Phonology 101: Let’s Get Physical

We briefly explained phonology and phonetics when we gave a general rundown of some of the major disciplines of linguistics. Phonology has been a big part of linguistics from the beginning, and some of the stories we’re most excited to share with you are all about phonology. Even for some of the other topics we’re going to cover, a basic understand of phonology will be pretty useful. To that end, over the next couple months, I’m going to give you a brief crash course in Phonology 101. We will cover some of the basics of how we produce speech, the concept of phonemes and how we distinguish individual sounds, and how consonants and vowels work. For those who aren’t all that excited by this prospect, don’t worry. This series will be interspersed with other topics from my co-conspirators.

You ready? Let’s get started!

A quick recap: When we talk about phonology and phonetics, we’re talking about the sounds of speech. Phonology studies the way our fantastic brain-machines store and organize those sounds and the rules used for spitting them out. Phonetics studies the physical production of sound, including things like acoustics and the way sounds inevitably influence each other when produced in sequence (like when you’re saying a word or phrase). A shorthand way to think about this is that phonology deals in the abstract and phonetics in the concrete.

Whichever side you’re studying, it’s good to know the basics of the vocal tract and all the moving parts in our throats and mouths that work together to produce speech. Even in the abstract, the three main features linguists use to define individual sounds are the place of articulation (i.e. the relevant part of the vocal tract most engaged in producing the sound), the manner of articulation (i.e. the way air is moving through the vocal tract), and voicing.1

We’ll talk more about manner of articulation down the road when we get to consonants. Today, let’s focus on place of articulation and voicing. Let me just apologize in advance for the amount of terminology I’ll be throwing at you today. Just think of it as us inducting you into our secret linguists club.

To talk about place of articulation, we’re going to have to start with a little anatomy lesson:

Side view diagram of the vocal tract.
I know. I’m sorry. There is not a non-horrific way to draw this. Believe me, I’ve tried. Drawing this diagram is a rite of passage all young linguists must undergo.

This is a side view of the oral and nasal cavities. The lips, the teeth, and the tongue are, I hope, familiar features of the mouth. If you run your tongue across the roof of your mouth right behind your teeth, the bumpy, raised part is the alveolar ridge. Moving towards the throat, the hard part of the roof of your mouth behind the alveolar ridge is the palate, and the soft part behind the palate is the velum. The uvula is the little piece you can see dangling down in the back of the mouth when cartoon characters scream hysterically.

Generally, though not always, the place of articulation is where the flow of air through the mouth is most restricted. We use the Latin terms for the anatomy of the mouth to define place of articulation, so sounds involving the lips are called labial and sounds involving the teeth are called dental.

  • When the both lips come together, like when pronouncing ‘b’, a sound is called bilabial.
  • When the top teeth are against the bottom lip, like when pronouncing ‘v’, a sound is called labiodental.
  • When the tip of the tongue is against the teeth, like when pronouncing ‘th’, a sound is called dental.
  • When the tip of the tongue is against the alveolar ridge, like when pronouncing ‘d’, a sound is called alveolar.
  • When the front of the tongue is against the alveolar ridge and the front of the palate, like when pronouncing ‘sh’, a sound is called palato-alveolar or post-alveolar.

There are also palatal, velar, uvular, pharyngeal (referring to the pharynx, the back of the throat), and glottal sounds. You get the idea. Play around with it. Say some random consonants or say words slowly and see if you can’t get a feel for where the sound is “coming from.” (That’s always been one of my favorite parts of phonology: talking to myself and calling it studying.)

So, those are the basic places of articulation. The other feature we’re going to talk about today, voicing, has to do with the position of the vocal folds (colloquially, the vocal cords) and the glottis. This isn’t so much two things as a package deal. The glottis is the empty space between the vocal folds. (I didn’t draw a picture of this because vocal folds are ugly.)

When the vocal folds are drawn together and the glottis is narrowed but not completely closed, the air moving through the vocal tract has less space to pass through. Some sciencey stuff happens and the vocal folds begin to vibrate, causing the air to vibrate in turn, and the result is a voiced sound. When the vocal folds are held apart and the glottis is open, the air passes through the throat largely unhindered, and the result is a voiceless sound. You can try this out, too. Touch the front of your throat in the vicinity of the Adam’s apple and make some sounds. Can you feel the difference? (Hint: try producing ‘b’ and ‘p’. Be careful not to accidentally tack a vowel on the end!)

This may all sound a little complicated, and the terminology can feel like a lot to wade through when you’re first starting out, but don’t you fret. I promise this will all start making a whole lot more sense when we focus in on the consonants and vowels.

Phonology 101 will pick back up in February. Before we get to specific sounds, we’re going to talk about phonemes and how linguists (and our very own brains—yes, yours, too) separate sounds. Next week, Sabina will introduce us to the intricacies of language families (and you thought holidays with your relatives were complicated).


1This is all still basically true for vowels, but they get a little trickier. We’ll get to that.

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