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Department of Linguistics

PHONETICS AND PHONOLOGY

Place of Articulation

Robert Mannell

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Place of articulation is defined in terms of the the articulators involved in the speech gesture. It is common to refer to a speech gesture in terms of an active articulator and a passive articulator.

Active Articulators

An active articulator is the articulator that does all or most of the moving during a speech gesture. The active articulator is usually the lower lip or some part of the tongue. These active articulators are attached to the jaw which is relatively free to move when compared to parts of the vocal tract connected directly to the greater mass of the skull.

Passive Articulators

A passive articulator is the articulator that makes little or no movement during a speech gesture. The active articulator moves towards the relatively immobile passive articulator. Passive articulators are often directly connected to the skull. Passive articulators include the upper lip, the upper teeth, the various parts of the upper surface of the oral cavity, and the back wall of the pharynx.

Naming Place of Articulation

The place of articulation of a consonant is generally named for the passive articulator. Sometimes the active articulator is also explicitly included in the name of a place of articulation by use of the prefixes "apico-" and "lamino-".

Illustrations of Place of Articulation in English

The following links lead to diagrams that illustrate place of articulation in English. These diagrams are applicable to most dialects of English. The possible exception is the diagram for /r/ which may be articulated differently in some dialects of English.

  1. Oral Stop Articulation
  2. Nasal Stop Articulation
  3. Fricative Articulation
  4. Approximant Articulation

Table of Possible and Impossible Articulations

The following table makes a distinction between articulations that are actually used contrastively in the world's languages, articulations that are not used but are possible, and articulations that are impossible. In some cases, articulations marked with "***" are actually physically impossible and in some cases "***" marks articulations that are too difficult to be considered serious possibilities for linguistic use.

Passive Articulator
Active Articulator
Lower
Lip
Tongue
Tip
Tongue
Blade
Front of
Tongue
Back of
Tongue
Root of
Tongue
Vocal
Folds
Upper
Lip
bilabial
---
---
***
***
***
***
Upper Front
Teeth
labio-
dental
(apico-)
dental
(lamino-)
dental
---
***
***
***
Alveolar
Ridge
---
(apico-)
alveolar
(lamino-)
alveolar
---
***
***
***
Hard
Palate
***
retroflex
palato-
alveolar
palatal
***
***
***
Soft
Palate
***
***
***
---
velar
***
***
Uvula
 
***
***
***
***
uvular
***
***
Pharynx
Wall
***
***
***
***
***
pharyngeal
***
Vocal
Folds
***
***
***
***
***
***
glottal

In the above table:-
*** means not a possible articulation
--- means not found in any language (so far)

From the above table, it can be seen that places of articulation are completely specified by both the active and the passive articulator. Some common articulatory distinctions are not completely captured by specification of the passive articulator alone.

For example:-

  • Labiodental articulations cannot be fully specified by just the passive articulator (front upper teeth) as this would fail to distinguish such articulations from dentals.
  • Dentals can be either apico-dentals or lamino-dentals (and in some languages these can contrast). It is essential that the active articulator is specified to separate them.

Note that, with the exception of the lower lip and the vocal folds, the majority of active articulators are different parts of the tongue. Refer to this figure from lecture 1 for the location of these different parts of the tongue.

Examples of Languages with Complex Place Contrasts

Malayam (India)
Nasal contrasts at six places of articulation

/m/ /n̪/ /n/ /ɳ/ /ɲ/ /ŋ/

kʌmmi pʌn̪n̪i kʌnni kʌɳɳi kʌɲɲi kʌŋŋi

Wangurri (Australia)
Nasal contrasts at six places of articulation

/m/ /n̪/ /n/ /ɳ/ /ɲ/ /ŋ/

ɲamaʔ ban̪a ɡanaʔ maɳa ɡaɲawu naŋa

Yanuwa (Australia)
Oral stops contrast at six places of articulation

/b/ /d̪/ /d/ /ɖ/ /ɟ/ /ɡ/

wubuwiŋɡu wud̪urumaya wuduru wuɖuɭu ɡuɟuɭu wuɡuɡu

Mandarin Chinese
Fricatives contrast at five places of articulation

(all examples spoken with a high level tone)
fa    to issue
sa    three
ʂa    sand
ça    blind
xa    sound of laughter