonants have a primary articulation in some other area and a secondary articulation involving movement towards the hard palate. Palatal and palatalized consonants are both single phonemes, whereas a sequence of a consonant and /j/ is logically two phonemes.

Some languages have more than one of the above types of consonants, for example:

  • Irish has both a palatal nasal /ɲ/ and a palatalized alveolar nasal /nʲ/. In fact, some conservative Irish dialects have two palatalized alveolar nasals, distinguished as "fortis" (apical and somewhat lengthened) vs. "lenis" (laminal).
  • Spanish has both a palatal nasal /ɲ/ and a sequence /nj/, distinguished e.g. in uñón /uɲon/ "large nail" (of the finger or toe) vs. unión /unjon/ "union".

Note that sometimes the term "palatal" is used imprecisely to mean "palatalized". Also, languages that have sequences of consonants and /j/, but no separate palatal or palatalized consonants (e.g. English), will often pronounce the sequence with /j/ as a single palatal or palatalized consonant. This is due to the principle of least effort and is an example of the general phenomenon of coarticulation. (On the other hand, Spanish speakers are very often careful to pronounce /nj/ as two separate sounds to avoid possible confusion with /ɲ/.)

Palatal consonant in IPA

The palatal consonants identified by the International Phonetic Alphabet are:

IPA Description Example
Language Orthography IPA Meaning
palatal nasal French agneau [aɲo] lamb
voiceless palatal stop Hungarian hattyú [hɒuː] swan
voiced palatal stop Latvian ģimene [ɟimene] family
voiceless palatal fricative German nicht [nɪçt] not
voiced palatal fricative Spanish rayo [raʝo] lightning bolt
palatal approximant English yes [jɛs] yes
palatal lateral approximant Italian gli [ʎi] the (masculine plural)
voiced palatal implosive Swahili hujambo [huʄambo] hello
palatal click Nǁng ǂoo [ǂoo] man, male

See also


  1. ^ Ian Maddieson (with a chapter contributed by Sandra Ferrari Disner); Patterns of sounds; Cambridge University Press, 1984. ISBN 0-521-26536-3