This is Part 8 of a series covering the basics of articulatory phonetics, the study of how humans physically produce speech sounds. For the full list of posts, see the Articulatory Phonetics 101 Index.
If you’ve read all the previous Articulatory Phonetics posts so far — and you should, if you haven’t — you now know how to describe all the consonants of the English language!
Except for one: /w/, or double u.
So let’s start: say “wa wa wa wa”, and freeze just as you’re about to say the last “wa”. Ready?
Wa wa wa w —
Where’s the constriction in your vocal tract? Well, your lips are obviously involved, but if it’s only your lips, you don’t get /w/. You get the voiced bilabial approximant /ß/, like in the Spanish word “ave” — definitely not the sound we’re looking for. What’s missing? If you’re a Spanish speaker, try alternating between the two: /w/, /ß/, /w/, /ß/. Hmm, it seems like the lips are more rounded in /w/, but that’s not it either.
See if you can figure it out.
There’s something going on at the back of your mouth — the back of your tongue is moving up to approach the velum, in addition to your lips rounding or coming together. In fact, to produce the /w/ sound, you need to constrict the vocal tract at two places: at the velum, and then again at the lips. This is a double articulation or a doubly-articulated consonant called the labiovelar articulation, so /w/ is what we call a voiced labiovelar approximant.
Now, as with many things, it’s actually a bit more complicated than that, but we’ll keep it simple for now.
Okay. Let’s take a look at something that might be a bit of a mind-bender.
Say “leave”. Pay attention to the /l/.
Then say “ball”. Pay attention to the /l/.
Is the back of your tongue raised towards the velum?
For many speakers of English, an /l/ at the end of a syllable is often velarised — which is to say that the back of the tongue rises to create a constriction near the velum. This is a secondary articulation, a second constriction in the vocal tract in addition to the primary articulation (which in this case happens at the alveolar ridge).
This velarised /l/ is called “dark l”, and the non-velarised version is called “clear l”. Typically, you’ll find clear l at the beginning of syllables, and dark l at the end of syllables. Some speakers of English will have dark l in almost all positions, while a few speakers of English will have clear l in almost all positions.
Now, what’s the difference between a double articulation and a secondary articulation? Simply put, in a double articulation, the two different constrictions have the same manner of articulation. In a secondary articulation, the two different constrictions have different manners of articulation, and one will be an approximant. (For these purposes, lateral approximants are different from central approximants, which is why we can get a velarised /l/).
Think about the Russian word “nyet”. We hear an /i/ sound after the /n/, but it’s not a full vowel. It’s not /niət/, which would sound more like “knee-yet”. The n has a secondary articulation, which in this case happens at the palate, and you’ll of course remember that the voiced palatal approximant is… /j/. So, to indicate a secondary articulation, we write it like this: /nʲ/, with a superscript /j/. This tells us that the /n/ is palatalised.
So, how do we write the dark l? The symbol for the voiced velar approximant is /ɣ/ (sorta — it’s complicated), so we write it /lˠ/, to indicate that it’s a velarised l. That said — the dark l does have a special symbol that’s much more common, and it’s this /ɫ/, with a squiggly tilde across it.
There are quite a few secondary articulations, but the most common ones are labialisation (secondary articulation at the lips), labiopalatalisation (secondary articulation at the lips and palate), palatalisation, velarisation, and pharyngealisation (secondary articulation at the pharynx).
We’ve barely scratched the surface of phonetics, but if you’ve gotten this far in the series, you now know enough of the basics to understand the consonants of the English language, and many other languages of the world. In the next couple of posts, we’ll look at click consonants, ejectives, and implosives, and we’ll start to discuss vowels.