Articulatory Phonetics 101: Place of Articulation, Part 3

This is Part 5 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.

Welcome back to Language Rush and Articulatory Phonetics 101! In the last post, we looked at the dental, alveolar, retroflex and postalveolar places of articulation. In this post, we’re going to be looking at the remaining places of articulation in the vocal tract, beginning with the palatal place of articulation.

Palatal

 A cartoon representation of a palatal place of articulation.

A cartoon representation of a palatal place of articulation.

Say “ahh”. Now say “yeah”.

When you do this, a constriction of airflow is created by the main body of your tongue moving up to approach the hard palate. This is the palatal place of articulation.

While there are plenty of palatal sounds in the world’s languages, English has just one palatal, [j], which we usually think of as the letter “y”. (Remember, in English, the sound we think of as “j” is in fact [ʒ] in the International Phonetic Alphabet.) If you pay attention to your speech, you’ll also realise that [j] appears in words that aren’t spelled with a <y> at all: like universe, uvula, and unicorn.

If you are a Spanish speaker, you might recognise that the “ñ” in “España” is palatal, and if you’re a German speaker, you might notice that the consonant [ç] in a word like “ich” is palatal too.

Velar

 A cartoon representation of a velar place of articulation.

A cartoon representation of a velar place of articulation.

Let’s move on. Say “ahh”. Now say “key”.

You’ll feel the back of your tongue come up to touch the soft part of the roof of your mouth. That’s the velum, and this is the velar place of articulation.

English has just three velar sounds: [k], [g] and [ŋ]. [k] and [g] are pretty self-explanatory. If you’re wondering what [ŋ] is, it’s the sound that’s usually repesented by <ng> in English: singing a song. It also appears in words like “bank”: say the word “bank” aloud and you’ll realise that the “n” is not [n], but [ŋ].

Velar sounds that don’t appear in English include [x], as in German “Achtung”, among others.

Uvular

 A cartoon representation of a uvular place of articulation.

A cartoon representation of a uvular place of articulation.

Now, on to the uvular place of articulation.

English has no uvular sounds, but if you’ve ever struggled to learn the French “r” or the Arabic letter ق, then you know what a uvular place of articulation sounds and feels like.

The uvula is the punching bag-like structure at the back of your mouth, so you can imagine what happens when you produce a uvular sound: the back of the tongue moves to meet the uvula and constrict the airflow there.

Pharyngeal and epiglottal

As for the pharyngeal and epiglottal places of articulation, I’ll say up front that I don’t know a lot about pharyngeal and epiglottal sounds, but by now you have a pretty good idea of what a pharyngeal or epiglottal consonant is: it’s a consonant produced by creating a constriction at the pharynx or epiglottis.

English doesn’t have any pharyngeal or epiglottal consonants, but let’s take a quick look at the voiced pharyngeal fricative, which appears in languages like Danish, Kurdish and some dialects of Berber.

 A cartoon representation of a pharyngeal place of articulation.

A cartoon representation of a pharyngeal place of articulation.

In this sound, what happens is that the tongue root moves towards the back of the throat, or the pharynx, as air flows through. Let’s move on before I embarrass myself talking about something I don’t know much about. This is a good time to mention that if you want to hear the different sounds of the world’s languages, I recommend Seeing Speech’s audio samples and MRI videos.

Glottal

Let’s move on. Take a deep breath and hold it.

Do you feel something in your throat closing to stop air from escaping? That is the glottis.

Now try this. Say “ahh”, slowly and deliberately, three times. Pay attention to what happens in your throat between the “ahh”s.

If you felt something closing in your throat, good. You are producing what’s known as a glottal stop, a speech sound with a glottal place of articulation. (If you didn’t feel it, you’re doing it wrong. Check that you aren’t saying “hahh”.)

If you’re an English speaker, or really, a speaker of most languages, you might be wondering what the big deal about the glottal stop is, since it sounds like nothing. Well, depending on your regional dialect, you might find that “Manhattan” and “Tottenham” contain glottal stops. In fact, depending on your regional dialect (cough Cockney), you might find that lots of words contain glottal stops, especially words written with a double “tt” such as “pretty”, “better” and “butter”.

In some languages, the glottal stop is represented in writing. For example, in Malay, <k> written at the end of a syllable is a glottal stop, as in “tak”, and the reverse apostrophe in “Hawai(’)i” is also a glottal stop.

The glottal stop is not the only glottal consonant, even in English. There is also [h], as in “hahahaha”.

Round-up

So, we’re done with place of articulation. Now, so far, we’ve looked at two of the key dimensions that determine what consonant a consonant is: voicing and place of articulation (POA).

In the next section of this series, we’ll look at a third feature, the manner of articulation. That’s all for today.