Phonology 1: Consonants: Articulation and transcription

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5 The articulation of [t, n, s, z]: the role of the soft palate and the larynx

In this section, we will consider the articulation of the sounds [t, n, s, z]. This will give us an understanding of the airflow in three important classes of sounds: the plosive sounds like [t], the nasals like [n], and the fricatives like [s] and [z]. In the section following this one, we are then prepared to understand different kind of plosives, nasals, and fricatives.

For most consonants, an understanding of their articulation involves three things:

• Do the vocal folds in the larynx vibrate or not? (I.e. is the sound voiced or not?)

• Is the soft palate raised or not (I.e. is nasal airflow possible?)

• Place of articulation: What do tongue and lips do in the oral cavity?

The sounds [t, n, s, z] all involve the same place of articulation: The front part of the tongue moves up to an area behind the upper teeth. Take a moment to feel the area behind your upper front teeth with your tongue. You will notice that there is a short 'horizontal' area immediately behind the teeth, and then a 'ridge' (perhaps with a little bump) before the upper part of your mouth suddenly becomes much higher. This 'ridge' is called the alveolar ridge [G. Zahndamm]. During the articulation of [t, n, s, z], the front part of the tongue makes a constriction at the alveolar ridge. (This is the kind of constriction that we said is typical for consonants, as opposed to vowels.)

Even though these four sounds involve the same place of articulation in the oral cavity, they are clearly distinguished. The following table shows you how.
manner of articulation and voicing of [t, n, s, z]:

oral airflow allowed at alveolar ridge

nasal airflow allowed by soft palate


vocal cords in larynx




airflow stopped in mouth and nose; pressure build-up until [t] is released

do not vibrate (voiceless)




(nasal sound)

air comes out of nose;

no airflow through mouth

vibrate (voiced)


yes, with force; (fricative sound)


air is pressed through narrow constriction at alveolar ridge; -> noise

do not vibrate (voiceless)


yes, with force; (fricative sound)


vibrate (voiced)

The second column indicates whether there is oral airflow, the third column whether there is nasal airflow, and the fourth column what the combined effect is. (Ignore the last column for now.) For [t], there is a short time during which the tongue closes off the airflow completely at the alveolar ridge, so there is no oral airflow. At the same time, the soft palate is raised and closes off the nasal airflow. So there is also no nasal airflow. The effect is that, for a short time (the time of closure), there is no airflow through either mouth or nose. Since the lungs push up air, however, air-pressure builds up in the oral tract. At some point, then, the closure of the tongue in the mouth is released, and air comes out with a small puff. For this puff to be produced, it is important that both oral and nasal airflow are stopped for a short time, so air-pressure builds up in the oral tract. Notice that the crucial part of [t] (and other plosive sounds like it) is considered to be the part of closure, during which there is no airflow. Other plosive sounds work similarly, though the constriction in the mouth (oral cavity) is made at different positions, as we will see.

For [n], the table shows that there is similarly no oral airflow. Here, too, the tongue also closes off the airflow entirely at the alveolar ridge. However, the soft palate is not raised, and so nasal airflow is possible: The air comes out freely through the nose. You can convince yourself that this is correct: While saying a long [n], first press your hand against your mouth to make sure no air can come out of the mouth. The [n] may sound slightly modified, but you can still continue it. Oral airflow is not involved with [n]. Then, while saying another long [n], use your hand to hold your nose closed. The [n] immediately stops. This shows that nasal airflow is crucial in the production of [n]. It also shows that there is no oral airflow. Otherwise, this sound would somehow continue when you close your nose with your hand.

What, then, of [s]? The airflow with this sounds is the inverse of the airflow with [n]. With [s], the soft palate is raised, so there is no airflow through the nose. At the same time, the tongue does not completely stop the airflow at the alveolar ridge. The tongue is nevertheless very close to the alveolar ridge, leaving only the smallest opening. Air is pressed through this opening (with the force of the lungs), which makes the hissing sound of [s]. For a serious hissing sound to come about, it is important that the soft palate is raised and closes off the nasal airflow. Otherwise the air could freely leave through the nose, and the air-pressure for making the hissing sound would not be available in the oral tract.

As discussed earlier, [z] is like [s] in all respects except for voicing. So columns 2, 3, and 4 of the table above are the same for [s] and [z]. Voicing is shown in the rightmost column of the table. [s] is voiceless, [z] is voiced; [n] also is voiced; we saw this earlier when I wrote that [n] can easily be used to sing on. [t], on the other hand, is voiceless. Notice also that, just as there is a voiced counterpart of [s], namely [z], there is also a voiced counterpart of [t], namely [d]. You can get a feeling for this distinction between [t] and [d] in the following way. Try say [edede...] with your finger on your larynx (Adam's apple) to feel the voicing. It is possible to say this sequence without interrupting the voicing. On the other hand, when you say [etete...], you have to interrupt the voicing during the short times in which there is a complete closure for the occurrences of the [t].
6 Places of articulation
Let us then turn to different places of articulation in the mouth. With all places of articulation, we can isolate a moving part, and a part that it moves to in order to make the constriction. The moving part is called the active articulator, and the part that it moves to is called the passive articulator. All active articulators are in the lower jaw [G. Unterkiefer], while all passive articulators are in the upper jaw [G. Oberkiefer]. This is related to the fact that the lower jaw can move, while the upper jaw is unmovably mounted with the skull [G. Schädel]. The active articulators (lower lip, and different parts of the tongue) do not entirely do their movements on their own; instead, these movements are often accompanied and strengthened by movements of the lower jaw. For example, when you say [dadada...] and look into a mirror, you will see how the lower jaw lowers for the [a], and raises back up when the tongue makes its constriction with the [d]. You can also see the lower jaw moving when you look at someone else speaking.

The left picture of Figure 5 shows you the different active articulators and their names. Relevant here are the lower lip, the tip and blade of the tongue (together, these form the front part of the tongue, or corona), and the body (or back) of the tongue, which is also called the dorsum. On the right of Figure 5 you see the passive articulators. The consonants are often named with reference to the passive articulators, and the corresponding names are indicated in this picture of the passive articulators. Sounds articulated at the upper lip are called labial, at the upper teeth: dental; at the alveolar ridge: alveolar; in the area behind that: post-alveolar or palato-alveolar; at the hard palate: palatal; at the soft palate = velum: velar. Hanging off at the end of the soft palate is the uvula [G. Zäpfchen]. Sounds articulated there are uvular.

Figure 5. Active articulators (left) and passive articulators (right).

From: Ladefoged/Maddieson: The sounds of the world's languages, p.12f

The following table shows you the active and passive articulators (first two rows), and the names for sounds that are created when a particular active articulator makes a constriction with a particular passive articulator (third row). Below that are the sounds produced by these articulators, separated into the classes of plosives (such as [t] above), nasals (such as [n] above), and fricatives (such as [s] and [z] above). The first row of plosives are voiceless, the second row is voiced. Likewise with the fricatives. The nasals are all voiced.


articulator ->

lower lip

tip/blade of the tongue (corona)

body of tongue

Passive articulator ->

upper lip

upper teeth

alveolar ridge

palato-alveolar region

hard palate

soft palate


Names of the sounds ->

















nasals [voiced]

















Notice first that the gray column in the middle displays the sounds we have already discussed: [t, d, n, s, z]. Here the front part of the tongue (corona) makes contact with the alveolar ridge. These are the alveolar sounds. For each of these sounds, the other sounds in the same (horizontal) row share their airflow- and voicing properties, but the constriction in the oral cavity is formed with different active and/or passive articulators. Thus, [p] (voiceless) and [b] (voiced) are like [t] (voiceless) and [d] (voiced) in that nasal airflow is blocked by a raised soft palate, and oral airflow is blocked for a short time by a complete closure; air-pressure is built up during this closure, which is then released. In the case of [p] and [b], however, this closure in the oral cavity is not formed with the tongue, but with the lower lip against the upper lip. These sounds are bilabial. [m] is a corresponding bilabial nasal, with the lips sealing off oral airflow, but with nasal airflow allowed by the soft palate (not raised). A third series of plosives and nasals is formed further back in the mouth, with the body of the tongue closing off the airflow at the velum. The nasal sound that we find here is transcribed [N]. This is the sound at the end of 'king', or 'sing'.

All fricatives involve pressing the air through a narrow constriction. Among the fricatives in the table, English, but not German, has the sounds [T] (voiceless) and [D] (voiced). These are also often called interdental, since the tip of the tongue is between upper and lower teeth. When we fit them into the general schema of active articulators in the lower jaw, and passive ones in the upper jaw, the contact to the upper teeth is the crucial one. This makes sense: whey you say these sounds with your mouth wider open, you see that the closeness to the upper teeth is crucial in forming the constriction. Word-initial [D] is found in English function words like 'the', 'this', 'those', 'that', while word-initial [T] is found in lexical words like 'theatre', 'think', or 'thank'. On the other hand, the fricatives [C] and [x] are found in German, but not in English. [C] is also called ich-Laut in German, since it occurs in the word "ich", [IC], and [x] is also called ach-Laut, since it occurs in the word "ach", [ax]. The sound [C] is formed against the hard palate, with a part of the tongue that includes the body of the tongue. [x] is formed at a point further back, at the velum, where [k] also makes its constriction. (In a more detailed description, this is a bit more complicated for [x], though we will ignore these details here.)

Notice that the table allows you to read off the description and name of each sound: for example, [p] is a voiceless bilabial plosive, as you can put together from the attributes in the third row, and in the first column of the table. Similarly, the ich-Laut [C] is a voiceless palatal fricative.

Examples of words with each sound in the table are shown here.
sound English example German example

p pin packen

b bin backen

t tune Tier

d dune dir

k clue Kasse

g glue Gasse
m man Mann

n nature Natur

N think blank
f free frei

v vase Vase

T theory -

D these -

s kissssen

z zoo Eisen

S she schön

Z pleasure Garage

C - leicht

x - Bach

7 Additional consonants of English and/or German
affricates: [pf], [ts], [tS], [dZ]
Affricates consist of two parts at the same place of articulation. (The second part of their transcription reflects the place of articulation of the entire affricate). There is nevertheless evidence that these are single sounds (though will not get to it in this class).

The manner of articulation of the stop part is as for stops, and the manner of articulation of the fricative part is as for fricatives. There are voiced and voiceless affricates.

liquids: [l, r]:
• [l] is a voiced alveolar lateral sound. It is articulated with the tip of the tongue at the alveolar ridge, but one or both sides of the tongue let the air pass through on the side. The opening is fairly wide, so there is no fricative noise. [l] is not a fricative, therefore.
• [r] is a voiced rhotic sound. If you take 'Intro to phonetics and phonology', you will learn that different [r]-sounds (rhotics) can be distinguished, and that English and German, as well as different German dialects, use different [r] sounds, which are also transcribed differently. Here, however, we will simplify a bit, and use [r] for both English and German.
glottal sounds: [h, ?]
Only the vocal cords are involved in the production of [h] and [?]. Airflow is usually allowed through the oral tract; however, the position of the articulators in the oral tract is irrelevant, and whether the velum is raised or not is also irrelevant.
• [h] is produced by spreading apart the vocal cords.

• [?] is produced by a closure and following opening of the vocal cords.

examples: English: [?]o-[?]oh

German: [?]Oma, [?]Arbeit, Be[?]ate, Beatrice, The[?]ater, theatralisch,


sound English example German example

pf - Pfanne

ts - Ziege

tS church Tschibo

dZ jury Dschungel

l linger Lampe

r ring Ring

h here hier

Classes of consonants summed up:
• plosives (oral stops) [p, b, ...]

• fricatives [f, v, ...]

• affricates [pf, tS, ...]

• nasals (nasal stops) [m, n, N]

• liquids [l, r]

• glottal sounds [h, ?]

Problem set
1. For each of the following sounds, specify the active and the passive articulator:

[k], [m], [d], [D], [x], [S]

2. For each of the following sounds, describe the manner of articulation (this does not include voicing): Is the velum raised or not? Is the oral constriction complete? Is there airflow through the mouth or through the nose or does the airflow completely stop for a short time?

[k], [m], [x]

3. a. For each of the following sounds, write down whether they are voiced or voiceless.

[g], [m], [n], [S], [Z], [s], [z], [x], [T]

b. What happens during voicing in the larynx? (1 sentence is enough, if it is correct.)
4. Name the following sounds:

Example: [d] is a voiced alveolar plosive.

Now you: [s], [tS], [g], [l], [n]
5. Transcribe the consonants in the pronunciation (not spelling!) of the following English words (you may write '_' for where a vowel is pronounced; look up the pronunciation in a dictionary if you are not sure; however, you must use the transcription symbols we are using here, in case your dictionary uses different ones):

Example: sing [s_N]

Now you: knife, king, judge, chocolate, psychology

p. , Intro Ling, Phonology 1: Consonants – Articulation and transcription

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