Liquid consonant
In phonetics
Phonetics is a branch of linguistics that comprises the study of the sounds of human speech, or—in the case of sign languages—the equivalent aspects of sign. It is concerned with the physical properties of speech sounds or signs : their physiological production, acoustic properties, auditory...

, liquids or liquid consonants are a class of consonant
In articulatory phonetics, a consonant is a speech sound that is articulated with complete or partial closure of the vocal tract. Examples are , pronounced with the lips; , pronounced with the front of the tongue; , pronounced with the back of the tongue; , pronounced in the throat; and ,...

s consisting of lateral consonant
Lateral consonant
A lateral is an el-like consonant, in which airstream proceeds along the sides of the tongue, but is blocked by the tongue from going through the middle of the mouth....

s together with rhotic
Rhotic consonant
In phonetics, rhotic consonants, also called tremulants or "R-like" sounds, are liquid consonants that are traditionally represented orthographically by symbols derived from the Greek letter rho, including "R, r" from the Roman alphabet and "Р, p" from the Cyrillic alphabet...



Liquids as a class often behave in a similar way in the phonotactics
Phonotactics is a branch of phonology that deals with restrictions in a language on the permissible combinations of phonemes...

 of a language: for example, they often have the greatest freedom in occurring in consonant cluster
Consonant cluster
In linguistics, a consonant cluster is a group of consonants which have no intervening vowel. In English, for example, the groups and are consonant clusters in the word splits....

s. In some languages, such as Japanese
Japanese language
is a language spoken by over 130 million people in Japan and in Japanese emigrant communities. It is a member of the Japonic language family, which has a number of proposed relationships with other languages, none of which has gained wide acceptance among historical linguists .Japanese is an...

, there is one liquid phoneme which may have both lateral and rhotic allophone
In phonology, an allophone is one of a set of multiple possible spoken sounds used to pronounce a single phoneme. For example, and are allophones for the phoneme in the English language...


Most British dialects of English
English language
English is a West Germanic language that arose in the Anglo-Saxon kingdoms of England and spread into what was to become south-east Scotland under the influence of the Anglian medieval kingdom of Northumbria...

 have one lateral, /l/ and one rhotic, /r/, and therefore have two liquids, exemplified in words such as led and red. Irish and American English share the same distinction, though with a different rhotic phoneme
In a language or dialect, a phoneme is the smallest segmental unit of sound employed to form meaningful contrasts between utterances....

, the retroflex approximant /ɹ/. Most other European languages have two liquids, corresponding to /l/ and /r/ respectively.

Some European languages, such as Italian
Italian language
Italian is a Romance language spoken mainly in Europe: Italy, Switzerland, San Marino, Vatican City, by minorities in Malta, Monaco, Croatia, Slovenia, France, Libya, Eritrea, and Somalia, and by immigrant communities in the Americas and Australia...

 and Serbo-Croatian
Serbo-Croatian language
Serbo-Croatian or Serbo-Croat, less commonly Bosnian/Croatian/Serbian , is a South Slavic language with multiple standards and the primary language of Serbia, Croatia, Bosnia and Herzegovina, and Montenegro...

, have more than two liquid phonemes. These languages typically have the set /l/ /ʎ/ /r/, though some (like Russian
Russian language
Russian is a Slavic language used primarily in Russia, Belarus, Uzbekistan, Kazakhstan, Tajikistan and Kyrgyzstan. It is an unofficial but widely spoken language in Ukraine, Moldova, Latvia, Turkmenistan and Estonia and, to a lesser extent, the other countries that were once constituent republics...

) have /lʲ/, /ɫ/, /r/ (Russian also has /rʲ/).

Elsewhere in the world, two liquids of the types mentioned above remains the most common attribute of a language's consonant inventory, except in North America and Australia. In North America, a majority of languages do not have rhotics at all and there is a wide variety of lateral sounds
Lateral consonant
A lateral is an el-like consonant, in which airstream proceeds along the sides of the tongue, but is blocked by the tongue from going through the middle of the mouth....

 – though most are obstruent
An obstruent is a consonant sound formed by obstructing airflow, causing increased air pressure in the vocal tract, such as [k], [d͡ʒ] and [f]. In phonetics, articulation may be divided into two large classes: obstruents and sonorants....

 laterals rather than liquids. Most indigenous Australian languages are very rich in liquids, with some having as many as seven distinct liquids. These typically include dental, alveolar, retroflex and palatal laterals, and as many as three rhotics. This richness in liquid consonants in a sense compensates for the small vowel inventories and lack of fricatives of Aboriginal languages.

On the other side, there are many indigenous languages in the Amazon Basin
Amazon Basin
The Amazon Basin is the part of South America drained by the Amazon River and its tributaries that drains an area of about , or roughly 40 percent of South America. The basin is located in the countries of Bolivia, Brazil, Colombia, Ecuador, Guyana, Peru, and Venezuela...

 and eastern North America with no liquids, and also a few in Asia and Africa. Polynesian languages typically have only one liquid, which may be either a lateral or a rhotic.


The grammarian Dionysius Thrax
Dionysius Thrax
Dionysius Thrax was a Hellenistic grammarian and a pupil of Aristarchus of Samothrace. His place of origin was not Thrace as the epithet Thrax denotes, but probably Alexandria...

 used the Greek word ὑγρος (hugros, "moist") to describe the /l,r,m,n/ phoneme
In a language or dialect, a phoneme is the smallest segmental unit of sound employed to form meaningful contrasts between utterances....

s of classical Greek. Most commentators assume that this referred to their "slippery" effect on meter
Meter (poetry)
In poetry, metre is the basic rhythmic structure of a verse or lines in verse. Many traditional verse forms prescribe a specific verse metre, or a certain set of metres alternating in a particular order. The study of metres and forms of versification is known as prosody...

 in classical Greek verse when they occur as the second member of a consonant cluster. This word was calque
In linguistics, a calque or loan translation is a word or phrase borrowed from another language by literal, word-for-word or root-for-root translation.-Calque:...

d into Latin
Latin is an Italic language originally spoken in Latium and Ancient Rome. It, along with most European languages, is a descendant of the ancient Proto-Indo-European language. Although it is considered a dead language, a number of scholars and members of the Christian clergy speak it fluently, and...

as liquidus, whence it has been retained in the Western European phonetic tradition.
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