An In-Depth Look into Articulatory Phonetics

  • Article's photo | Credit Wikipedia
  • Articulatory phonetics is all about understanding how we use our vocal apparatus to create the sounds that make up spoken language. It's like peeking behind the curtain of speech, revealing the intricate interplay between our organs and the sounds they produce. In this blog post, we'll embark on a journey to understand how our bodies transform air into the intricate sounds that make up human languages.

Defining Articulatory Phonetics

The field of articulatory phonetics is a subfield of phonetics that studies articulation and ways that humans produce speech. Articulatory phoneticians explain how humans produce speech sounds via the movement of the vocal organs. This involves the coordinated effort of various parts of the vocal tract, including the lips, teeth, tongue, alveolar ridge, hard palate, soft palate (velum), and glottis.

Generally, articulatory phonetics is concerned with the transformation of aerodynamic energy into acoustic energy. Aerodynamic energy refers to the airflow through the vocal tract. Its potential form is air pressure; its kinetic form is the actual dynamic airflow. Acoustic energy is variation in the air pressure that can be represented as sound waves, which are then perceived by the human auditory system as sound.

Articulators: The Instruments of Speech

Have you ever wondered how we make all the different sounds in our language? The answer lies in our articulators, the specific parts of the vocal tract that are responsible for sound production. An individual speaker has a number of articulators:

  • Lips
  • Teeth
  • Tongue
  • Alveolar ridge (the ridge in the roof of the mouth, behind the front teeth)
  • Hard palate (the hard, bony area behind the alveolar ridge)
  • Soft palate (the soft, fleshy part behind the hard palate)
  • Uvula (the back of the soft palate)
  • Vocal cords

The most important articulators are our lips and tongue. The articulators are listed above in order, starting from the very front of the mouth through to the back of the vocal tract. Trace these different locations in your own mouth using your tongue. Begin with your lips, and then work your way through to the uvula. You can feel where your vocal cords are by placing your fingers on the outside of your windpipe in your neck.

Phoneticians have devised a three-part system in order to describe consonant sounds:

  1. Place of articulation: This refers to the location in your mouth where the airflow from your lungs is blocked or shaped to create the sound. For example, sounds like "p" and "b" involve your lips coming together, while "t" and "d" involve your tongue touching the alveolar ridge (the bumpy part behind your front teeth).
  2. Manner of articulation: This describes how the airflow is actually affected at the place of articulation. Is it completely blocked for a moment (like "p" or "t"), or allowed to flow through a narrow opening (like "f" or "s"), or something else entirely?
  3. Voicing: This simply tells us whether the vocal cords in your throat vibrate while making the sound. Sounds like "z" and "v" involve vocal cord vibration (voiced), while sounds like "s" and "f" don't (voiceless).

The Place of Articulation in Speech Sounds

The place of articulation is a fundamental concept in articulatory phonetics. It refers to the specific location within the vocal tract where the airflow is obstructed or modified to create a consonant sound. This pinpoint location, where the "action" happens, influences the characteristic sound we perceive. Let's explore the different places of articulation:

  1. Bilabial: This means the sounds are produced with both lips coming together. Try saying "p" and "b" — you can feel your lips coming together to create the sound.
  2. Labiodental: Here, the lower lip touches your upper front teeth. Make the sounds "f" and "v" and feel the placement of your lips and teeth.
  3. Dental: The tip of your tongue touches your upper front teeth for these sounds. Try saying "t" and "d" and notice the tongue placement. There are also two "th" sounds, one voiced and one voiceless, represented by the symbols /θ/ (voiceless, as in "think") and /ð/ (voiced, as in "the").
  4. Alveolar: Move your tongue a bit back. Now, the tip or blade of your tongue touches the bumpy ridge behind your upper front teeth (the alveolar ridge). This is the place for sounds like "s" and "z".
  5. Palatal: The middle of your tongue touches the hard palate, the bony area further back in the roof of your mouth. Say "yell" and feel your tongue touching the roof of your mouth – that's the /j/ sound, an example of a palatal consonant.
  6. Velar: Now move your tongue even further back. Here, the back of your tongue touches the soft palate, the fleshy area near the back of your mouth. Try saying "k" and "g" and feel the back of your tongue move.
  7. Glottal: Finally, we have the glottal sounds made in the glottis, the opening between your vocal cords. The only common sound here is the /h/ sound, as in "hat," which is produced when the glottis opens briefly.

Manner of Articulation: Shaping the Sound

The place of articulation tells us where we block or modify the airflow in the vocal tract. But how do we actually achieve these modifications? This is where the manner of articulation comes in. It describes the way we use our vocal organs to create different consonant sounds. Here's a breakdown of some common manners:

  1. Stops: Imagine blocking the airflow completely for a moment and then releasing it abruptly. This is how we create stops like /p/ in "pie" and /b/ in "buy". The silence created by the blockage is followed by a burst of air when the closure is released.
  2. Nasals: These consonants allow airflow to pass through the nasal cavity, creating a buzzing resonance. Try pinching your nose and saying "m" or "n" — it becomes impossible! The sound comes out muffled because the nasal passage is blocked.
  3. Fricatives: Here, the airflow is forced through a narrow channel created by our articulators, like squeezing air through a partially closed fist. This friction generates the hissing sound characteristic of fricatives like /f/ in "fish" and /v/ in "van".
  4. Approximants: These sounds involve the articulators coming close together but not creating a complete closure. This closeness creates some turbulence in the airflow, resulting in sounds like /j/ as in "yes" and /w/ as in "wet". They are sometimes called glides because the tongue moves smoothly between different positions.
  5. Lateral approximant: This is a subcategory of approximants where air escapes around the sides of the tongue, rather than the center. The /l/ sound, as in "like", is a prime example.
  6. Affricates: These consonants combine a stop and a fricative. The airflow is blocked momentarily (like a stop), followed by a slow release that creates friction (like a fricative). The "ch" sound in "cheese" (/tʃ/) is a classic example.


Voicing refers to whether the vocal cords vibrate during the production of the consonant. Consonants can be either voiced or voiceless. Now, let's explore the difference between voiced and unvoiced sounds.

Do this: articulate the phoneme /z/ with your fingers on your vocal cords. You should be able to feel your vocal cords vibrating - /z/ is what is known as a voiced sound. Other sounds are voiceless when articulated — there is no vibration of the vocal cords. Try articulating the phoneme /s/ with your fingers on your vocal cords. You should not be able to feel any vibration. While feeling the vibration is a good clue, the difference in sound quality can also help distinguish voiced and unvoiced sounds.

All sounds start in the lungs and then get manipulated on their way through the oral cavity. Interestingly, consonant and vowel sounds vary quite significantly in how they are produced. Consonants are formed when the airflow stemming from the lungs is obstructed at some point. The lips and the tongue are most frequently responsible for the obstruction, which then results in consonant sounds being realised. So, by using these amazing articulators in different ways, we can create a vast range of sounds that come together to form spoken language!

Unveiling Vowels: A Different Breed of Speech Sounds

Consonants are all about manipulating airflow with our vocal tract, but vowels take a different approach. Vowels are inherently voiced, meaning the vocal cords vibrate to produce their sound. You can't whisper a vowel – try whispering "eee" or "ooo" and feel the difference in your throat! Additionally, vowels are all approximants, so the "manner of articulation" category isn't used for distinguishing between them.

Since there's no blockage involved, vowels are always produced in the oral cavity. The distinct characteristics of vowel sounds arise from how we shape the space within our mouth using the tongue and lips. Here's what makes vowels unique:

  1. Tongue Height: Imagine moving your tongue up and down in your mouth. The position (high, mid, or low) influences vowel sounds like /i/ in "see" (high), /e/ in "bet" (mid), and /a/ in "father" (low).
  2. Lip Rounding: Rounding your lips or spreading them wide can alter the vowel quality. Rounded vowels like /u/ in "boot" are contrasted with unrounded vowels like /ɪ/ in "bit".
  3. Tongue and Lip Movement: Some vowels, like /a/ in "father", involve minimal movement, while others, like the diphthong /aɪ/ in "ride", involve the tongue and lips gliding between positions.
  4. Duration: The length of time a vowel sound is held can also play a role in some languages. English, for instance, doesn't rely heavily on vowel duration for meaning distinction, but other languages might.

By understanding these characteristics, we can appreciate the subtle variations that create the rich spectrum of vowel sounds found in human languages.

  • Share

Recommended Books to Flex Your Knowledge