, , , , , , , , , , , , ,

Welcome to lesson #4 of my Linguistics Lessons. In lesson 3 we looked at articulatory phonetics in a little more detail. We started with speech anatomy and which organs are used in making speech sounds. This week we’ll take a look at airstream mechanisms.

An airstream mechanism is defined by linguists as:

In phonetics, the airstream mechanism is the method by which airflow is created in the vocal tract. Along with phonation and articulation, it is one of three main components of speech production.

So it’s the way that airflow is created. This (airflow) gives us a base upon which we can then use the other parts of speech anatomy to create actual speech. (Phonation and articulation will be covered in later lessons. But basically phonation refers, linguistically, to whether a sound is voiced, like English “z”, or unvoiced, like English “s”. While articulation refers to how we pronounce a consonant or vowel.)

There are two types of airstreams or ways that air can flow: inward and outward. Air that flows inward – meaning it generally comes in from outside of us in through our mouths – is called ingressive. And air that flows outward – meaning it generally starts from within us somewhere (lungs, etc.) and flows out through our mouths – is called egressive.

Now the organ generating the airstream is called the initiator and there are 3 initiators used in spoken languages around the world: the lungs (together with the diaphragm and the ribs), the glottis, and the tonuge. Linguists call these intiators pulmonic for the lungs, glottalic for the glottis, and lingual or velaric for the tongue.

So if you combine these together, you get a total possibility of 6 types of airstream mechanisms:

  1. Pulmonic egressive
  2. Pulmonic ingressive
  3. Glottalic egressive
  4. Glottalic ingressive
  5. Velaric egressive
  6. Velaric ingressive

Out of these 6, 4 (numbers 1, 3, 4, and 6) are used in natural languages in a lexical way (that is, found in actual words). Number 2 is used in various languages in interjections or other sounds that aren’t part of a word, but are still used in speech. For example, in a gasp would be an example of pulmonic ingressive as you are pulling in air into your lungs. And in many languages, a gasp is not a word, but used as a response (perhaps to unexpected or frightening news). And the last one, number 6, seems to be extremely rare, with one use being found in France. According to Wikipedia, “in France a lingual egressive (a “spurt”) is used to express dismissal”. So again, that is a non-lexical use.

If this seems confusing, don’t worry about it too much for now. I cannot really go into more details or give examples of each type of airstream mechanism without using terminology and concepts that we have not covered yet. So we will come back to these airstream mechanisms in a future lesson. However, next week we’ll move on to types of speech sounds.



  1. “MOOC: Linguistics 101 – Fundamentals”, The Virtual Linguistics Campus: http://linguistics.online.uni-marburg.de/
  2. “Airstream Mechanism”, Wikipedia: http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Airstream_mechanism
  3. “Lexical Definition”, Dictionary.com: http://dictionary.reference.com/browse/lexical

PS. I am intentionally keeping each lesson relatively short, and trying to introduce only a few new terms at a time. I’m doing this for two reasons: 1) It helps me be able to write each lesson quicker. If I was to create a more involved lesson, I would need to do more planning, which currently I’m not able to do. 2) If you are completely new to linguistics, absorbing or learning a lot of new terminology and concepts in one sitting can be overwhelming.

But if you want to see me write longer lessons – if you feel the lessons are too short, or too easy – let me know in the comments. Thanks.