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How To Learn Sign Language

Places and Manners of Articulation


So let’s talk about your mouth. Have you
ever really thought about your mouth? Because it’s pretty amazing. People have got all
these articulators, all these moving parts, that work together to make the huge variety
of sounds that we use for language. You use incredible finesse and control to
perform the urgent job of transforming your thoughts into words! And today, we’re going
to talk about just what those articulators do. I’m Moti Lieberman, and this is the
Ling Space. There are different ways to count, but at
the very least, there are over 100 consonant sounds in the world. And depending on your
dialect of English, you might have a different number, but for my variety, I’ve got 24.
Linguists have come up with specific symbols for all of them, called the International
Phonetic Alphabet, or IPA, and stuck them together in cool charts, like this. We saw
these in episode 12, but let’s look into what these cool little symbols mean in
more detail! We’re going to stick with the consonant
chart for today, and come back to the vowel chart in a later episode. The consonant chart
may look scary, but there’s actually a whole system there. The columns are for Place of
Articulation. These show where in the vocal tract the sound is crafted: like, in your
throat, at your soft palate, between your teeth, and so on. You can see there’s a
lot of different places, and that’s because even though the inside of your mouth might
not be a large area, we’ve divided it up into tiny little phonetic territories. The rows, on the other hand, tell us about
Manner of Articulation, or the particular way that air interacts with your mouth bits
to make the sound. You can let the air through free and easy, or only angry, hissy streams
of it, or just stop it completely. The order the IPA chart is written in tells
us how to make the sounds, too. The further to the left you go, the further forward in
the vocal tract the sound is pronounced. For example, up at the top left here, we have
[p], which is a bilabial stop. So it’s made with both of your lips – bi-labial – and the
air doesn’t make it out of your vocal tract at all; your lips just outright plug
it up. Just try saying a [p] without a vowel after it. “p…..” See? No air. And because
your lips are all the way at the end of the vocal tract, the bilabial sounds are found at the left
edge of the chart. When you go back from your lips, you find
your teeth, and so dental sounds are the next up. Labiodental sounds use both the lips and
teeth, so sounds like [f] and [v] qualify. On the other hand, interdental sounds, like
[θ] and [ð], are made by putting your tongue in between your teeth. The nice thing about
consonants this far forward is that it’s really easy to see how you make them – you
can see the [f] or the [ð] in action. If you keep working your way down the vocal
tract, you’ll hit a few more places of articulation. One pretty useful one you might not know about
is the alveolar ridge – that curvy slope right behind your front teeth, just at the beginning
of the roof of your mouth. You can make all kinds of really common consonants there, like
[l] or [s] or [n]. In fact, more kinds of consonants are made at the alveolar ridge
than at any other place. Just about any way you can make a consonant, you
can do it at the alveolar ridge. Postalveolar sounds like [ʃ] are made just
a liiittle bit back from the alveolar ridge, but not all the way to the hard palate. You
want to use all the space, after all. So you go and make some [ʃ] sounds. The next place on the chart is actually a
little bit different. It’s actually smuggling a manner of making consonants into the columns
meant for place. Retroflex sounds involve curling the tongue up to make the closure against the top of the mouth, so to make sounds like [ɖ] or [ʂ] or [ɳ]. They don’t really show up in English, but
they’re pretty common cross-linguistically. You get them in languages like Tamil, Hausa,
and Polish. And we list them here because the folding back still
puts the tongue in the same general place as your regular [t]s and [n]s. It’s just the other
side of the tongue. Okay, now we’re getting nice and far back in the mouth, to sounds
that you make with the main body of your tongue. So palatal sounds are made at the hard palate,
that solid place at the top of your mouth. We don’t have a ton of these in English
either, but if you go [j], then that’s where palatal sounds live. We also have the [ç]
sound in German words like “ich” or “mich” placed here. What we do have in English, though,
are velar sounds, or sounds that are made against the soft palate, or velum. That’s the squishy
bit that’s right behind the hard palate. Here’s where our [k]’s and [g]’s hang out. Also our
[ŋ]s, which is the sound that you get at the end of words like sing or wrong. It might seem like these are two separate
sounds, but if you feel how your mouth moves when you make a word like [pæŋ], you’ll notice that
your tongue never goes anywhere near the alveolar ridge. It’s all up at the back,
pillowing up against the soft palate. Now our next column is for uvular sounds. They’re
made against that little dangly punching bag thing at the back of your throat, the uvula.
These don’t exist in English at all, but we make the French [ʁ] back there, as well
as sounds like [q] and [χ], which exist in languages from Aleut to Arabic. Finally, we have sounds that are made even
further down, like right in the throat. Some of these, like the pharyngeal and epiglottal
sounds, are made by constricting the airflow just above the vocal folds in the larnyx.
But the farthest back place you can make a consonant is in the larynx itself. These are
known as glottal sounds, from the technical term ‘glottis’, the space that appears between the vocal folds when they open for air to pass through. We’ve got a couple of these sounds in English:
one is [h], which is a glottal fricative. But the other you might not have even noticed
as a sound before. It’s the sudden stop in the middle of a word like “uh-oh”,
or the sound before the [n] in [bʌʔn]. This is called a glottal stop, and even though it’s
not widespread in English, it’s still part of our inventory of sounds. Okay. So those are all the places of articulation.
These are the columns of our table, from left to right in the chart and front to back in
our mouths. Now, let’s go back and check out what rows we have. They represent the different
manners of articulation, or the ways you can cut up the air flow as it passes through your vocal tract. These generally go in the chart from most closed to most open, so from top to
bottom. So up top, we have plosives, which are also known as
stops. Like you’d guess from the name, these are pronounced by stopping the air completely,
and then letting it go again – our old friends [p], [t], and [k] are here, as well as [b],
[d], and [g]! And of course, there are other stops, too, like the [q] that we talked about earlier.
Whenever you’re pushing air from your lungs, and it can’t escape from your mouth until
you let go, that’s a stop. But what if you stop air from getting out
your mouth… but you leave another escape route? Like, say, through your nose? Down
one row, we have the nasals – your [m]s and [n]s, but also the [ŋ] we saw before. Here,
the air only comes out of your nose! There’s a complete stop in your mouth, but you lower
your soft palate, and the air rushes out the only way it can, through your nasal cavity. That’s
why when you have a cold and your nose is plugged up, your [d]s sound a lot
like [n]s. [d] and [n] are the same sound if you take your nose away. The next rows are for sounds that are like
stops, but just executed really rapidly. Trills involve closing and opening the air flow multiple
times quickly in the same place, just drumming one articulator against another. So it’s like the alveolar trill that you get in Spanish for [r], like in the word [buro], or donkey, or the bilabial trill, [ʙ], which
shows up in the Nias word for jaw, [siʙi]. Taps, also known as flaps, are just like a trill,
except instead of repeating the movement over and over, you just do it once – the [ɾ] sound
in “butter” is a flap, for example, as is the middle consonant in the Japanese word
for spicy, 辛い [kaɾai]. The next bunch of sounds finally get away
from total closure of the mouth, and they’re known as fricatives. Fricatives are noisy
sounds: the air does come out, unlike with plosives, but it is mostly obstructed still, so it comes
out in a pretty hissy kind of way. Now we can get these guys at pretty much every place of articulation!
A few nice examples are [f] and [v], which are labiodental fricatives; or [s] and
[z], which are alveolar ones. The most free-flowing kind of consonants
are known as approximants. For these sounds, air can make it up pretty easily from the
lungs and out of the mouth, but it’s not quite as smooth a ride as it is with vowels, where
the air is super free. Now, English has three regular approximants, [ɹ], [j], and [w]. These sounds
have very strong acoustic profiles; they’re loud and easy to hear. [j] and [w] are almost
exactly the same as the vowels [ɪ] and [ʊ], just said really quickly. Just hold an [j]
and see: [j…ɪ]. But they behave basically like consonants for how languages treat them. You’ll note that there are two other rows
there, for lateral fricatives and approximants. What’s that lateral thing about? Well, usually
air just flows out right out through the middle of our mouths, but that’s not the only way
for it to go. You can also block up the middle of the mouth, but curl down the sides of your
tongue, and let the air escape that way. That’s why these sounds are known as laterals:
they’ve got side flow. Just feel what you do with your tongue for [l] in English,
like in [lʌki]. Sides down, right? But if they don’t go all the way down, you can get tight, fricative-style flow around the sides of the tongue, like in the Welsh word for “the other”, [ɬæɬ]. Finally, maybe you’ve noticed that we’ve
been pairing up sounds together on the chart, like [f] and [v], or [s] and [z]. That’s because
there’s one other way in which sounds can differ, besides place and manner of articulation.
Sounds can also be voiced or voiceless, depending on whether your vocal folds are vibrating
or not while you say them. Now, you can see this for yourself! Just put your fingers here, on your
throat, and then say, “ssssss”. Now, you might hear a little bit of hissing in your mouth,
but that’s where it ends, right? Okay. Now switch to “zzzzzzz”. Whoa! Now
your throat is all vibratey too! That’s because the [z] sound is voiced, and
[s] is voiceless. Now, the same is true for [ð] and [θ]. Try it out, I’ll wait. As huge as the IPA chart can seem, it really
covers only a fraction of the sounds that human language contains. We can add a whole bunch of diacritics, or
symbols on or next to the letter, to show exactly how you’re pronouncing
things. Now, if you’re curious about what those look like, we have some information about it back on our website! But you can see just how much we can capture using only these three dimensions: where we pronounce things, how much air we let through, and whether we’re vibrating while we’re doing it. We only
need three factors to show you just how amazing your mouth really is. So we’ve reached the end of The Ling Space
for this week. If you correctly read the places of my articulators, you learned that the IPA
chart is organized by place and manner of articulation; that we divide up the inside of
our mouth into tiny little regions, from the lips back to the larynx; that we
distinguish different consonants based on how much air can escape from the vocal tract, and how it
gets out; and that we can make even more sounds by vibrating our vocal folds while we talk. The Ling Space is produced by me, Moti Lieberman.
It’s directed by Adèle-Elise Prévost, and it’s written by both of us. Our production
assistant is Georges Coulombe, our music and sound design is by Shane Turner, and our graphics
team is atelierMUSE. We’re down in the comments below, or you can bring the discussion back
over to our website, where we have some extra material on this topic. Check us out on Tumblr, Twitter and Facebook,
and if you want to keep expanding your own personal Ling Space, please subscribe. And
we’ll see you next Wednesday. Sziasztok!

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