Articulatory Phonetics

The production of speech involves 3 processes:


Initiation: Setting air in motion through the vocal tract.

Phonation: The modification of airflow as it passes through the larynx (related to voicing).

Articulation: The shaping of airflow to generate particular sound types (related to manner)

Articulatory phonetics refers to the “aspects of phonetics which looks at how the sounds of speech are made with the organs of the vocal tract” Ogden (2009:173).

Articulatory phonetics can be seen as divided up into three areas to describe consonants. These are voice, place and manner respectively. Each of these will now be discussed separately, although all three areas combine together in the production of speech.

1) Voice

In English we have both voiced and voiceless sounds. A sound fits into one of these categories according to how the vocal folds behave when a speech sound is produced.

Voiced: Voiced sounds are sounds that involve vocal fold vibrations when they are produced. Examples of voiced sounds are /b,d,v,m/.

If you place two fingers on either side of the front of your neck, just below your jawbone, and produce a sound, you should be able to feel a vibrating sensation. This tells you that a sound is voiced.

Voiceless: Voiceless sounds are sounds that are produced with no vocal fold vibration. Examples of voiceless sounds in English are /s,t,p,f/.

2) Place

The vocal tract is made up of different sections, which play a pivotal role in the production of speech. These sections are called articulators and are what make speech sounds possible. They can be divided into two types.

The active articulator is the articulator that moves towards another articulator in the production of a speech sound. This articulator moves towards another articulator to form a closure of some type in the vocal tract (i.e., open approximation, close, etc – define)

The passive articulator is the articulator that remains stationary in the production of a speech sound. Often, this is the destination that the active articulator moves towards (i.e., the hard palate).

I will now talk about the different places of articulation in the vocal tract

  • Bilabial: Bilabial sounds involve the upper and lower lips. In the production of a bilabial sound, the lips come into contact with each other to form an effective constriction. In English, /p,b,m/ are bilabial sounds.
  • Labiodental: Labiodental sounds involve the lower lip (labial) and upper teeth (dental) coming into contact with each other to form an effective constriction in the vocal tract. Examples of labiodental sounds in English are /f,v/. Labiodental sounds can be divided into two types.

a) Endolabial: sounds produced where the upper teeth are pressed against the inside of the lower lip.

b) Exolabial: sounds produced where the upper teeth are pressed against the outer side of the lower lip.

  • Dental: Dental sounds involve the tongue tip (active articulator) making contact with the upper teeth to form a constriction. Examples of Dental sounds in English are / θ, ð/.   If a sound is produced where the tongue is between the upper and lower teeth, it is attributed the term ‘interdental’.
  • Alveolar: First of all, before I explain what an alveolar sound is, it’s useful to locate the alveolar ridge itself. If you place your tongue just behind your teeth and move it around, you’ll feel a bony sort of ridge. This is known as the alveolar ridge. Alveolar sounds involve the front portion of the tongue making contact with the alveolar ridge to form an effective constriction in the vocal tract. Examples of alveolar sounds in English are /t,d,n,l,s/.
  • Postalveolar: Postalveolar sounds are made a little further back (‘post’) from the alveolar ridge. A postalveolar sound is produced when the blade of the tongue comes into contact with the post-alveolar region of your mouth. Examples of post-alveolar sounds in English are /  ʃ, ʒ    /.
  • Palatal: Palatal sounds are made with the tongue body (the big, fleshy part of your tongue). The tongue body raises up towards the hard-palate in your mouth (the dome shaped roof of your mouth) to form an effective constriction. An example of a palatal sounds in English is /j/, usually spelt as <y>.
  • Velar: Velar sounds are made when the back of the tongue (tongue dorsum) raises towards the soft palate, which is located at the back of the roof of the mouth. This soft palate is known as the velum. An effective constriction is then formed when these two articulators come into contact with each other. Examples of velar sounds in English are /k,g ŋ  /.

3) Manner

In simple terms, the manner of articulation refers to the way a sound is made, as opposed to where it’s made. Sounds differ in the way they are produced. When the articulators are brought towards each other, the flow of air differs according to the specific sound type. For instance, the airflow can be completely blocked off or made turbulent.

1) Stop articulations:

Stop articulations are sounds that involve a complete closure in the vocal tract. The closure is formed when two articulators come together to prevent air escaping between them. Stop articulations can be categorized according to the kind of airflow involved. The type of airflow can be oral (plosives) or nasal (nasals). I will now talk about both plosives and nasals separately.

1a) Plosives are sounds that are made with a complete closure in the oral (vocal) tract.  The velum is raised during a plosive sound, which prevents air from escaping via the nasal cavity. English plosives are the sounds /p,b,t,d,k,g/. Plosives can be held for quite a long time and are thus also called ‘maintainable stops’.

1b) Nasals are similar to plosives in regard to being sounds that are made with a complete closure in the oral (vocal) tract. However, the velum is lowered during nasal sounds, which allows airflow to escape through the nasal cavity. There are 3 nasal sounds that occur in English /m,n, ŋ/

2) Fricatives:

Fricative sounds are produced by narrowing the distance between the active and passive articulators causing them to be in close approximation. This causes the airflow to become turbulent when it passes between the two articulators involved in producing a fricative sound. English fricatives are sounds such as / f,v, θ,ð, s,z, ʃ,ʒ     /

3) Approximants:

Approximant sounds are created by narrowing the distance between the two articulators. Although, unlike fricatives, the distance isn’t wide enough to create turbulent airflow.  English has 4 approximant sounds which are /w,j,r,l/.


When it comes to vowels, we use a different specification to describe them. We look at the vertical position of the tongue, the horizontal position of the tongue and lip position.

Vowels are made with a free passage of airflow down the mid-line of the vocal tract. They are usually voiced and are produced without friction.

1) Vertical tongue position (close-open): vertical tongue position refers to how close the tongue is to the roof of the mouth in the production of a vowel. If the tongue is close, it is given the label close. However, if the tongue is low in the mouth when a vowel is produced, it’s given the label open.  + close-mid/open mid (see below).

Some examples of open vowels: ɪ, ʊ

Some examples of close vowels: æ, ɒ, 

2) Horizontal tongue position (front, mid, back): Horizontal tongue refers to where the tongue is positioned in the vocal tract in terms of ‘at the front’ or ‘at the back’ when a vowel is produced. If the tongue is at the front of the mouth, it’s given the label front, if the tongue is in the middle of the mouth, it’s given the label mid and if the tongue is at the back of the mouth, it’s given the label back.

Some examples of front vowels: ɪ , e, æ

Some examples of mid vowels: ə

Some examples of back vowels:  ʌ,ɒ

3) Lip position: As is inferred, lip position concerns the position of the lips when a vowel is produced. The lips can either be round, spread or neutral.

Examples of round vowels: u, o

Examples of spread vowels: ɪ, ɛ

There are also different categories of vowels, for example: monophthongs and diphthongs.

Monophthongs: Monophthongs are vowels that are produced by a relatively stable tongue position.

Monophthongs can be divided into two categories according to their duration. These are long and short vowels, and their duration is mirrored in their names.

Examples of short vowels: e, æ, ɪ, ʊ

Examples of long vowels: ɔ: ɜ:, i:, u:

Diphthongs: Diphthongs are vowels where the tongue moves from one part of the mouth to another. They can be seen as starting of as one vowel and ending as a different vowel.

Here are some examples: /aʊ, ɪə, ɔɪ, əʊ/

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