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In articulatory phonetics, the place of articulation (also point of articulation) of a consonant is the point of contact, where an obstruction occurs in the vocal tract between an active (moving) articulator (typically some part of the tongue) and a passive (stationary) articulator (typically some part of the roof of the mouth). Along with the manner of articulation and phonation, this gives the consonant its distinctive sound.
Types of articulation
A place of articulation is defined as both the active and passive articulators. For instance, the active lower lip may contact either a passive upper lip (bilabial, like [m]) or the upper teeth (labiodental, like [f]). The hard palate may be contacted by either the front or the back of the tongue. If the front of the tongue is used, the place is called retroflex; if back of the tongue ("dorsum") is used, the place is called "dorsal-palatal", or more commonly, just palatal.
There are five basic active articulators: the lip ("labial consonants"), the flexible front of the tongue ("coronal consonants"), the middle/back of the tongue ("dorsal consonants"), the root of the tongue together with the epiglottis ("radical consonants"), and the larynx ("laryngeal consonants"). These articulators can act independently of each other, and two or more may work together in what is called coarticulation (see below).
The passive articulation, on the other hand, is a continuum without many clear-cut boundaries. The places linguolabial and interdental, interdental and dental, dental and alveolar, alveolar and palatal, palatal and velar, velar and uvular merge into one another, and a consonant may be pronounced somewhere between the named places.
In addition, when the front of the tongue is used, it may be the upper surface or blade of the tongue that makes contact ("laminal consonants"), the tip of the tongue ("apical consonants"), or the under surface ("sub-apical consonants"). These articulations also merge into one another without clear boundaries.
Consonants that have the same place of articulation, such as alveolar [n, t, d, s, z, l] in English, are said to be homorganic. A homorganic nasal rule is a case where the point of articulation of the initial sound is assimilated by the last sound in a prefix. As in the case of the language Yoruba where 'ba' ="hide" → 'mba' ="is hiding" and 'sun'= "sleep" → 'nsun' ="is sleeping".
Table of active articulations and places of articulation
|Active gesture||Active + passive place of articulation|
|Laminal postalveolar ("retroflex" #1)|
|Domed_consonant (partially palatalized)||Domed_consonant postalveolar ("palato-alveolar")|
|Palatalized||Palatalized postalveolar ("alveolo-palatal")|
|Apical postalveolar ("retroflex" #2)|
|Sub-apical||Sub-apical (pre)palatal ("retroflex" #3)|
|Prevelar (or medio-palatal)|
List of places where the obstruction may occur
- Bilabial: between the lips
- Labiodental: between the lower lip and the upper teeth
- Linguolabial_consonant: between the front of the tongue and the upper lip
- Dental: between the front of the tongue and the top teeth
- Alveolar_consonant: between the front of the tongue and the ridge behind the gums (the alveolus)
- Postalveolar_consonant: between the front of the tongue and the space behind the alveolar ridge
- Retroflex: in "true" retroflexes, the tongue curls back so the underside touches the palate
- Palatal: between the middle of the tongue and the hard palate
- Velar: between the back of the tongue and the soft palate (the velum)
- Uvular: between the back of the tongue and the uvula (which hangs down in the back of the mouth)
- Pharyngeal: between the root of the tongue and the back of the throat (the pharynx)
- Epiglotto-pharyngeal: between the epiglottis and the back of the throat
- Epiglottal: between the aryepiglottal folds and the epiglottis (see larynx)
- Glottal: at the glottis (see larynx)
Nasals and laterals
- In nasals, the velum is lowered to allow air to pass through the nose (technically a place, but generally considered as a manner of articulation)
- In laterals, the air is released past the tongue sides and teeth rather than over the tip of the tongue. English has only one lateral, /l/, but many languages have more than one, e.g. Spanish written "l" vs. "ll"; Hindi with dental, palatal, and retroflex laterals; and numerous Native American languages with not only lateral approximants, but also lateral fricatives and affricates. Some Northeast Caucasian languages have five, six, or even seven lateral consonants.
Some languages have consonants with two simultaneous places of articulation, called coarticulation. When these are doubly articulated, the articulators must be independently movable, and therefore there may only be one each from the categories labial, coronal, dorsal, and radical. (The glottis controls phonation and sometimes the airstream, and is not considered an articulator.)
Some common coarticulations include:
- Labialization, rounding the lips while producing the obstruction, as in [kʷ] and English /w/.
- Palatalization, raising the body of the tongue toward the hard palate while producing the obstruction, as in Russian /tʲ/.
- Velarization, raising the back of the tongue toward the soft palate (velum), as in the English dark l, [lˠ] or [ɫ].
- Pharyngealization, constriction of the throat (pharynx), such as Arabic "emphatic" [tˤ].
- Doubly articulated stop: a stop produced simultaneously with another stop, such as labial-velar consonants like [k͡p], found throughout West and Central Africa. There are also labial-alveolar consonants [t͡p d͡b n͡m], found as distinct consonants only in a single language in New Guinea, which also contrasts labial-postalveolar stops. Somali has a uvular-epiglottal stop [q͡ʡ].
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