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Department of Linguistics


Articulation of Approximants

Robert Mannell

During the articulation of the approximants the following sequence of events occurs:-

  1. Velum opening is optional for approximants except in languages where there is a phonemic distinction between nasalised and non-nasalised approximants. In Australian English the state of the velum is dependent upon phonetic context (open next to nasal stops, and closed next to oral stops, for example).
  2. The active articulator moves towards its target (the passive articulator).
  3. The oral tract is open at the place of articulation, but not as open as would be the case for a vowel. In other words the active articulator is moved towards the passive articulator but is prevented from moving so close that frication occurs.
  4. During the approximant target, the vocal folds might be together and vibrating or might not be. In English the most common approximant allophones are voiced although voiceless allophones can occur (especially at the start of a stressed syllable when preceded by a voiceless fricative or aspirated oral stop that also belongs to the same syllable).
  5. Following the approximant target, the active articulator continues to move towards its target for the next phoneme.

In the following diagrams the position of the articulators is shown during the approximant target.

Figure 1: Articulation of a lateral alveolar approximant. Air flows freely around the sides of the tongue.

Figure 2: Articulation of a velarised alveolar lateral approximant (also know as "dark l"). Air flows freely around the sides of the tongue.

Figure 3: Articulation of a palatal approximant.

Figure 4: Articulation of a labial-velar approximant.

Figure 5: Articulation of an alveolar approximant.