, pharyngeal sounds are made in the pharynx
, that part of the throat
between the larynx
and the opening of the oral cavity. The pharynx cannot close, or greatly constrict or change shape, so pharyngeal sounds are made by retracting the root of the tongue
towards the back wall of the pharynx.
It seems to be impossible to get the tongue to touch the pharynx, or at least use such a choked sound in speech, for no pharyngeal stops are known in any language. It is also impossible to make laterals, nasals, or rolls there, so the only pharyngeal sounds that exist are the two fricatives.
They are common in Semitic languages, and in related Afro-Asiatic languages such as Somali and Ancient Egyptian. In my write-ups on Arabic I denote them by h! voiceless and & voiced. In normal print they are often represented by an underdotted h and an open-apostrophe or c. In the modern Somali alphabet they are written as X and C.
They obviously must have been present and common in the ancestor of all the Afro-Asiatic languages, which means they have survived for something like ten thousand years, yet they're extremely difficult sounds to make. Arabic has had a huge influence on many diverse languages, Turkish, Persian, Swahili, Urdu, Indonesian, yet in all their borrowings none of them has imported the pharyngeal sounds. The voiceless sound occurs in the names Muh!ammad, ?Ah!mad and the voiced one at the beginning of &Alii, &Abdullaah, but outside Arabic these are always rendered with some easier sound or omitted. The Arabic letters are ح ha and ع ain.
In the Hebrew alphabet they are ח heth and ע ayin. However, the European form of Hebrew spoken by the Jews who lived among the Germans, Poles, and Russians, lost these sounds, so for them Hanukkah is now pronounced with the velar CH-sound present in those European languages.
Outside Afro-Asiatic, they occur prominently in North Caucasian languages such as Chechen. Although many of these people are Muslim, they are original to the Caucasian languages, not Arabic borrowings. They also occur in the Salish languages of North-Western America.
Both the Semitic and the Caucasian groups also have pharyngealized sounds, that is where a sound is made somewhere else in the mouth and has a secondary colouring given to it by pharyngeal constriction. In Arabic the so-called emphatic consonants (dotted T D S Z) are pharyngealized. This gives them a dull, hollow, or metallic sound.
Although the pharynx has no scope for making consonants of its own, it can change slightly. The Caucasian pharyngealized sounds have been described as brighter in aural effect, which contrasts with Arabic. One possible explanation is that the constriction is not formed by retracting the tongue root, but by tightening the faucal pillars, muscles that run up the sides of the pharynx from the larynx to the velum and affect the movement of both. If this side-to-side constriction also raised the larynx it could affect the "colour" of the sounds.
Many speakers of German have a tense or strained quality to their normal speech, which is some kind of pharyngeal colouring.
A recent discovery (so that new symbols had to be added to the International Phonetic Alphabet) was that for some Arabic speakers, the sounds traditionally described as pharyngeal were actually epiglottal. The epiglottis is a movable structure at the base of the pharynx, just above the larynx or glottis, and can move back to make a pharyngeal constriction very similar acoustically to those made by the tongue root. It took me ages to work out how to make these sounds and convince myself I could hear a difference. You can even make plosives in the epiglottal position, though I know of no examples.
The name also appears as pharyngal. Both are stressed on the Y: fa-RINJ-al or fa-RING-gal.
Things that aren't pharyngeal: French R and Arabic and Inuktitut Q are uvular.