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Manners of articulation
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In phonetics, a flap or tap is a type of consonantal sound, which is produced with a single contraction of the muscles so that one articulator (such as the tongue) is thrown against another.


Contrast with stops and trills

The main difference between a flap and a stop consonant is that in a flap, there is no buildup of air pressure behind the place of articulation, and consequently no release burst. Otherwise a flap is similar to a brief stop.

Flaps also contrast with trills, where the airstream causes the articulator to vibrate. Trills may be realized as a single contact, like a flap, but are variable, whereas a flap is limited to a single contact.

Tap vs. flap

Many linguists use the terms tap and flap indiscriminately. Peter Ladefoged proposed for a while that it might be useful to distinguish between them. However, his usage was inconsistent, contradicting itself even between different editions of the same text. The last proposed distinction was that a tap strikes its point of contact directly, as a very brief plosive, whereas a flap strikes the point of contact tangentially: "Flaps are most typically made by retracting the tongue tip behind the alveolar ridge and moving it forward so that it strikes the ridge in passing." However, he no longer feels this is a useful distinction to make, and prefers to use the word flap in all cases. For linguists that do make the distinction, the coronal tap is transcribed as a fish-hook ar, [ɾ], while the flap is transcribed as a small capital dee, [ᴅ], which is not recognized by the IPA. Otherwise alveolars are typically called taps, and other articulations flaps. No language contrasts a tap and a flap at the same place of articulation.

IPA symbols

The flap and tap consonants identified by the International Phonetic Alphabet are:

IPA Description Example
Language Orthography IPA Meaning
ɾ alveolar tap North American English latter /læɾɚ/ "latter"
ɺ alveolar lateral flap Japanese ラーメン /ɺaːmeɴ/ "ramen"
ɽ retroflex flap Warlpiri dupa (?) /ɽupa/ "windbreak"
labiodental flap Karang /ara/ "animal"

Types of flaps


Alveolar flaps

Spanish features a good illustration of an alveolar flap, contrasting it with a trill: pero /peɾo/ "but" vs. perro /pero/ "dog". Among the Germanic languages, this allophone occurs in American English and in Northern Low Saxon (“Low German”). In American English it tends to be an allophone of intervocalic /t/ (as in "butter," "later," "fattest" and "total"). In a number of Low Saxon dialects it occurs as an allophone of intervocalic /d/ or /t/; e.g. den /beeden/ → ['beːɾn] ‘to pray’, ‘to request’, gah to Bedde! /gaa tou bede/ → [ˌgɑːtoʊ'beɾe] ‘go to bed!’, Water /vaater/ → ['vɑːɾɜ] ‘water’, Vadder /fater/ → ['faɾɜ] ‘father’. (In some dialects this has resulted in reanalysis and a shift to /r/; thus bären ['beːrn], to Berre [toʊ'bere], Warer ['vɑːrɜ], Varrer ['farɜ].) Occurrence varies; in some Low Saxon dialects it affects both /t/ and /d/, while in others it affects only /d/.

Retroflex flaps

Most Indic and Dravidian languages have retroflex flaps. In Hindi there are three, a simple retroflex flap as in [bɐɽɑː] big, a murmured retroflex flap as in [koɽʱiː] leper, and a retroflex nasal flap in the Hindicized pronunciation of Sanskrit [mɐɽ̃i] ruby. Some of these may be allophonic.

A retroflex flap is also common in Norwegian dialects and some Swedish dialects.

Lateral flaps

Lateral flaps may be more common than much of the literature would lead one to believe. Many of the languages of Africa, Asia, and the Pacific that don't distinguish r from l may have a lateral flap, but this is generally missed by European linguists, who often aren't familiar with the sound.

However, it is also possible that many of these languages do not have a lateral-central contrast at all, so that even a consistently neutral articulation may be perceived as sometimes lateral [ɺ] or [l], sometimes central [ɾ]. This has been suggested to be the case for Japanese, for example.

The Iwaidja language of Australia has both alveolar and retroflex lateral flaps, and perhaps a palatal lateral flap as well. (However, the latter is rare and may be a palatalized alveolar lateral flap rather than a separate phoneme.) These contrast with lateral approximants at the same positions, as well as a central retroflex flap [ɽ], alveolar trill [r], and retroflex approximant [ɻ].

A velar lateral flap may exist as an allophone in a few languages of New Guinea.

The symbol for the alveolar lateral flap is the basis for the expected (though not officially recognized) symbol for the retroflex lateral flap,

Symbols such as these are uncommon, but are becoming more frequent now that font-editing software has become accessible. Note however that besides not being sanctioned by the IPA, there are no Unicode values for them. However, the retroflex lateral flap may be written as a digraph with the right-tail diacritic, [ɺ̡].

The palatal and velar lateral flaps may be represented with a short diacritic over the letter for the homorganic approximant, although the diacritic would need to appear under the palatal due to its ascender: [ʎ̯, ʟ̆].

Non-rhotic flaps

The only common non-rhotic flap is the labiodental flap, found throughout central Africa in languages such as Margi. In 2005, the IPA adopted a right-hook vee,

for this sound. Previously, it had been transcribed with the use of the breve diacritic, [v̆], or other ad hoc symbols.

Other flaps are much less common. They include a bilabial flap in Banda, which may be an allophone of the labiodental flap, and a velar lateral flap as an allophone in Kanite and Melpa. These are often transcribed with the breve diacritic, as [w̆, ʟ̆]. Note here that, like a velar trill, a central velar flap or tap is not possible because the tongue and soft palate cannot move together easily enough to produce a sound.

If other flaps are found, the breve diacritic could be used to represent them, but would more properly be combined with the symbol for the corresponding voiced plosive. A palatal or uvular flap, which unlike a velar flap is believed to be articulatorily possible, could be represented this way (by *[ɟ̆, ɢ̆]).


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