The Acoustics of Fricative Contrasts in Two German Dialects
, Melanie Weirich
ZAS Berlin, Germany
Friedrich-Schiller Universität Jena, Germany
In this study, we are investigating the acoustic characteristics
of the five voiceless German fricatives [f s ç ʃ χ] elicited in
non-words from 3 speakers each of two German dialects. The
northern German dialect differentiates these five fricatives
whereas in the middle German region and in Berlin, /ç/ and /ʃ/
have already merged or are in the process of merging [1;2].
Our previous work (submitted) has indicated that differentiat-
ing [ç] and [ʃ] acoustically in the speech of northern speakers
from that of Berlin speakers works best when using DCT (dis-
crete cosine transformation) rather than the four spectral mo-
ments. Results from our study corroborate this finding for both
the northern and the middle German dialect.
Index Terms: German fricatives, spectral moments, DCT
Fricatives are produced by obstructing the airstream at some
place in the oral cavity, thereby creating turbulent noise. The
place of the constriction affects the spectral characteristics of
the noise: the more fronted a constriction is, the greater is the
energy in the higher frequencies. A constriction further back in
the oral cavity results in a spectrum with more energy in lower
frequency regions. Thus, energy peaks of the postalveolar fric-
ative /ʃ/ have lower frequencies than the energy peaks of the
alveolar fricative /s/ . Moreover, the acoustic discrimination
of fricatives includes differences in intensity, spectral shape
(e.g. skewness, peakedness) and also temporal parameters.
Several studies have shown that fricative production is charac-
terized by a rather high inter-speaker variability especially in
sibilants cross-linguistically [4;5;6] mirroring both physiologi-
cal and social sources of variation in fine phonetic detail (e.g.
Numerous studies have investigated the various acoustic pa-
rameters potentially differentiating the fricatives of English
(e.g. [3;9;10;11;12;13;14;15]). Much fewer studies have exam-
ined fricative realization in other languages such as Aleut,
Scottish Gaelic or Chickasaw  or Polish [16;17;18]. Acous-
tic studies of the German fricative system are even more lim-
ited,  focused on the realization of German /h/ and /ç/ and
compared it with the Japanese /hi/-syllable and  (this vol-
ume) are exploring the German fricative system.
The German fricative system is rather interesting because this
system of contrasts involves the /ç/ sound which is relatively
rare in the languages of the world. The distribution of /ç/ is
restricted – it can only occur after high front vowels or word-
or morpheme initially. Moreover, German is one of only three
known languages of the world that contrasts the palatal frica-
tive /ç/ and the postalveolar fricative /ʃ/ .
This contrast however has already dissolved in the middle
German dialect region [22;23;24] and now the merger between
/ç/ and /ʃ/ is also affecting the speech of speakers in the north-
east of the middle German dialect belt up to Brandenburg and
Previous work [17;2] has shown that the four spectral mo-
ments 1. center of gravity (COG), 2. Standard Deviation from
the COG, 3. Skewness and 4. Kurtosis are less useful in differ-
entiating /ç/ and /ʃ/ in German, and that Discrete Cosine Trans-
formations (DCTs)  provide a useful method to differenti-
ate different fricative categories in other languages with com-
plex fricative systems such as Polish [16;17].
Thus, the purpose of the present study is to describe and eval-
uate the various acoustic parameters in terms of their useful-
ness to differentiate the contrasting five voiceless German
fricatives [f s ç ʃ χ]. Fricative productions will be compared
between speakers from the middle German dialect region
where the contrast between /ç/ and /ʃ/ has mostly dissolved in
spontaneous speech and speakers from the northwest, where
the contrast between /ç/ and /ʃ/ is still fully realized.
For this study, we have recorded and analyzed the data of 3
female speakers from the northern part of Germany and 3 fe-
males from the middle German dialect region around Jena. All
speakers were recorded with a head-mounted microphone at a
recording frequency of 44 kHz, however, data was
downsampled to 22kHz as fricative noise does not extend be-
yond 11 kHz. All speakers read the same list of 46 sentences
containing a carrier phrase and 46 different target words. The
reading of the list was repeated 4 times in the same order.
2.1. Recording Materials
The target words were either real German words or non-
words, made up to keep the segmental context identical. For
the purpose of this study, only the five non-words contrasting
in the fricatives are considered for analysis. The block of these
words were always read last.
1. Ich habe „iffa“ gesagt. /f/
2. Ich habe „issa“ gesagt. /s/
3. Ich habe „icha“ gesagt. /ç/
4. Ich habe „ischa“ gesagt. /ʃ/
5. Ich habe „acha“ gesagt. /χ/
A text file and a sound file for each repetition was submitted
to webMAUS  which generated a Praat TextGrid file
based on a first pass of a speech recognizer, trying to align the
word- and SAMPA canonical phonological transcriptions to
0 2000 4000 6000 8000 10000
average fricative spectra JENA
0 2000 4000 6000 8000 10000
average fricative spectra BUX
the audio file. The alignment of the boundaries was then hand
corrected for the target words and fricatives.
All acoustic measurements were done in PRAAT . For the
acoustic parameterization, the spectral moments (treating the
spectrum as a probability density distribution) following 
were calculated consisting of 1) the centroid frequency or Cen-
ter of Gravity (COG), , 2) the Standard Deviation (SD) which
is a measure of how much the frequencies in the spectrum de-
viate from the COG, 3) the skewness describing the energy
distribution over the whole frequency range of the spectrum
and expresses if the frequencies are skewed towards the higher
or the lower frequencies; and 4) kurtosis which reveals the
spectral peakedness of the distribution. In addition, Discrete
Cosine Transformation (DCT)  was used to quantify the
shape of the spectra. DCT decomposes the signal into a set of
half-cycle cosine waves whereby the resulting amplitudes of
these cosine waves are the DCT coefficients. We will concen-
trate on three DCT coefficients, which 1) are proportional to
the linear slope of the spectrum (DCT1), 2) correspond to its
curvature (DCT2), and 3) describe the amplitude of the higher
frequencies (DCT3). Prior to analysis the data was filtered us-
ing a pass band filter (200-11025 Hz) and all acoustic meas-
urements were automatically logged at the temporal midpoint
of the fricatives.
For a better quantification of the fricative contrasts, Euclidean
Distances (EDs) were calculated between all fricative pairs for
each speaker separately using 1) the spectral moments and 2)
the DCT1xDCT2xDCT3 space.
For this analysis we used the data from 3 female speakers for
each dialect group. The northern dialect speakers were born,
raised and now live just to the south of Hamburg. They range
in age between 39 and 44. The middle German speakers were
born and raised in Thuringia, now living in Jena. They range
in age between 23 and 34.
All in all, 6 speakers x 4 repetitions x 5 fricatives = 120 items
were analyzed. We performed a linear mixed effects analysis
as implemented in the lme4 package  in R (version 2.14.1,
R Development Core Team 2008). Likelihood ratio tests were
run to test for a significant effect of the test variables by com-
paring the model with the factor in question to a model with-
out that factor. Post hoc tests were carried out (using the
lsmeans package in R ) to reveal any significant difference
between the dialect areas for each fricative or fricative pair
First, we will have a look on the average spectra of the five
fricatives for both dialect areas. Then, the acoustic space of the
fricatives is shown characterized by the different parameters
(COG, SD, skewness, kurtosis and DCT1-3). The statistical
analysis concentrates on investigating the different parameters
in their usability to distinguish the German fricatives and to
compare the realization of the fricative contrasts in the two
3.1. Fricative space
Figure 1 shows the average fricative spectra for the five frica-
tives for the speakers from Bux (top panel) and from Jena
(lower panel). In the two dialect areas the five spectra vary in
the energy distribution over the frequency range in a similar
way. As expected /s/ (green) is characterized by high energy in
the higher frequency regions over 6000 Hz, while /ç/ (red) and
/ʃ/ (blue) have their energy peaks somewhat lower (for Bux
around 3000 Hz, for Jena around 5000 Hz). For Jena, no clear
peak but rather a plateau can be seen. Both /χ/ (magenta) and
/f/ (orange) show flatter spectra, but this is especially the case
for /f/ for the speakers from Bux.
Figure 1: Mean fricative spectra separated by dialect area,
different fricatives are plotted in different colors
Different measurements were made to see which of them are
best qualified to describe and separate the spectral characteris-
tics of the five German fricatives and which are maybe less
suitable. The upper plot of Figure 2 shows the acoustic space
of the fricatives spanned by the two spectral moments COG
and skewness. While /s/ and /χ/ are nicely separated by COG
(plotted on the x-axis), with /s/ (green) having high values and
/χ/ (magenta) low values, the values for the three fricatives /ç ʃ
f/ overlap. The same holds for skewness, which separates /s/
and /χ/ but fails to show dividable distributions for /ç/, /ʃ/ and
/f/. The two dialect areas show similar distributions, however,
overall, the values for skewness and COG are slightly shifted
with higher values for COG and lower values for skewness for
Jena than for Buxtehude.
The lower plot of Figure 2 shows the acoustic space of the
fricatives spanned by DCT1 and DCT2: a clearer separation
between the five fricatives can be seen for both dialect areas.
However, /ç/ remains in the middle of the fricative cloud,
thereby revealing the least clear separation to all other frica-
tives. Again, overall, the fricative distributions are somewhat
shifted between the dialect areas.
2000 4000 6000 8000 2000 4000 6000 8000
-10 -5 0 5 10 15 -10 -5 0 5 10 15
Figure 2: Acoustic fricative space separated by dialect area
using COG and skewness (upper plot) and DCT1 and DCT2
Different statistical models were run for the different parame-
ters as dependent variable. As fixed effects, repetition was en-
tered as a control variable, and dialect area (Buxtehude, Jena)
and fricative (f, s, ç, ʃ, χ) as test variables. As random effect
we entered an intercept for speaker.
Table 1: Results of the Post Hoc Test showing significant dif-
ferences between the fricatives in DCT1, DCT2 and DCT3 for
the two dialect areas (*** p < 0.001, ** p < 0.01, * p < 0.05).
DCT1 DCT2 DCT3
n.s. n.s. ***
n.s. *** ***
* n.s. ***
*** n.s. n.s.
*** n.s. n.s.
n.s. n.s. ***
*** n.s. n.s.
For all DCT coefficients we found a significant interaction of
dialect area and fricative (p < 0.001). Results of Post Hoc
Tests analyzing the differences between the fricatives for the
two dialect areas are given in Table 1 (p values are adjusted
using the tukey method). Overall, many of the comparisons
were significant. While DCT3 shows fewer significant differ-
ences compared to DCT1 and DCT2, DCT3 clearly distin-
guishes /s/ from all other fricatives. Since DCT3 reflects the
energy of the higher frequencies, it works best capturing the
spectral characteristics of /s/. The fricative pairs most difficult
to differentiate are /ç-f/, /ç-ʃ/ and /f- χ/, while the sibilants /s/
and /ʃ/ are distinguished best by the DCT parameters.
When comparing the two cities, it can be seen that Buxtehude
shows more significant differences than Jena, thereby reveal-
ing a more distinct acoustic realization of the fricative con-
For SD, skewness and kurtosis there was also a significant in-
teraction of dialect area x fricative, for COG however, there
was a main effect of fricative and of dialect area but no inter-
action thereof. The main effect of dialect area reflects a higher
COG for Jena than for Buxtehude already apparent in the
shifted distribution in Figure 2. In comparison to the DCT
analysis, fewer fricative comparisons turned out to be signifi-
cant. Moreover, for the /ç-ʃ/-contrast none of the parameters
succeeded in distinguishing the spectral characteristics of the
two fricatives. Parallel to the DCT analysis, more significant
differences were found for Buxtehude than for Jena.
Table 2: Results of the Post Hoc Test showing significant dif-
ferences between the fricatives in COG, SD, skewness and kur-
tosis for the two dialect areas (*** p < 0.001, ** p < 0.01, * p
COG SD skewness
pair Bux Jena Bux Jena
Bux Jena Bux
/ç-f/ n.s. n.s. *** ***
n.s. n.s. n.s. n.s.
/ç-s/ *** *** *** n.s. *** n.s. n.s. n.s.
/ç-ʃ/ n.s. n.s. n.s. n.s. n.s. n.s. n.s. n.s.
/ç-χ/ *** *** n.s. ** *** *** * n.s.
/f-s/ *** *** *** ***
*** n.s. n.s. **
/f- ʃ /
n.s. n.s. *** ***
n.s. n.s. * n.s.
/f-χ/ *** *** *** ***
*** *** *** n.s.
/s-ʃ / *** *** *** n.s. *** *** n.s. **
/s-χ/ *** *** *** ***
*** *** *** *
/ʃ -χ/ *** *** n.s. n.s. *** n.s. ** n.s..
3.2. ED of Fricative contrasts.
Since the above analysis showed that the DCT coefficients are
better descriptors distinguishing the acoustic characteristics of
the five German fricatives we will concentrate on these pa-
rameters. Figure 3 shows the amount of the acoustic contrast
between all fricative pairs expressed as the Euclidean Distance
using DCT1-3 (ED_DCT123). The different dialect areas are
plotted next to each other. A significant interaction of pair x
dialect area was found (χ²(9) = 26.213, p = 0.0019). However,
it only reveals that the contrasts between /s-ʃ/ (p < .05) and /s-
χ/ (p < .001) were significantly higher in Jena than in Buxte-
hude. Overall, the order of the fricative pairs is much the same
in both dialect areas: The smallest acoustic contrast is revealed
for the /ç-ʃ/ pair; followed by the other /ç/-comparisons except
the one with /s/.
While generally, DCTs were better than the four spectral mo-
ments in separating the fricatives in each dialect, especially the
curvature of the spectrum (DCT2) is a rather promising acous-
tic correlate for fricative differentiation, particularly when the
very similar spectral shapes of /ç/ and /ʃ/ are concerned. Alt-
hough the experiment was set up for speakers to visually cap-
ture the differences between the experimental tokens, and pre-
sumably all speakers made an effort to realize the acoustic
contrasts reflected in the orthography, fewer fricative pairs
turned out to be significantly different for the Jena speakers
compared to the northern speakers. This is not surprising given
the overall tendency of Thuringian speakers to merge at least
/ç/ and /ʃ/ in fluent and spontaneous speech.
In light of this, it is interesting that the rare phoneme category
/ç/ even evolved as a contrastive entity in a crowded fricative
space as found in German. While our results capture the ob-
servation that the /ç-ʃ/ contrast is difficult to quantify and qual-
ify even in the northern speakers, it is not a surprise that it is
on the demise in the middle German Thuringian dialect. A lis-
tening experiment is planned to analyze if and how the con-
trast is perceived in the different areas. It remains to be seen if
the /ç-ʃ/ merger also starts spreading further north. However,
there may be some resistance by northern speakers which is
not to sound like “southern” speakers.
Figure 3: Acoustic contrast between fricatives estimated as EDs in DCT1 x DCT2 x DCT3 space separated by dialect area.
This work was funded by the German Bundesministerium für
Bildung und Forschung (BMBF) (Grant Nr. 01UG1411). We
would also like to thank Adrian Simpson (F.S. Univ. Jena) for
allowing us to use his praat scripts for parameter extractions,
Sophie Arndt for her patient work as a research assistant, and
all of our informants.
 Jannedy, S. & Weirich, M. (2014). Perceptual divergence in an
urban setting: category instability of the palatal fricative. Journal
of Laboratory Phonology 5(1):91-122.
 Jannedy, S. & Weirich, M. (submitted) Spectral Differentiation
of Intradialectal Fricative Variation. Submitted to Clopper, C.
(ed). Special Issue of JASA on Methods in Dialect Research.
 Hughes, G. & Halle, M. (1956). Spectral properties of fricative
consonants. Journal of the Acoustical Society of America 28, pp.
 Dart, S. N. (1998) Comparing French and English coronal con-
sonant articulation. Journal of Phonetics 26, 71-94.
 Newman, R. S.; Clouse, S. A. & Burnham, J. L. (2001) The per-
ceptual consequences of within-talker variability in fricative
production. Journal of the Acoustical Society of America 109(3),
 Gordon, M.; Barthmaier, P. & Sands, K. (2002) A cross-
linguistic acoustic study of voiceless fricatives. Journal of the In-
ternational Phonetic Association 32, 141-174.
 Weirich, M. & Fuchs, S. (2013) Palatal morphology can influ-
ence speaker-specific realizations of phonemic contrasts. Journal
of Speech, Lanuage and Hearing Research 56, S1894–S1908.
 Stuart-Smith, J. (2007): Empirical evidence for gender speech
production: /s/ in Glaswegian. In: Cole, J. & Hualde, J. I. (eds.):
Laboratory Phonology 9. Berlin: Mouton. pp. 65-86.
 Harris, K. S. (1958): Cues for the discrimination of American
English fricatices in spoken syllables. Language and Speech 1.
 Shadle, C. (1985) The acoustics of fricative consonants. Tech-
nical Report 506, Research Laboratory of Electronics, MIT
 Forrest, K., Weismer, G., Milenkovic, P. & Dougall, R.N.
(1988). Statistical analysis of word-initial voiceless obstruents:
Preliminary data. Journal of the Acoustical Society of America
 Behrens, S. J. & Blumstein, S. E. (1988a). Acoustic characteris-
tics of English voiceless fricatives: A descriptive analysis. Jour-
nal of Phonetics 18, 51-63.
 Behrens, S. J. & Blumstein, S. E. (1988b). On the role of the
amplitude of the fricative noise in the perception of place of ar-
ticulation in voiceless fricative consonants. Journal of the Acous-
tical Society of America 84, 861-867.
 Tomiak, G. R. (1990). An acoustic and perceptual analysis of the
spectral moments invariant with voiceless fricative obstruents.
Doctoral dissertation, SUNY Buffalo.
 Jongman, A.; Wayland, R. & Wong, S. (2000). Acoustic charac-
teristics of English fricatives. Journal of the Acoustical Society
of America 108, 1252-1263.
 Bukmaier, V. & Harrington, J. (2016). The articulatory and
acoustic characteristics of Polish sibilants and their consequenc-
es for diachronic change. Journal of the International Phonetic
Association, pp. 1-19. doi:10.1017/S0025100316000062.
 Guzik, K. & Harrington, J. (2007). The quantification of place of
articulation assimilation in electropalatographic data using the
similarity index (SI). Advances in Speech Language Pathology 9
 Wiktor, J. (1995). The acoustic parameters of Polish voiceless
fricatives: Analysis of variance. Phonetica 52:252-258.
 Tronnier, M. & M. Dantsuji. 1993. An Acoustic Approach to
Fricatives in Japanese and German. Proceedings of the 3rd
EUROSPEECH'93, Berlin, vol. 1, 271-274.
 Lowery, M. & Kleber, F. An acoustic analysis of German frica-
tives. (this volume)
 Mielke, J. (2008). The emergence of distinctive features, pp. 1-
304. Oxford: Oxford University Press.
 Herrgen, J. (1986). Koronalisierung und Hyperkorrektion. Das
palatale Allophon des /CH/-Phonems und seine Variation im
Westmitteldeutschen, pp. 1-278. Stuttgart: Franz Steiner.
 Dirim, I. & Auer, P. (2004). Türkisch sprechen nicht nur die
Türken. Über die Unschärfebeziehung zwischen Sprache und
Ethnie in Deutchland. Walter De Gruyter, pp 1-255.
 Hall, T. A. (2013). Alveolopalatalization in Central German as
markedness reduction. Transactions of the Philological Society,
pp. 143-166. doi: 10.1111/1467-968X.12002.
 Harrington, J. (2010). Phonetic analysis of speech corpora, pp.
1-424. Chichester: Wiley-Blackwell.
 Kisler, T. and Reichel U. D. and Schiel, F. and Draxler, Ch. and
Jackl, B. and Pörner, N. (2016): BAS Speech Science Web Ser-
vices - an Update of Current Developments, Proceedings of the
10th International Conference on Language Resources and Eval-
uation (LREC 2016), Portorož, Slovenia, paper id 668.
 Boersma, P. and D. Weenink (2012). Praat: doing phonetics by
computer [Computer program]. Version 5.3.23, retrieved 7 Au-
gust 2012 from http://www.praat.org/
 Watson, C. I. & Harrington, J. (1999). Acoustic evidence for
dynamic formant trajectories in Australian English vowels. Jour-
nal of the Acoustical Society of America 106, 458-468.
 Bates, D., Maechler, M. & B. Bolker (2011). lme4: Linear
mixed-effects models using S4 classes, R package version
 Lenth, R. V. (2016) Least-Squares Means: The R Package
lsmeans. Journal of Statistical Software, 69(1), 1-33.
çʃçf çχfχfs fʃ χʃ sç sʃsχçʃçf çχfχfs fʃ χʃ sç sʃsχ