Liquids as a class often behave in a similar way in the phonotactics of a language: for example, they often have the greatest freedom in occurring in consonant clusters. In many languages, such as Japanese and Korean, there is a single liquid phoneme that has both lateral and rhotic allophones.
Many other European languages have one lateral and one rhotic phoneme. Some, such as Greek, Italian and Serbo-Croatian, have more than two liquid phonemes. All three languages have the set /l/, /ʎ/, /r/, with two laterals and one rhotic. Similarly, the Iberian languages contrast four liquid phonemes. /l/, /ʎ/, /ɾ/, and a fourth phoneme that is an alveolar trill in all but some varieties of Portuguese, where it is a uvular trill or fricative (also, the majority of Spanish speakers lack /ʎ/ and use the central /ʝ/ instead). Some European languages, like Russian and Irish, contrast a palatalized lateral–rhotic pair with an unpalatalized (or velarized) set (e.g. /lʲ/ /rʲ/ /l/ /r/ in Russian). Czech uses two liquid consonants and its grammar allows the creation of numerous long, sound vowel-less sentences with liquid consonants underlying every syllable (strč prst skrz krk, or "push your finger through your throat", is a classic example).
Elsewhere in the world, two liquids of the types mentioned above remains the most common attribute of a language's consonant inventory except in North America and Australia. In North America, a majority of languages do not have rhotics at all and there is a wide variety of lateral sounds though most are obstruent laterals rather than liquids. Most indigenous Australian languages are very rich in liquids, with some having as many as seven distinct liquids. They typically include dental, alveolar, retroflex and palatal laterals, and as many as three rhotics.
On the other side, there are many indigenous languages in the Amazon Basin and eastern North America, as well as a few in Asia and Africa, with no liquids.
Polynesian languages typically have only one liquid, which may be either a lateral or a rhotic. Non-Polynesian Oceanic languages usually have both /l/ and /r/, occasionally more (e.g. Araki has /l/, /ɾ/, /r/) or less (e.g. Mwotlap has only /l/). Hiw is unusual in having a prestopped velar lateral /ᶢʟ/ as its only liquid.
The grammarian Dionysius Thrax used the Greek word ὑγρός (hygrós, "moist") to describe the sonorant consonants (/l, r, m, n/) of classical Greek. Most commentators assume that this referred to their "slippery" effect on meter in classical Greek verse when they occur as the second member of a consonant cluster. This word was calqued into Latin as liquidus, whence it has been retained in the Western European phonetic tradition.
- Ladefoged, Peter; Maddieson, Ian (1996). The Sounds of the World's Languages. Oxford: Blackwell. p. 182. ISBN 0-631-19814-8.
- François, Alexandre (2010a), "Phonotactics and the prestopped velar lateral of Hiw: Resolving the ambiguity of a complex segment", Phonology, 27 (3): 393–434, doi:10.1017/s0952675710000205.
- Allen, William Sidney (1965). Phonetics in ancient India. Oxford University Press. p. 31.