Tap, Flap, and Trill | Central Approximants

Phonetics is the study of speech sounds and their production, transmission, and perception. It plays a crucial role in understanding language and communication. Within the field of phonetics, there are various types of sounds that are produced differently by the human vocal apparatus. In this article, we will explore three specific types of sounds: trills, taps, and flaps. We will delve into their characteristics, examples, and significance in different languages.

In the realm of phonetics, various sounds are classified based on their articulatory properties. Trills, taps, and flaps are three distinctive types of sounds that are formed by manipulating the airflow and articulatory organs. Understanding these sounds can provide valuable insights into the diversity of human language.

In phonetics, a flap, tap and trill are different types of consonantal sound, which are produced with a single contraction of the muscles so that one articulator (such as the tongue) is thrown against another. In approximants, trills, taps and flaps are also commonly found with different articulatory gestures in the world languages. These languages vary not only in terms of the nature of the sounds (such as making it a usual /r/ approximant or unusual rhotic approximate [ɹ] found in American English but they also vary in terms of the length of the sound (some making it a short trill, other a long one).

It might be useful to know the terms trill, tap and flap and distinguish among them. These are also called central approximants. In the case of tap and flap, there is only one rapid contact while in the case of trill [r] the tongue is striking continuously (rrrrr) as the stricture of intermittent closure.


Tap is up and down movement of the top of the tip of tongue. This closure causes a rapid release of sound, resulting in a distinct tapping or slapping sound. For example, pronouncing the middle sound in word ‘pity’ with typical American accent [ɾ]. It is very brief and is produced by a sharp upward throw of the tongue blade. In this sound, tongue makes a single tap against the alveolar ridge. Taps are commonly found in American English, where they occur between vowels or between a vowel and an approximant.

Apart from American English, taps are present in various languages worldwide. In Spanish, for example, the “single R” sound is a tap produced by a brief contact of the tongue against the alveolar ridge. In some Native American languages, taps can occur at other places of articulation, such as the retroflex or lateral regions.


Flaps are similar to taps in that they involve a quick closure and release of an articulatory organ. However, flaps have a more prolonged closure phase compared to taps. Flap is front and back movement of tongue tip at the underside of tongue with curling behind. It is found in  abundance in  Indo-Aryan  (IA)  languages  [ɽ]. Typical  flap sounds  found  in  IA  languages  is a retroflex sound and the examples are [ɽ], [ɖ] and [ɳ].

This results in a sound that is intermediate between a tap and a full closure consonant. Flaps are commonly found in English, particularly in words like “water” and “butter.”

Apart from English, flaps are present in various other languages. In Brazilian Portuguese, for example, the “tt” sound in the word “batata” (potato) is a flap. Flaps can occur in different places of articulation, including alveolar, dental, and retroflex positions, depending on the language.


Trills are consonantal sounds that involve the rapid vibration of a specific articulatory organ. The most common trill sound is the “rolled R” found in languages like Spanish and Italian. In the production of trill the articulator is set in motion by the current of air [r]. It is a typical sound of Scottish English as in words like ‘rye’ and ‘row’. This sound is produced by the tongue tip rapidly vibrating against the alveolar ridge, creating a distinctive rolling effect.

Trills can vary in their place of articulation. For instance, in Russian, the “rolled R” is produced using the uvular articulation. In other languages, trills can occur at different places such as the bilabial, dental, or even the velar region.

Differences and Similarities in Central Approximants

While trills, taps, and flaps share similarities in terms of their brief closures and rapid releases, they differ in their duration and the manner of articulation. Trills involve a continuous vibration, taps have a rapid but brief closure, and flaps feature a more prolonged closure before release. Additionally, these sounds occur in different languages and serve various linguistic functions, contributing to the overall richness of human speech.

Helpful study material of further reading:

  • Chapter 1 of the textbook (A Course in Phonetics by Peter Ladefoged and Keith Johnson)
  • Chapters 4, 6 and 7 of the additional reading book (English Phonetics and Phonology-A Practical Course by Peter Roach)