Breathy voice

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Breathy voice (also called murmured voice, soughing, or susurration) is a phonation in which the vocal cords vibrate, as they do in normal (modal) voicing, but are held further apart, so that a larger volume of air escapes between them. This produces an audible noise. A breathy-voiced phonation [ɦ] (not actually a fricative, as a literal reading of the IPA chart would suggest) can sometimes be heard as an allophone of English /h/ between vowels, e.g. in the word behind, for some speakers. A stop with breathy-voiced release (symbolized either as [bʱ], [dʱ], [ɡʱ], etc. or as [b̤], [d̤], [ɡ̈], etc.) is like aspiration in that it delays the onset of full voicing. This is the phonation of the Hindi "voiced aspirated stops": bh, dh, ḍh, jh, and gh. Breathy-voiced vowels are written [a̤], [e̤], etc.


Methods of production

There are several ways to produce breathy-voiced sounds like [ɦ]. One is to hold the vocal cords apart, so that they are lax as they are for [h], but to increase the volume of airflow so that they vibrate loosely. A second is to bring the vocal cords closer together along their entire length than in voiceless [h], but not as close as in modally voiced sounds such as vowels. This results in an airflow intermediate between [h] and vowels, and is the case with English intervocalic /h/. A third is to constrict the glottis, but separate the arytenoid cartilages that control one end. This results in the vocal cords being drawn together for voicing in the back, but separated to allow the passage of large volumes of air in the front. This is the situation with Hindi.


From the Latin, murmur, a soft-sounded and quiet utterance, often where the speaker does not want to be known.

Breathy voice as a phonological property

A number of languages use breathy voicing in a phonologically contrastive way. Indic languages, such as Hindi, typically have a four-way contrast among plosives and affricates (voiced, breathy voiced, tenuis, aspirated) and a two-way contrast among nasals (voiced, breathy voiced). The Nguni languages in the southern Bantu languages family, including Phuthi, Xhosa, Zulu, Ndebele and Swati, also have contrastive breathy voice. In the case of Xhosa, there is a four-way contrast analogous to Indic in oral clicks, and similarly a two-way contrast among nasal clicks, but a three-way contrast among plosives and affricates (breathy voiced, aspirated, and ejective), and two-way contrasts among fricatives (voiceless and breathy voiced) and nasals (voiced and breathy voiced).

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