Phonetic Analysis of Albanian


Erica Lush

Professor Barnes


12 December 2011

Phonetic Fieldwork: the Sound System of Albanian

This paper describes the sound system of Albanian as realized through the subject’s speech. The subject for fieldwork was Leticia Lucaj, a native speaker who was born in Albania. She moved to the United States in October 2001, when she was ten years old. She has spent most of her life since then in Rhode Island, and she uses her native language every day.


The consonants found in Albanian are all pulmonic, or produced by a person’s lungs. I will refer to them by the place of articulation, manner of articulation and whether or not they are voiced, but it can be assumed that all of the consonants mentioned are pulmonic.


Place contrast

Bilabial stops contrast with alveolar stops. This is shown by the following minimal and near minimal pairs.

[boɹ] “snow” durəs] city in western Albania, near the coast.
[doɹ] “hand” [bur] “man”

It is likely the reason these stops contrast is that the alveolar ridge is far enough from the lips for there to be any place-assimilation. For the same reason we should not expect the velar stops [k] or [g] to contrast with the alveolar [t] or [d]. Sure enough they are also distinct phonemes. These minimal pairs prove it:

[ʒgaraˈvin] “like a scribble” (an insult) [koɹ] “when”
[ˈvaʒda] “go, continue” (command) [tok] “ground”


Voicing contrast

Voicing contrast, on the other hand, is more likely to occur due to assimilation than it was for place contrast. Yet even voicing creates distinctive phonemes in Albanian. These next two near minimal pairs exemplify how the velar stops [g] and [k] are distinctive phonemes.

[goɹ] “stone” [meˈkab] “to catch” [hɑtɚ] “(your) perogative”
[koɹ] “when” [mgabu] “to make a mistake” [tʃɑdɚ] “umbrella”

The last minimal pair shown above proves that the alveolar stops [d] and [t] are also distinctive phonemes.

However it should be noted that although [t] and [d] are distinct phonemes, [d] can become devoiced or partially devoiced when following a voiceless alveolar fricative. This is due to voicing assimilation. For instance, the word [sɛˈditə], meaning “I didn’t know”, is often shortened in speech to [ˈsd̥ita]. Leticia usually uses the shortened version. This means that while [d] is always a voiced alveolar stop phonemically, the allophone existing after a voiceless alveolar fricative is very close to a [t]. Likewise, [b] does not seem to occur after voiceless fricatives, while [p] (the voiceless bilabial stop) does. (The only exception we found was in the loanword for “baseball”, but because it is a loanword and not true Albanian I am not including it in my allophonic distribution.) The voiced velar stop [g], in contrast, can be voiced after voiceless fricatives. For example: The word [ˈɑsgjœ], “nothing”. This is possible because the velar place of articulation is far enough from the [s] in this example for voicing to occur between the articulations. A voiced [g] may not be possible if the voiceless fricative were articulated further back, such as the voiceless post alveolar fricative [ʃ], but such a word was not found in my data.

The bilabial stops [p] and [b] also contrast, as shown by the following minimal pair:

[poɹ] “but”
[boɹ] “snow”



Voicing contrasts

Voicing contrasts in fricatives distinguish separate phonemes, as the minimal pairs below demonstrate. (There is no minimal pair for [h] because there is no voiced counterpart in Albanian.)

Interdental Dental
[ðɑl] “traditional Albanian drink with milk” [ɹ] “hang”
[θɑɹt] “sour” [ɹ] “seed”
Alveolar Post alveolar
[z] “black” [lɑˈvɑʒ] “car wash”
psæ] “because” [trɑʃ] “big (person)”

Place contrast

As mentioned in the section on stops, place contrasts are made only between sounds with adjacent places of articulation. Examples of such sounds would be [f] and [θ], [v] and [ð], [ð] and [z]. The following near minimal pairs show that there is place contrast for all of the fricatives.

Interdental and dental Dental and alveolar
[θɑɹt] “sour” vietɚ] “old”
[ɹ] “seed” [zi] “mourning”
Alveolar and post-alveolar
[ʃɛr] “trouble”
[ˈditə] “I didn’t know”


The voiced counterpart for [h] does not exist in the Albanian sound inventory. However, the voiceless palatal fricative [ç] (as can be heard in the English word [ˈçumən]) does occur, as an allophone of /h/. Several examples are:

[mɛˈçy] “to enter” [çyɹiˈjɛ] “entrance”
[çyn] “enters (3rd person)”

This fricative is not widespread. In fact, it only occurs before the vowel [y] due to assimilation of the place of articulation of the vowel. As described in the section on vowels, the close front rounded vowel [y] features a tongue placement high and forward in the mouth. It would be easy enough to pronounce a sequence [hu]; the vowel articulated is also high, close, and round, but it is back instead of front. This difference allows for less obstruction of the air traveling through the oral cavity after it is let through the glottis in the voiceless glottal fricative [h]. The following words are evidence that [h] is the phonemic sound, because it is more widely distributed.

hunda] “nose” [məhˈnita] “shocked, amazed”
hutuɑɹ] “zoned out” [unˈtʃuhɛm] “my name is”

This occurrence and the allophonic rules for the other fricatives are given below.In the sequence /hy/, the assimilation for the tongue posture of the vowel during the articulation of [h] creates a tighter constriction than in [hu]. This constriction is also further forward in the mouth; it’s palatalized. Thus the sequence becomes [çy]. [ç] is an allophone of /h/ which occurs only before the close high rounded vowel [y].




There are three affricates in Albanian: [tʃ], [dʒ], and [dz]. An affricate is a stop plus fricative sequence, in which the fricative is homorganic, meaning that it is articulated in the same place. The sequence [fʃ] occurs in my sample data as well, such as in the word [meˈkɑfʃu], “to bite,” but because the sounds are not homorganic it is not an affricate.

The affricate [dʒ] is contrastive with the fricative [ʒ], because in the following minimal pair the difference between these two sounds creates a difference in meaning:

[ʒɔɹm] “noise”

[ɔɹm] “track (of an animal)”

Both the fricative and the affricate occur after a word boundary and before the open-mid round back vowel [ɔ]. In English, if you pronounce a [ʒ] instead of a [dʒ], it would sound strange to a native speaker but it would not change the meaning. For instance, if you said that you like to [ʒəmp], a native speaker would be able to deduce that what you mean is that you like to [dʒəmp]. In Albanian, because /ʒ/ and /dʒ/ are distinct phonemes, mispronouncing one could in fact change the meaning of the word.

The affricate [tʃ] which we have in English also occurs in Albanian. In high school I learned the word for “what’s up,” [tʃˈkɛmi]. Writing systems can be misleading about sounds; the affricate [tʃ] is written as ‘ç’ in Albanian, so Leticia listed it as a sound she did not think was used in English. It actually occurs quite often in words such as [ˈtʃæmpiən] and [tʃɪp], the only difference being that in English it is written ‘ch.’ Having established that this is the very affricate found in English, the following near minimal pairs show that [tʃ] and [ʃ] are distinctive phonemes.

[tʃundʒɑˈtieta] “(old way of saying) hello” [ɛn] “dog”
[ʃuk] “to crumple, wad” [ʃɛr] “trouble”

While there are environments where [tʃ] or [ʃ] do not seem to occur – For instance, [tʃ] does not precede [p] but [ʃ] seems to quite commonly – the minimal pairs are what prove that these sounds are not in complementary distribution, but are distinct phonemes.

The affricate [dz], represented by the letter ‘x’ in the writing system, is a different phoneme from the fricative [z]. Initially I thought they were in complementary distribution; that perhaps [z] only occurred before back mid vowels, and [dz] only occurred before front vowels. However, to my disappointment, from the sample data I found the word [zɛz], meaning “black,” and [nˈdzœnœs], meaning “students (before the university level)”. This largely disproved my theory because both [œ] and [ɛ] are open-mid front vowels, the only difference being that [œ] is rounded and [ɛ] is not. Since this made the case of complementary distribution less likely, the search for minimal pairs continued.

Eventually the following near minimal pairs were found:

[aˈbazhɔr] “lampshade” [zi] “mourning”
adzhœ] “father’s brother” dzidza] “sparkle”

[dz] and [z] can both occur after [a] and before [h], as well as word-initial and before [i]. While my hypothesis had seemed possible for a while, the discovery of these minimal pairs proved that [d] and [dz] are in fact separate phonemes.

Voicing contrast

The palato-alveolar affricates [tʃ] and [dʒ] have the same place of articulation. The distinguishing feature is that the former is voiceless, and the latter is voiced. These affricates are used contrastively to signify a difference in meaning, as demonstrated by the following near minimal pair:

[dʒuθ] “all”

[undʒɑˈtieta] “(old way of saying) hello”

While both affricates occur after a word boundary and before the close back rounded vowel [u], they are not interchangeable in that position because they are significant to the meaning of the word.

The voiced alveolar affricate [dz] does not have a voiceless counterpart in Albanian to compare it to, thus further solidifying its position as an independent phoneme.



Lateral Approximants

Albanian, unlike English, has two distinct lateral approximant phonemes. As a native speaker of English, which only has one phonemic /l/, I had a lot of trouble hearing the difference between the Albanian “hard” and “soft” [l]’s. To Leticia, however, they were quite distinct, and she explained that in Albanian speech it is very clear which one they pronounce. Our solution was to introspect. I explained to her the difference between the lateral approximants in the English words [ˈledi] and [fiɫ]. Upon asking her to think about her place of articulation, she found that the “hard” [l] is articulated with the tongue touching, or almost touching, the teeth – [l̪] – and the “soft” [l] is velarized – [ɫ] – with the tongue touching further back, closer to the velum. The following is the minimal pair that drew us to these distinctive lateral approximants.

[diˈəl̪] “sun”
[diˈəɫ] “Sunday”

These are some more examples of the two phonemes:

[aˈstɔɪ] “to spoil” [meɪˈɫuit] “to play”
[ˈvogɪ] “small” [fʌɫaminˈdɛɹɪt] “thank you”
[bʌk] “notebook, writing pad” [bɛɫ] “belly”
[dzidzœˈoʊɲ] “firefly”  [maɫ] “mountain”

As proven by the minimal pair between “sun” and “Sunday,” the dental and velarized lateral approximants are distinct phonemes. The collected data above shows similarities in their distribution. For example, both phonemes can occur before open front vowels, or after open-mid front vowels. The allophonic rules for lateral approximants in Albanian are:




Four nasals occur in Albanian: [m], [n], [ɲ], and [ŋ].

Bilabial and Alveolar

Bilabial and alveolar nasals are separate phonemes, as seen in this near minimal pair:

yn] “enters (3rd person)”
[fɹym] “spirit”

Alveolar and Palatal

Because there are fewer words in my collected data with [ɲ] than [n], it seemed likely that the palatal nasal would be an allophone of /n/. This idea was strengthened by the observation that in my data at that time, [ɲ] only occurred before [i], [e], and word boundaries. It also seemed as though [ɲ] would only occur after word boundaries or voiceless fricative, until I found two words with different vowels before it. In comparison, note the more complete distribution of [n], in the words below.

nɑtɛn] “night” [taˈvan] “ceiling”
[nœnt] “nine” [ˈʃpina] “back (body part)”
nusɛ] “bride” neɪsɚ] “tomorrow”
[vˈnaɪɚ] “vomit”

However, this minimal pair disproves the allophonic theory altogether:

[ne] “us”
[ɲe] “one”

As it turns out, [e] occurs after [n] also, and this overlap means that they are not in complementary distribution. Thus, based on the minimal pair, they are separate phonemes; [ɲ] simply seems to have a more limited distribution than [n].


The velar nasal [ŋ] occurs in the same environment as [n], as shown here:

[guʃt] “narrow”
[ŋˈga] “from”

However, the velar nasal is not common; [ŋˈga] is the only word which Leticia found to have it. Even after consulting her aunt and making the search for [ŋ] ‘a family affair’, this word seems to be a rare instance. It is possible that velar nasals used to be allophones of [n] and preceded a voiced velar stop [g]. This would make sense due to place assimilation. If that were true in the past, [ŋ] would currently be leftover and would not conform to an allophonic rule. We can conclude that it is not a separate phoneme from [n], because if you pronounced “from” as [nˈga], you would still be understood. It may be a (very) unevenly distributed allophone, since most alveolar nasals preceding [g] do not assimilate.

These are the allophonic rules for nasals:


Glides, liquids and trills

Albanian has a palatal glide [j] and an alveolar liquid [ɹ]. These are both approximants. Their places of articulation are not adjacent, and both sounds are voiced. Thus it is not necessary to list voice or place contrasts: they are independent phonemes. As further evidence, this near minimal pair shows overlap in their distributions:

[ˈhutuɑɹ] “zoned out”
[sɑj] “hers”

The palatal glide [j] occurs word-final fairly often, such as in these words:

[ʊj] “water”

[mij] “mice”

The alveolar liquid [ɹ] appears word-final also, such as in the word [boɹ], “snow”, listed previously. However, in some cases the [ɹ] sound causes a vowel to become rhoticized. For example:

[ˈæmɚ] “name”

[ˈɑʃpɚ] “rough”

This is a quality unique to the [ɹ], which the [j] does not possess.

The alveolar liquid [ɹ] can be found in the same environment as an alveolar trill [r], which is a separate phoneme. Observe these minimal pairs displaying contrastive meaning:

With [ɹ]: [k] “when”, [d] “hand”, [b] “snow”
With [r]: [sor] “crow”, [zor] “your insides”

These liquids, glides and trills are all used contrastively.




Albanian has two vowels which do not occur in the English vowel inventory: [y] and [œ]. They are both distinct phonemes.

The [y] is pronounced like an [i], but with the lips rounded. The rounded lips make the oral cavity longer, thereby causing the vowel to sound closer to a [u] than the [i] does. Leticia described the vowel as sounding almost like a whistle. In fact, in her pronunciation it sometimes did have a whistle quality to it. This could be due to its occurrence after consonants with particularly narrow constrictions in the oral cavity, such as [s]. The close front rounded vowel [y] features a tongue placement high and forward in the mouth.

[myl̪] “closed” [ˈpœʃty] “spits (3rd person)”
[sy] “eyes” [mɛˈfɹy] “to blow”

The open-mid front round vowel [œ] is pronounced just like [ɛ], but with the lips rounded. Here are some examples:

[ɫœˈkoɹ] “skin” [ˈœndʒəl̪] “angel”
[nœn] “grandmother” [ˈndzœnœs] “students”
[ˈœndər] “dream”

It contrasts with its unrounded counterpart. As evidence, take the word [ˈnɑtɛn], “night”. [ɛ] occurs before an alveolar nasal and after an alveolar stop. In three of the words listed above, [œ] also occurs before an alveolar nasal. In the word [jɛˈʃiɫɛ], “green”, [ɛ] occurs after a velarized lateral approximant. In the word above for “skin”, [œ] does as well. From this we can discern that the roundedness of this vowel is important to the meaning; they are separate phonemes.

The allophones [a] and [ɑ] are in free distribution. For instance, you could pronounce the word “fire” as either [flak] or [flɑk]. If you pronounce the word for “fire” with an [ʌ], however, the meaning changes to “a single piece of hair.” Thus an open-mid back unrounded vowel contrasts with an open back unrounded vowel. This is true for both front and back vowels, because an [ɛ] in place of an [a] would change the meaning of a word.

The prefix for some infinitive verbs shows how [e] and [ɛ] are also in free distribution. In the verb [meˈmarfɹym], “to breathe”, the vowel [e] occurs before a bilabial nasal. This close-mid vowel usually occurs in this position. When followed by a dental fricative such as in [mɛˈfɹy], “to blow”, the open-mid unrounded vowel is used. This is probably because your mouth does not have to open as wide to pronounce it, and as it’s followed by a fricative (which requires a narrow opening in the mouth to create turbulence), this vowel is easier to produce. Words such as [bɛɫ] “belly” and [oˈtʃɛɑn] “ocean” were pronounced by Leticia with both vowels, further proving that they are in free distribution. The same thing happened with the word [ʊj], “water”, for example: she sometimes pronounced it [uj]. Thus the close and fairly-close back vowels [u] and [ʊ] can also be used in the same environment sometimes without changing the meaning of a word. The remaining vowels, listed on the vowel chart, are all independent phonemes.



Albanian has 28 contrastive consonants, including three affricates. Their separate phonemes for lateral approximants (one dental and one velar) are notably different from English, in which the allophones of the lateral approximant [l] do not contrast. The consonant inventory also has a palatal nasal and an alveolar trill, like those used in Spanish. The vowels that exist in Albanian are similar to those of English, except that there are two additional ones: A rounded front close vowel [y], and a rounded open-mid front vowel [œ], both of which are used contrastively with their unrounded counterparts. While so many of its sounds overlap with those of English, the sound system of Albanian is what makes it sound quite different.


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