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.

Articulatory Phonetics 101: Place of Articulation, Part 2

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.

Dental

A cartoon representation of the (inter)dental place of articulation

A cartoon representation of the (inter)dental place of articulation

Say “ah”.

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/.

Alveolar

A cartoon representation of the alveolar place of articulation

A cartoon representation of the alveolar place of articulation

Now, let’s move on.

Sah “ahh”.

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.

Retroflex

A cartoon representation of the retroflex place of articulation

A cartoon representation of the retroflex place of articulation

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.

Postalveolar

A cartoon representation of the postalveolar place of articulation

A cartoon representation of the postalveolar place of articulation

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.

Moving 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.

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.

Bilabial

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!