Articulatory Phonetics 101: Place of Articulation, Part 1

This is Part 3 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.

I’m still figuring out how to approach the videos, so the video versions of subsequent Articulatory Phonetics 101 posts will take some time.

In the last Articulatory Phonetics post, we looked at how phonation, which is then vibration of the vocal folds, can turn the sound “sssss” into “zzzzz” and vice versa. In the next three posts, we’re going to be looking at another key piece of the puzzle: how do your mouth and tongue shape the flow of air passing through your vocal tract to create what we recognise as a consonant?

Now, if you’ve watched our video on the vocal tract, this diagram might look familiar. If you haven’t, I suggest you check it out. Either way, if you’re new to this, this diagram might look pretty intimidating, so we’ll go through this bit by bit:

 A cartoon representation of the vocal tract, with articulators labelled.

A cartoon representation of the vocal tract, with articulators labelled.

Now, here’s the thing: a consonant sound is produced by obstructing or constricting the flow of air through the vocal tract. To create a consonantal sound, we mess with the flow of air somehow, by stopping it entirely, or disrupting it, or forcing it into weird spaces. We’ll go over the details of that in future videos, when we look at manners of articulation, but for now, we are concerned only with the place of articulation: where in the mouth the constriction occurs.

These constrictions are formed by moving the lower jaw, part of the tongue, or the larynx. These are the active articulators. Where do they move towards? Well, they move towards the upper lip or teeth, the alveolar ridge, the hard palate, the velum, the uvula, the pharynx, or the epiglottis. These are the passive articulators. A pair of such articulators coming together forms a place of articulation and right now, you see why this is three posts instead of one. Again, don’t panic, we’ll do this slowly. Let’s start.


 A cartoon representation of a bilabial place of articulation.

A cartoon representation of a bilabial place of articulation.

Say “ah”, like you’re at the doctor, and he’s looking down your throat. Then say “pee”.

Did you notice what you did? You moved your lower lip, which is the active articulator, to meet your upper lip, which is the passive articulator. This is what we call a bilabial place of articulation. If you know your Greek, you’ll recognise that the word “bilabial” suggests an action of two (bi-) lips (labia).

The sounds in English that have a bilabial place of articulation are [b], [p] and [m]. Other languages have other bilabial sounds that English doesn’t have, like [ɸ] in Japanese and [β] in Spanish.

Labiodental: lip and teeth

 A cartoon representation of the labiodental place of articulation.

A cartoon representation of the labiodental place of articulation.

Now, say “ah” again.

And now, say “ffffffff”, like you are about to say something not very nice.

You’ll find that your lower teeth are now in contact with your upper lip. This is the labiodental place of articulation, and it is how we form the sounds [f] and [v]. These aren’t the only labiodental sounds that exist. For example: Dutch and Finnish have the sound [ʋ], which is also a labiodental sound.

Moving on

Now, in the next post, we’ll look at the dental, alveolar, postalveolar and retroflex places of articulation.

I should mention here that if you want to see the vocal tract in action, take a look at Seeing Speech’s IPA charts where they have audio recordings of all the sounds we’re going to be discussing in this series, and video recordings of MRIs of the vocal tract, so - an actual head making actual constrictions in an actual vocal tract, instead of a inaccurate, cartoony hand-drawn illustration.

That’s all for today — see you next week!