The IPA: Consonants Part II – Manner 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.

In the last post I covered voicing and place of articulation for consonants. In this one, I’ll go over the other major feature: manner of articulation.

Manner of articulation is represented by the rows of the table. They are arranged roughly in order of how much obstruction there is in your vocal tract when you produce a consonant. The top row is the sounds with the greatest degree of obstruction, and the bottom row is the sounds that are as unobstructed as you can get without being a vowel.

The first row is “plosives”, which are consonants that are produced with complete closure in the vocal tract. English has six plosives: /p,b,t,d,k,g/. You can experience this complete closure by trying to “hold” any of those soudns. While it’s simple to say [ssssssssss] until you have no more air left, this is impossible with /p/. You physically cannot produce a continuous [ppppp] (although can produce a string of [p] sounds seperated by short vowels).

To produce a /p/, you have to completely seal your lips, and not allow any air to flow out of your mouth or nose. This creates a build-up of air pressure, and when you finally open your lips you release a strong “burst” noise. The plosive /t/ is similar, except that you create a seal with your tongue against the roof of your mouth at the alveolar ridge. The burst noise that you make when releasing this seal is quite distinct from that at the lips, in part because of the volume of vocal tract that you seal up. There’s more volume in a /p/ because the whole mouth is available, but with a /t/, the volume is the space from your alveolar ridge back.

Plosives are universal – every known language has some. But exactly how you produce them depends on which languages you speak. An interesting paper by Cho and Ladefoged (1999) measured how long the closure was in 18 different languages. There’s a chart on page 219 (or page 13 of the pdf file) that you can make some sense of without any training in linguistics (as long as you read the previous post on the IPA!). It’s amazing how different two sounds can be when they are supposedly the “same”. Look at the Aleut (Western) velar stop vs. the Apache velar stop. The Aleut [k] has a VOT three times as long! They might be articulated in the same way, but they must sound very different from each other.

The next row is “nasals”, which are consonants produced with complete obstruction in the mouth only. Air is allowed to flow out through the nose (thus the name). English has three nasals: /m,n,ŋ/. That last one is the velar nasal, usually written as “ng”, like in “sing” or “thing” or “walking”. Nasals and plosives are often grouped together under the umbrella term “stop consonants”. Unlike plosives, nasals are not universal, although they are nearly so. There are only a handful of documented languages without nasal consonants, e.g. Quilete.

The next row is “trills”. A trill involves one articulator vibrating very quickly. The airflow in these sounds in increased compared to stops, although there are brief periods of interuption for each trill. There are only three symbols because there are a limited number of ways you can do this kind of articulation. None of these appear in English, except [r] which occurs in some varieties, like Scottish English (this isn’t the symbol for the r-sound of standard North American English). To make an [r], your tongue tip vibrates rapidly in the area just behind your teeth. The symbol [ʙ] is a bilabial trill, which is like letting your lips flap together. This is a pretty rare sound, known to occur in maybe a dozen languages, such as the nearly-extinct Chapacuran languages of South America. The other trill [ʀ] is not as exotic. It’s the “r sound” in some varieties of French and German. This is a uvular trill, so you have to get that dangly thing at the back of your mouth to vibrate.

After trills comes “taps” or “flaps”. These are sounds involving a single rapid contact with an articulator. These are like trills, except that a trill is many rapid touches, whereas a tap is just a single touch. The alveolar tap [ɾ] is used in English, although it only appears as a variant of /t/ and not as a sound all by itself. In some words, you can replace the /t/ with a d-like sound, as in “butter” or “water”. Unless you are going out of your way to speak clearly, you’ll say something more like “budder” or “wadder”. But it isn’t actually a [d] you are pronuncing there, it’s is a [ɾ], which is a quick tap with the tip of the tongue against the alveolar ridge. It’s not an extended closure like you’d need for [d], which is a plosive consonant.

The next row is “fricatives”. Fricatives are sounds made with high-speed turbulant air flow that results in a “hissy” or “noisy” sound.You’ll notice that the fricative row is the most full on the entire chart. There are a lot of different fricative sounds a human can make. The English fricatives are /f,v,θ,ð,s,z,ʃ,ʒ,h/. Although /h/ is included as a fricative here, not all linguists agree with this. The articulatory characteristics of /h/ are such that some people prefer to group it under ‘approximants’, which is the last line on the chart. Fricatives are nearly universal, and the more common ones are /s/ and /h/. Interestingly, fricatives are almost completely absent from Austrialian languages.

The next row is labelled “lateral fricative”. There are just two sounds here. You might wonder why not group them above with the other fricatives. Recall that the IPA is organized around consonant articulation. Lateral fricatives are similar to the plain fricatives in that they both involve a high degree of airflow and a hissy sound. But they differ in their articulation in another way, and so they need another line because there aren’t enough dimensions in a table to put the two fricative categories together.

For the plain fricative sounds, the air flows over the top your tongue, and often ends up hitting against the back of your teeth. Experiment with a few, like /s/ or /f/, to feel where the air is travelling in your mouth. Lateral sounds are sounds where the air flows around the sides of the tongue, rather than over the top. So for a lateral fricative, you have to make contact somewhere with your tongue so the air can’t escape out the top, and is forced to travel around the sides. Neither of these sounds exists in English. If you are familiar with Welsh, the spelling of ‘ll’ as in ‘Lloyd’, represents the fricative [ɬ].

After this comes “approximants” (and notice the ending in -mants, this is not the word “approximates”). These sound have the least obstruction of any consonant, and it’s as close as you can get to being a vowel while still remaining on the consonant chart. In fact, in many languages, approximants can sometimes be pronounced as vowels. For approximants, your articulators touch and kind of “glide” past each other, without forming a complete closure and without any noisy interruption of airflow. In fact, these consonants are sometimes called “glides”. English has two approximants. The first is [j], which is for the “y” sound in “yellow” or “yes”. The second is [ɹ], which is the correct symbol for the standard English “r” sound. Although lots of people use the symbol [r] instead, because it’s easier to type. And actually there is a third glide, [w], but that’s on a different chart.

The final row is “lateral approximants”. This is the category of “l-sounds”. As I mentioned before, laterals are sounds where the air flows around the tongue. If you make an [l], you’ll be able to feel how this happens. Your tongue touches at the alveolar ridge, and the sides kind of “flatten” down to let air around the sides. Compare this to [t] where your tongue tip touches at about the same place, but then spreads out make a complete seal. Try pronouncing a word like “fault” or “battle” really slowly so you can feel the transition between [t] and [l]. The other laterals involve essentially the same kind of tongue positioning, but with contact at other places in the vocal tract.

Australian languages tend to have a lot of these lateral sounds, and sometimes all four. Combined with the lack of fricatives I mentioned earlier, this gives Australian languages a very distinctive sound. Listen to this sample of Alywarra, for example. This languages has no fricatives, and all four laterals. Wikipedia has a nice chart of the consonant system.

And that sums up the pulmonic consonants. In the next post I’ll go over the non-pulmonic ones (they’re in a little box just under the main consonant table on the IPA chart). These include some slightly more “exotic” sounds, like clicks.


Filed under IPA, Linguistics

3 responses to “The IPA: Consonants Part II – Manner of Articulation

  1. Soniacutezz

    thanks for the material because I need this for our presentation at my english course


  2. Hi,

    This is incredibly informative and useful stuff. Thank you.

    I was wondering if you ever wrote the series on vowels because I cannot seem to locate them on your site.


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