The IPA: Consonants Part I – Place of Articulation

This is part of a series. The other posts are here. You can get your copy of the IPA here. It is helpful for following along.

As I mentioned in the first post, consonants are characterized by obstruction of airflow, and the consonant chart is organized around this. Each row in the chart represents to what degree the airflow is being obstructed, and this is technically known as “manner of articulation”. The top row, “plosives”, are consonants produced with a brief period of silence where no air escapes at all. As we move down the rows, the constriction widens and more air flows, and the final row represents approximants which have the minimum degree of obstruction possible to still be a consonant.

Each column in the chart represents where in the vocal tract the obstruction occurs. This is technically known as the “place of articulation” of a consonant. The first column, “labial”, represents an obstruction at the lips. As we move rightward, the place of articulation moves back in the mouth, and then down until we reach the ‘lowest’ place of articulation at the glottis.

In some cases, there are two symbols per cell. This represents information about vocal fold vibration, technically known as “voicing”. If there is a pair of symbol, the symbol on the left is for a sound without vocal fold vibration (“voiceless consonant”) and the one of the right is for a sound with vocal fold vibration (“voiced consonant”). If there is only one symbol in a cell, then it by default represents a voiced consonant. You can physically feel this vibration in some pairs of sounds, most easily [s] and [z]. Just put your fingers over where an adam’s apple would be, or is if you have one, and then say [ssssssssssss] and then [zzzzzzzzzzzz]. Switch back and forth between them [sssszzzzssszzzz]. You should be able to feel a “buzzing” under your fingers for [z] that’s not there for [s]. You’re feeling vocal fold vibration.

One more technical term: place of articulation, manner of articulation, and voicing are known as “features” of a consonant.

Some cells lack any symbols at all. Empty cells with a grey background represent a combination of features that are considered (physically) impossible. For instance, some of the cells in the rows labelled “lateral” are greyed out. Lateral sounds are produced by having air flow around both sides of an obstruction, and this isn’t possible everywhere. It’s easy placing your tongue against the centre of the roof of your mouth (as in the ‘l’ sound), but it’s not really possible at your lips. (A lateral sound at your lips would be made by pinching your lips together in the middle, while allowing air to flow out the sides.) Empty cells with white backgrounds represent a possible combination of place, manner, and voicing, but no languages have yet been found which make use of that particular combination so there’s no symbol invented for it yet.

In this post, I’m just going to cover place of articulation, which is the columns. I’ll do manner, the rows, in the next post.

The first place is labial, which means ‘at the lips’. English has three labial sounds [p,b,m]. These symbols represent exactly what you would think they do, i.e. the first sound is the words “pat”, “bat”, and “mat”. Labial sounds are quite common, and in fact [m] is the mostly commonly found consonant in the world, appearing in more than 80% of the languages in this large database. A few languages, however, lack labials entirely, offhand I can think of the Iroquoian languages of Canada and the United States.

Next is the category labio-dental, which means ‘lips and teeth together’. In English these are the sounds [f,v], which are the first sounds in ‘fan’ and ‘van’. Remember that the IPA is a one-to-one system representing the sounds of a language, so the [f] is used for words like “Phil” [fɪl] and “cough” [kɑf]. Although we usually make labio-dentals by placing our lower lip against our upper teeth, apparently you can do with the other way around (top lip against bottom teeth) and it’s basically the same sound. It’s kinda weird to do it that way though.

Next is dental, which means ‘at the teeth’. English specifically have two inter-dental sounds, which means ‘between the teeth’. These are the souds [θ, ð], which are relatively rare around the world, meaning they are often problematic for second language learning, and are they among the last sounds children acquire. Although there are two distinct sounds, English spelling doesn’t distinguish between them. The symbol [θ], called “theta”, is for the first sound in “think”, which is voiceless. The symbol [ð], called “eth”, is for the first sound in “that”, which is voiced. You can prove the voicing distinction to yourself by putting your finger on your larynx, as I described before for [s] and [z]. Probably the reason that we don’t have two different ways of spelling these sounds in English is because we very rarely contrast them. If you allow phrases, then there’s a minimal pair between “with her” and “wither”. So since the distinction isn’t very relevant, the spelling doesn’t reflect it.

This is followed by alveolar. The alveolar ridge is the little bumpy area you can feel just up behind your teeth. English has a number of alveolar sounds, including [t,d,s,z,n,l] which all represent what you’d expect them to. There’s also an upside down ‘r’ [ɹ] in this column, which is the symbol used for the familiar English r-sound. The rightways-up [r] is used for a “trill” sound (which I’ll get to in the next post) that is found in, for example, Russian, Spanish, and Scottish English.

The next category is post-alveolar, which I’ll bet you can guess means ‘behind the alveolar ridge’. In English these are the sounds [ʃ] and [ʒ]. The first is for the “sh” sound, as in “ship” or “wish”. The second is a relatively rare sound in English, but it occurs as the last consonant in “garage” and its the sound represented by ‘s’ in “measure” and “treasure”. We don’t have any dedicated letter for [ʒ] in English spelling, probably because it’s a pretty marginal sound in the language.

The difference between alveolar and post-avleolar sounds is quite small in abosulte terms. Try switching back and forth saying [ssssssʃʃʃʃʃʃsssssʃʃʃʃʃ] or [zzzzzzʒʒʒʒʒʒzzzzzʒʒʒʒʒʒ]. It’s really a matter of milimeters between your tongue tip position in one sound and the other, but you get an enormous difference in sound. (There are differences other than tongue tip position between alveolar and post-alveolar sounds, this is just a simple one you can verify easily on your own.)

You’ll notice that dental, alveolar, and post-alveolar are grouped together in every row, with only one or two symbols for all three places, except the row labelled “fricative”. Why is this? Because languages generally do not make any distinctions between sounds at these places, so we don’t need any special symbols devoted to them. It’s really uncommon to find language that have a dental /t/ and a different alveolar /t/, for example. If it ever is important to write out these differences then there are diacritics in another table (for another post) that will allow you to indicate that distinction.

After this comes retroflex. Retroflex sounds are are similar to the alveolar sounds, except they are produced by bending your tongue tips towards the back of the your mouth (retro=back, flex=bend). You’ll notice that all of the retroflex symbols are indentical to the alveolar symbols with the addition of a hook at the bottom, as a kind of visual reminder. Retroflex consonants are often associated with Hindi and other languages spoken in India. The stereotypical “Indian accent”, like Apu on the Simpsons, is made by replacing all of the English alveolar sound with retroflex ones.

Consonants with these last four places of articulation are also often grouped together under the umbrella term “coronal”. What they have in common is that the main articulator is your tongue tip or blade making a constriction in the dental/alveolar region. Coronal sounds are among the most frequent in the world. Virtually every language has at least one coronal sound, and for a while coronal articulations was thought to be a universal of human language, but one exception, West Mekeo, has surfaced, so there are/were probably others too.

Following retroflex is the palatal category. The palate, in linguistics, is the “hard palate” in common terms. If you drag your tongue along the roof of your mouth, you’ll find that after the bumpy alveolar ridge, things smooth out and even dome a little bit. That smoother area is the palate. English doesn’t really have any palatal sounds, unless you count [j], which is the IPA symbols for the first sounds in “yellow” and “universe” (the letter ‘j’ is used for this sound in German spelling, and that’s probably how it ended up here). You should be able to feel the body of your tongue kinda squish up on your palate for those sounds. Also notice there is a palatal sound [c], which should not be confused for the English letter ‘c’. The letter ‘c’ does several things: it’s a [s] in ‘ice’, a [k] in ‘cake’, and it’s used in the digraph ‘ch’.

Next comes velar. The velum, in linguistics, is the “soft palate” in common terms. It’s the mushy bit that comes after your palate ends. I can feel this with my tongue tip, but I am freakishly lacking a phrenulum so your mileage may vary. Velar sounds are not usually made with tongue tip contact anyway, they are made by raising the back of the tongue body to put it in contact with the velum. In English, these are the sounds [k,g,ŋ]. That last symbol is for the ‘ng’ sound found in, for example, the progressive suffix ‘-ing’, like ‘running’ or ‘writing’. It’s also found a other words like ‘king’ and ‘sing’. When ‘n’ comes before ‘k’, it’s sometimes represents [ŋ] as in ‘pink’ [pɪŋk] or ‘think’ [θɪŋk]. Just feel where your tongue goes for those words, and notice how it’s the back of the tongue that contacts the velum. Compare this to ‘pin’ [pɪn] and ‘thin’ [θɪn], which definitely contain [n] sounds, and the tip of your tongue contacts the alveolar ridge.

Uvular sounds are next. The uvula is that little drop that hangs down from your velum at the back. It’s the thing they zoom in on when someone’s singing loudly in a cartoon. Again, I can feel this with my tongue tip but I don’t think that’s normal; you might be able to get a sense of it with the back of your tongue. Essentially to make a uvular sound, it’s like making a velar sound “further back”. They don’t occur in English, but pop up in languages around the world. Uvular and velar consonants are sometimes grouped together under the umbrella term “dorsal”, referring to the back of the tongue.

The penultimate column is pharyngeal. The pharynx is the space between the back of your tongue and the back wall of your throat. The constriction for phrayngeal sounds are made by pushing the tongue root back (yes, you can actually learn to move your tongue root like that). Pharyngeal sounds are rare. They are only really known in three different regions of the world: British Columbia (in the Salish and Wakashan language families), the Caucasus (Northwest and Northeast Caucasian language families), and North Africa-Middle East (Berber, Cushitic, and Semitic language families). It’s also been proposed that Indo-European (the original) had pharyngeals.

Last is the glottal place of articulation. This is what’s commonly known as your “vocal cords”. That’s something of an awkward term, because there aren’t any cord-like structures there. Linguists usually refer to them as “vocal folds”. Technically, the glottis is the folds, plus the space between them. English has one glottal sound, [h], which is used for the sound you’d expect. But keep in mind, this is used for that sound, not that letter, so the word ‘hot’ gets transcribed as [hɑt], but the word ‘honor’ is [ɑnoɹ].

There is also a sound called a “glottal stop”, which is made by closing up the vocal folds. It’s quite commonly pronounced in English, although there are no minimal pairs, no pairs of words which depend on the glottal stop, so it’s presence in English speech goes mostly unnoticed. There are, however, a few dialects that use the glottal stop [ʔ] in some places where standard English uses /t/. Famously, Cockney is like this, so the word “bottle” comes out as [baʔl]. A glottal stop is sometimes described as a “catch in the throat”, something like the sound in the middle of ‘uh-oh’.

And that covers the range of places of articulation. In the next post I’ll cover manner of articulation.


Filed under IPA, Linguistics

7 responses to “The IPA: Consonants Part I – Place of Articulation

  1. Very thorough. I think it is essential for learners of English as a second language to practice voiced and unvoiced consonants, and normally suggest they do so in front of the bathroom mirror every day.
    Your blog reminded me of one lesson in a “Portuguese for foreigners” night school class I attended in 2009-2010. My classmates were mainly Romanian and all knew each other; some of their group were also my workmates. They were having trouble matching phonetic elements to their graphic representation in Portuguese, something which was not a problem for me. With our teacher’s permission, I gave an impromptu miniature lesson in very broken Portuguese on much of the above – especially the voiced/unvoiced aspect – which resulted in a lively discussion in a mixture of Romanian and Portuguese of orthographic similarities and differences between these two languages, and lots of Romanian words being written on the blackboard by one of my classmates. At last everyone understood how to pronounce the Portuguese, and ironed out their own personal difficulties. Lots of fun, and very noisy.


  2. Pingback: The IPA: Consonants Part II – Manner of Articulation | linguischtick

  3. It’s in point of fact a great and helpful piece of information. I’m glad that you just shared this useful information with
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  4. Aron G

    Champion! I’m a third year linguistics student about to go into a phonetics test. Through my 3 years at uni, this is the clearest explanation I’ve ever had for the areas of the articulatory system. You’re a champ!


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