This is Part 4 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 post, we looked at the basics of place of articulation, and the bilabial and labiodental places of articulation. If you haven’t seen that yet, I recommend you take a look at that post (and in fact all the previous posts in the Articulatory Phonetics series), because that will help this post make much more sense.
Now, let’s dive right back into it.
Now say “the”.
If you actually did as I told you to, you would have found the tongue moving toward your upper teeth. This is the dental place of articulation, where the tongue tip or tongue blade is touching the upper teeth.
Now, the dental place of articulation does not require the tongue to be between the teeth. In Spanish, for instance, some dental consonants like [d̪] are formed by placing the tip of the tongue against the back of the teeth, so these consonant sounds could still be produced if your teeth were clenched or if your jaw were wired shut or something like that. To distinguish such dental sounds from those where the tongue is in fact between the two rows of teeth, the latter are sometimes called interdental, which is Latin for “between the teeth”.
Dental sounds in English include [θ] and [ð]. Although in English, these two sounds are both spelt “th”, they are in fact different sounds: [ð] is voiced, while [θ] is voiceless. If you remember what we talked about with regards to voicing, you’ll remember how to test this: place the back of your hand against your throat and say “teethhhhhhh”, then try the same thing again with “breathe”, and you’ll feel the difference. A really good pair of words for isolating this distinction is either /iðɚ/ and ether /iθɚ/.
Now, let’s move on.
Now say “tee”.
What happens is that your tongue rises up and presses against the ridge on the roof of your mouth, just behind your teeth. It might be the tip of your tongue that comes in contact, which is a characteristic that linguists call “apical”, or it might be the blade of your tongue, the slightly wider section just behind the tip, which is what linguists describe as “laminal”. Either way, this is the alveolar place of articulation.
Alveolar sounds in English include [t], [d], [n], [s], [z], [l] and [ɹ]. Yes, that is an upside-down “r”.
Of course, while English has seven alveolar sounds, it doesn’t have a monopoly on them. You might be wondering what [r] is, if English doesn’t have it. This is the alveolar trill, which is the characteristic “rolled r” sound of Spanish and Italian. There’s also [ɾ], [ɬ] and [t͡ɬ].
If you’re wondering why there seem to be so many alveolar sounds, there’s a reason for that, but we won’t get into that here.
Let’s move on to retroflex consonants.
Retroflex consonants have their own column in the International Phonetic Alphabet table, alongside all the other places of articulation, but they aren’t exactly one place of articulation. Rather, the key distinguishing feature of a retroflex consonant is that instead of the tongue’s normal convex shape, a retroflex consonant is articulated with a flat, concave, or curled shape.
If you’ve heard spoken Swedish or Tamil, those languages are littered with retroflex consonants. To understand what a retroflex consonant might look like, let’s just look at the alveolar [d] and the retroflex [ɖ].
In the alveolar consonant [d], the tip or blade of the tongue touches the alveolar ridge. In the retroflex consonant [ɖ], the underside of the tongue is what creates the closure or the constriction, creating a curled shape. This creates a slightly different sound from the alveolar place of articulation.
Okay, I'm going to say that this: technically, in a retroflex consonant, the constriction doesn't have to be created by the underside of the tongue. There's a lot more to the retroflex place of articulation, but we'll go ahead with this working definition for now.
Let’s look at the postalveolar place of articulation now.
This is a fun one. Say “ahh”, then say “she”.
When you do this, your tongue rises up to create a constriction in a sort of anatomical no-man’s land: not quite the alveolar ridge, but not quite the hard palate either. This is the postalveolar place of articulation. Some people call this the alveolo-palatal place of articulation, some people call it the palato-alveolar place of articulation, and some others argue that the alveolo-palatal and palato-alveolar places of articulation are different… but we’re not getting into that. For our purposes, this is the postalveolar place of articulation.
English has four postalveolar sounds: [ʃ], [ʒ], [tʃ] and [dʒ].
You might be wondering if those are all the postalveolar sounds there are. Well, no, not really, but there’s no way to talk about this without wading into the details of “postalveolar” versus “alveolo-palatal”, so let’s avoid that and we’ll move on.
That’s all we have for today’s post. In the next post, we’ll look at the remaining places of articulation: the palatal, velar, uvular, pharyngeal and glottal places of articulation.
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. That’s all for today — see you next week.