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Sibilants are fricative consonants of higher amplitude and pitch, made by directing a stream of air with the tongue towards the teeth. Examples of sibilants are the consonants at the beginning of the English words sip, zip, ship, and genre. The symbols in the International Phonetic Alphabet used to denote the sibilant sounds in these words are, respectively, [s] [z] [ʃ] [ʒ]. Sibilants have a characteristically intense sound, which accounts for their paralinguistic use in getting one's attention (e.g. calling someone using "psst!" or quieting someone using "shhhh!").
In the alveolar hissing sibilants [s] and [z], the back of the tongue forms a narrow channel (is grooved) to focus the stream of air more intensely, resulting in a high pitch. With the hushing sibilants (occasionally termed shibilants), such as English [ʃ], [tʃ], [ʒ], and [dʒ], the tongue is flatter, and the resulting pitch lower.
A broader category is stridents, which include more fricatives than sibilants such as uvulars. Because all sibilants are also stridents, the terms are sometimes used interchangeably. However, the terms do not mean the same thing. The English stridents are /f, v, s, z, ʃ, ʒ, tʃ, dʒ/. Sibilants are a higher pitched subset of the stridents. The English sibilants are /s, z, ʃ, ʒ, tʃ, dʒ/. On the other hand, /f/ and /v/ are stridents, but not sibilants, because they are lower in pitch.
"Stridency" refers to the perceptual intensity of the sound of a sibilant consonant, or obstacle fricatives or affricates, which refers to the critical role of the teeth in producing the sound as an obstacle to the airstream. Non-sibilant fricatives and affricates produce their characteristic sound directly with the tongue or lips etc. and the place of contact in the mouth, without secondary involvement of the teeth.
The characteristic intensity of sibilants means that small variations in tongue shape and position are perceivable, with the result that there are many sibilant types that contrast in various languages.
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