Places of articulation

Some sounds at the various places

It is possible to combine almost any place of articulation with almost any manner of articulation. A few of them are physically impossible (e.g., velar trill, glottal lateral) -- these are shaded grey on the IPA consonant chart. English uses only some of the possible combinations. Almost all of the physically possible sounds are used in some language or other.

Not every possible sound has been given its own simple symbol. In these cases, we must modify the closest symbol with diacritics. For example, we can create a symbol for the voiceless alveolar nasal stop by placing the voiceless diacritic (a circle) underneath the symbol for a the voiced alveolar nasal stop, [n]. We can create a symbol for the voiced bilabial approximant by placing the "lowered" or "more open" diacritic (a small T with the line pointing downward) underneath the symbol for the voiced bilabial fricative, the Greek letter beta.


The English bilabial sounds are [p], [b], and [m].

It is possible to have bilabial fricatives as well as stops:


The English labiodental sounds are [f] and [v]. We have also seen [labiodental-m] as an allophonic variant of [m] in words like symphony. Labiodental stops can sometimes be found due to assimilation, for example, the b in obvious can sometimes assimilate to the labiodental POA of the following [v]. But in general, labiodental stops are not used in the world's languages.

the coronals

Sounds made with either the tongue tip or the tongue blade as the active articulator are often called coronals. The coronal POAs are:
  1. dental
  2. alveolar
  3. postalveolar
  4. retroflex
The retroflex POA has its own column in the IPA chart, but the other three share a single column -- except in the fricative row, where there are three separate sets of symbols. According to the IPA rules, a symbol in the mega-column like [t] can stand for a sound with any of the three POAs without needing a diacritic, though without some warning to the contrary (e.g., in a footnote), it will usually be interpreted as being alveolar. It is possible to specify that a sound is dental or postalveolar using the dental diacritic or the retracted diacritic (an underline).

This ambiguity wasn't too problematic during the formative years of the IPA, since most of the languages that were then familiar to western linguists never contrasted the three POAs except in fricatives. English would use alveolar stops, French would use dental stops, but none of the familiar languages would use both in a way that could change the meaning of a word. But there are languages which do make such contrasts: many Australian languages contrast all four coronal POAs; many languages of India contrast at least dental, alveolar, and retroflex.


Retroflex sounds are made with the tongue tip curled back.

We have been calling the [r] sound of English a retroflex. Yetthe symbol for it appears in the IPA chart in the dental-alveolar-postalveolar mega-column. The English R-sound (the non-"bunched" version) certainly counts as an apico-postalveolar and has a legitimate claim on the symbol even without a retracted diacritic. The tongue tip is certainly more curled back for an [r] than for any other sound of English. But the amount the tongue is curled back isn't too impressive when compared with languages which have a whole set of true retroflexes (e.g., languages of Australia or India). In some languages, retroflexes are so extreme that the tongue tip touches the hard palate or contact is made by the underside of the tongue tip.

R-sounds in Irish English are typically more retroflex than those of western Canadian English.

Most of the languages of India have retroflex stops. As well, Indian English typically uses retroflex [retro-t] and [retro-d] where other dialects of English would use alveolar [t] and [d].

Mandarin Chinese has retroflex fricatives and affricates.
[retro-sscript-aenghaj] Shanghai
A voiced retroflex fricative can be the nucleus of a syllable:
[retro-tretro-saspsyllabic-retro-z] chi `eat'


English [j] is a palatal approximant. It is also possible to have palatal stops and fricatives.

The voiceless palatal fricative [ç] is used in German ich.

A palatal nasal is used in Spanish señor and French oignon.


English has the velar stops, [k], [g], and [eng]. English also uses a velar approximant as one of the two gestures that make up [w]. It is also possible to have velar approximants by themselves and to have velar fricatives. The final sound of German Bach or Scottish English loch is the voiceless velar fricative, symbolized in IPA by [x].


A voiced uvualar trill or fricative (depending on the dialect) is used for the R sound of European French and increasingly in Canadian French. The voiceless uvular stop [q] is used in Arabic.


We have seen that a pharyngeal approximant is one of the three gestures that make up an English [r]. It is possible to narrow the pharynx even more to create the radico-pharyngeal fricatives used in, for example, Arabic.


Not strictly a place of articulation so much as a phonation type.

English uses the glottal "fricative" [h] -- in reality, a breathy voiceless articulation of the neighbouring vowels -- as if it were just another consonant.

Many languages also use the glottal stop [?] as if it were just another consonant. English doesn't, except in a few odd corners such as the interjection uh-uh. In many dialects of English, it is also common for an voiceless stop in the coda of a syllable to have glottal stop begun just before and overlapping with the closure phase of the higher stop.

Next: Multiple articulations
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