Articulatory Phonetics 101: Manners of Articulation

This is Part 6 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.

So far, we’ve looked at two key ways in which your vocal tract can modify the air flowing through it to alter the speech sounds you generate: voicing and place of articulation. In this next part of the epic Articulatory Phonetics series, we’re going to look at yet another: manners of articulation.

While voicing refers to whether the vocal folds are vibrating, and place of articulation refers to where a constriction in airflow is being created in the vocal tract, the manner of articulation refers to how that constriction is being generated.

Stops

Stops do what they say on the label: they stop the airflow in the vocal tract at the place of articulation.

Let’s do the same “ahh” trick we did in the places of articulation series:

Say “ahhh”. Now, while still saying “ahhh”, shut your mouth so that you’re now silent. You should feel a build-up of air pressure behind your lips. The air wants to get out, but your lips have stopped the airflow.

Now, release the lips and let the air out.

That was a /p/, a voiceless bilabial stop.

English has seven stops:

Place Voiceless Voiced
Bilabial p b
Alveolar t d
Velar k g
Glottal ʔ

And here are all the stops in the IPA table:

Place Voiceless Voiced
Bilabial p b
Alveolar t d
Retroflex ʈ ɖ
Palatal c ɟ
Velar k g
Uvular q ɢ
Glottal ʔ

No known language contrasts the dental and alveolar stops. That means that in most languages, using a dental stop instead of an alveolar stop, or vice versa, won’t change the meaning of any words (though it might get you some funny looks). That’s why /t̪/ and /d̪/, poor dental stops, don’t get their own dedicated IPA symbol. Instead, they get the ̪ dental diacritic to indicate that they are dental rather than alveolar.

Now, you may have heard the term “plosives”. Simply put: all plosives are stops, but not all stops are plosives. We’ll leave it at that, and we’ll move on to nasals.

Nasals

Nasals are articulated the same way as stops, with one exception: during a nasal consonant, the velum is lowered. This allows air to escape through the nose, instead of simply being stopped in the mouth.

Hum “mmm”.

Now, start to say the letter “p”, but don’t open your mouth.

Now hum “mmm” again.

If you’re alternating between “mmm” and a silent “p”, you should feel something moving at the back of your mouth. That’s the velum raising and lowering itself. When the velum is lowered, air can escape through the nose, creating a nasal sound; when the velum is raised, air cannot escape through the nose. The sound we just produced, /m/, is a (voiced) bilabial nasal.

Let’s try something else. Hum “nnn”. Your lips should be separated and your mouth open.

Now, pinch your nose.

Feel that? You’ve stopped the airflow, there’s no more sound, and pressure is now building up behind your nose. Your mouth is open, but there’s no airflow coming through that way. In a nasal consonant, the airflow moves out only through the nose.

English has three nasal consonants:

Place Voiced
Bilabial m
Alveolar n
Velar ŋ

And here are all the nasal consonants in the IPA table:

Place Voiced
Bilabial m
Labiodental ɱ
Alveolar n
Retroflex ɳ
Palatal ɲ
Velar ŋ
Uvular ɴ

Nasals are typically voiced, but voiceless nasals also exist in languages like Burmese, Welsh and Icelandic.

Fricatives

Say “ahhhh”. Now say “ffff”, like you are about to say something not very nice.

Feel how your diaphragm seems to be forcing air between your lips and your teeth (this, if you remember from Phonetics 101: Place of Articulation, is the labiodental place of articulation. This airstream is turbulent, almost violent. Consonants articulated in this way, where the airflow is constricted to the point of turbulence, are known as fricatives, and /f/ is the voiceless labiodental fricative.

Sibilants

There is a special class of fricatives known as sibilants. The difference between sibilants and non-sibilants is that in a sibilant fricative, the airflow is directed towards the sharp end of the teeth, resulting in a high-pitched hissing sound. If you compare the pitch of /s/ (hiss like a snake) with /f/, you can hear that /s/ has a significantly higher pitch than /f/. You can also feel that in /s/, the airflow is delivered to the base of the front teeth, whereas in /f/, the airflow is distributed more evenly across the upper row of teeth.

English has nine fricatives, of which four are sibilants:

Place Voiceless Voiced
Labiodental f v
Dental θ ð
Alveolar s z
Postalveolar ʃ ʒ
Glottal h

The full list of fricatives in the IPA chart is:

Place Voiceless Voiced
Bilabial ɸ β
Labiodental f v
Dental θ ð
Alveolar s z
Postalveolar ʃ ʒ
Retroflex ʂ ʐ
Palatal ç ʝ
Velar x ɣ
Uvular χ ʁ
Pharyngeal ħ ʕ
Glottal h ɦ

Affricates

Say “ahh”, then say “choo!”, like you’ve just sneezed.

Pay attention to what happens just before you release the “choo!” sound. Your tongue rises up to meet the alveolar ridge, stopping the airflow, just like in the consonant /t/. However, instead of simply releasing the stop like in the consonant /t/, the air pressure that builds up behind the stop gets pushed out forcefully as you release, creating a turbulent airflow just like in the sound /ʃ/.

But they aren’t two separate sounds! The consonant at the beginning of “choo!” sounds like — and is — a single consonant sound, known as an affricate (specifically the voiceless postalveolar affricate). First, the sound is stopped, and then the airflow released from the stop is fricated, in a single movement.

English has just two affricates:

Place Voiceless Voiced
Postalveolar

Affricates are not technically included in the IPA table, so I suggest you hop over to Wikipedia's page on affricates to learn about all the affricates you could ever want.

Approximants

Say “ahhhhhh”. Now, slowly transition your mouth to say “arrrrr”, like a pirate.

You’ll feel your tongue moving up towards your alveolar ridge, but not actually touching it. This consonant sound, /ɹ/, is produced by constricting the airflow at the place of articulation, but not to the point of turbulence. The active articulator moves close to, but not too close to, the passive articulator. These consonants are called approximants.

Note: This applies specifically to the English /ɹ/. In many other languages, is not an approximant, but a trill, flap or tap (see below).

In English, there are four approximants, all voiced:

Place Voiced
Alveolar ɹ
Alveolar? l
Palatal j
??? w

And these are the approximants in the full IPA table:

Place Voiced
Labiodental ʋ
Alveolar ɹ
Retroflex ɻ
Palatal j
Velar ɰ

Trill

In a trill, airflow is directed past the articulator such that the articulator vibrates.

Spanish /r/, written <rr>, is an alveolar trill. French and German <rr>, are sometimes realised as a uvular trill /ʀ/. A third trill, the bilabial trill /ʙ/, is possible but very rare.

Flap or tap

If you’re American, say “pretty”. If you’re not American, pretend to be an American saying “pretty”.

Notice how as you approach the “tt”, your tongue doesn’t really stop the airflow as much as interrupt it with a simple tap on the alveolar ridge. This is the alveolar flap /ɾ/.

In a flap or tap, as this manner of articulation is known, the active articulator moves up to tap the passive articulator once and moves back down again. There is no buildup of air behind the place of articulation and no release burst.

Is there a difference between a flap and a tap? For most practical purposes, no.

Conclusion

So far in this series, we’ve discussed phonation, place of articulation, and now manner of articulation. These three features are sufficient to describe many, but not all the consonants of English.

Two English consonants remain unaccounted for: /l/ and /w/. In the next two videos/articles, we will look at how laterality can produce a sound like /l/, and how double articulation can produce a sound like /w/.