Daily Archives: October 19, 2011


Ah, frick it. It’s about time I got around to doing this word. It just has a certain something: it sits in your mouth hissing and spitting like a fricassee on the griddle, and the sound it refers to is slightly sternutatory: a stop released not suddenly but in a short, sharp spray – or hissing puff of air, anyway. Well, hissing if it’s voiceless; with the voiced ones, that little vibe after the stop can seem to give it an added strength. Or you tell me: which letter sounds stronger to you, d or j? No doubt context plays a role. But affricates, consonantal equivalents of diphthongs, have a complexity most others lack.

What are the affricates? In English, we have only two: /tʃ/ and /dʒ/, what we spell ch and j. But several others are available, and you’ve probably said more than one of them at one time or another in some loan word or piece of another language. It’s probably just a matter of time before /ts/ is accepted as an English sound; its voiced counterpart, /dz/, may or may not follow. Some of you may use /pf/ in loans from German; /bv/ is one you might make inadvertently in an especially sodden “bread”, but not as a distinct sound in its own right. And then there are the ones on the palate – press the middle of your tongue to the roof of your mouth and imitate a sneeze, and you might recognize a sound from the start of an emphatic “cute”, but again, it’s not a distinct sound in its own right – you could say a normal [k] there instead and be making the same word. As to the affricates made with /k/ and /g/ at the start… well, those have a good reason for being rare. And then there’s the lateral one heard at the start of Lhasa when it’s pronounced in the original… I’ll spare you the detailed description.

Some of you may be thinking, “Wait, we have hats and adze and upfront and subvert… what about those?” But an affricate is the conjunction of the stop and fricative done as a single sound, recognized and treated as a single sound, patterning as a single sound. We start words with /tʃ/ and /dʒ/: Chuck and Jim, for instance. We don’t do that with other potential affricates. German has Pfeiffer and Zeitgeist; Japanese has tsunami; we tend in English, when we borrow such words, to reduce or change the sounds. The English examples you can think of are all two sounds treated like two sounds. You can see the difference when you look at one of our affricates against its two-phoneme counterpart: compare ratchet with rat shit.

Others of you may be thinking, “What about /ks/ and /ps/ and sounds like those?” They don’t count; they’re not homorganic: the stop and the fricative don’t use the same part of the apparatus. To make an affricate you start with a stop and then add some friction – a fricative – in the same place. And, yes, the fric in affricate and fricative is the same as in friction: from Latin for “rub”.

The word affricate has stops and a rub – the twin ff like chaff in the breeze standing for the fricative /f/, and of course c and t the stops /k/ and /t/ – but it has no affricate. It does have a sound of African (indeed, affricate is how you would say African if it were Afrikit). Is that ironic? People more readily think of prenasalized stops – such as /nd/ and /mb/ – and clicks when they think of African languages, but that’s just because those are exotic to European ears. Of course affricates can be found in African languages – varying from language to language, naturally; remember that Africa has about two thousand languages in four entirely distinct language families (Niger-Congo [e.g., Swahili, Zulu], Afroasiatic [e.g., Arabic, Hausa], Nilo-Saharan [e.g., Dinka, Masai], and Khoisan [e.g., !Kung, Khoekhoe]; five if you count the Indo-European ones – English, French, etc., as well as the Greek that Cleopatra spoke).

Not all languages have affricates, to be sure, and those that do may not have many. But where you have them, they add a nice extra something that you can just chew on. So to speak.