Phonetically, a semivowel lies between a vowel and a plosive. In contrast to a vowel, a semivowel does not represent a syllable on its own when articulated. Neither is the vocal tract blocked for the pressure characteristic of a plosive. The tongue moves in the direction of the place of articulation to produce an approximant. In contrast to a fricative, though, the approximation does not go so far as to produce the friction necessary for a fricative. In Sanskrit, there are semivowels for four of the five places of articulation (y, r, l, v).

Sanskrit Pronunciation


Semivowels are very close to the vowels produced at the same place of articulation:

  • i (vowel) - ya (semivowel) - ja (plosive) all three palatal (at the palate)
  • (vowel) - ra (semivowel) - ḍa (plosive) all three retroflex (with the tongue rolled back)
  • (vowel) - la (semivowel) - da (plosive) all three dental (with the tongue at the teeth)
  • u (vowel) - va (semivowel) - ba (plosive) all three labial (at the lips)

While vowel sounds on its own, the semivowel forms almost automatically when we add an "a". If the contact is intensified on articulation, the voiced plosive is produced.

In Sanskrit, the sound change from vowel to semivowel happens via the Sandhi rules. In other languages, semivowels often turn into plosives.

Palatal semivowel

  • ya: produced by bringing the tongue closer to the palate (palatal).


  • ya: ja, Sanskrit: Yoga
    Pronounced like a German j, not like a y as in Yvonne.

Retroflex semivowel

  • ra: Produced by bringing the tongue closer to the back of the teeth (retroflex).


  • ra: Rollen, rot
    A rolling r as commonly used in Southern Germany, or, historically speaking, in Germany as a whole.