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(also continuant, spirant), any one of several obstruent consonants characterized by a turbulent sound resulting from the passage of air through a narrow stricture between incompletely closed articulatory speech organs. They differ acoustically from stops, in which the passage of air through the oral resonator is completely cut off, in that stops have a sharp on-glide and fricatives have a smooth, gradual on-glide.
Fricatives may be classified as central (nonlateral) and lateral. All Russian fricatives—[f], [s], [∫], [x] and the corresponding voiced consonants—are nonlateral fricatives, in which the air-stream passes through the center of the oral cavity. In lateral fricatives there is an obstruction in the center of the oral cavity, and the air passes around the sides; an example is the lateral [f] used in a number of Caucasian languages and American Indian languages. Fricatives with a nonlateral stricture are divided into groove fricatives, such as Russian and English [s], and slit fricatives, for example, English [θ] and Russian and English [f].