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Phonetic Terminology

This website uses many phonetic terms that may not be familiar to all readers. This terminology is necessary as it is the standard linguistic means to describe sound, and will be useful to speakers of any language and any dialect.

If English “equivalencies” were given instead of phonetics, there would be a problem for speakers of English with different accents. For example: “/a/ as in black”. In my speech community, this would be close to phonetic [a], for speakers in north-central usa it would be [eǝ], in RP England [æ], in New Zealand [ɛ], etc.

Furthermore, many languages have sounds in their inventories which do not even remotely occur in English. Describing Okanagan ʕ as a “guttural sound deep in the throat” is not terribly informative, as one can make hundreds of different “guttural” noises.

Below, I will give brief definitions of the phonetic terminology, and the equivalent (if available) in Southern Urban Ontario English. The Roman Orthography Conventions used here follow general linguistic practice for brackets.

Place of Articulation – Along the top row in the consonant charts

The sound is made by pressing both lips together, as in English /p/, /b/, and /m/.
The top teeth meet the bottom lip, making sounds like English /f/ and /v/.
The tongue-tip is touching the back of the top-front teeth, as in French or Spanish /t/, /d/, /n/.
The tongue is sticking out between the front teeth, like English ‹th› /ð/.
The tongue-tip is touching the ridge behind the top-front teeth, the usual place of articulation for English /t/, /d/, /n/.
An “l” like sound – air is blowing around the edges of the tongue, while the middle of the tongue is blocking the flow, as in English /l/ and Welsh ‹ll›.
The flat part of the tongue is touching behind the alveolar ridge, like English ‹sh›, ‹ch›, ‹j›– /ʃ/, /ʧ/, /ʤ/.
The flat part of the tongue is against the hard palate, creating a sort of “y” like flavour to the sound, as in English /y/, Italian /gl/, or Spanish /ñ/.
The back of the tongue is pushing up against the soft palate, like English /k/, /g/, and Scottish ‹ch› as in “loch”.
The uvula is the hangy-bit at the back of the throat, try pushing the back of the tongue further than for /k/; this may feel uncomfortably like choking until you get used to it. Hebrew ‹ch› is usually uvular.
This sound is made by bringing the walls of the throat just below the tongue root and above the voice box closer together, it ends up sounding like a strong and raspy “h”. It occurs in Arabic, Maltese, Stoney, and some dialects of Breton. Epiglottal sounds (made even further back in the throat) are often variable with pharyngeal sounds. Distinctions between the two are not necessarily made on this web site.
The glottis is the vocal cords/folds. English /h/ is glottal, as well as the break between the vowels in “uh-oh”. This break or glottal stop is very important in many languages, and must be regarded as a separate sound.
When two sounds occur, one right after the other – stop then fricative (see below), it is an affricate. English ‹j› can be analysed as [d] + [ʒ], but it counts as a single sound for English grammar. Hungarian ‹c› is an affricate made up of [t] + [s]. English ‹ts› is not an affricate, because English grammar considers this two separate sounds.
The lips are brought into a tight circle at the same time as the sound is articulated. Scottish ‹wh› could be considered a rounded /h/ (or a voiceless /w/), and English ‹qu› may be thought of as a rounded /k/.

Manner of Articulation etc. - Along the left side of the tables

No vocal cord/fold vibration occurs during the sound, like French (or a softer version of English) /p/, /k/, /t/. Also like English /f/, /s/.
A voiceless sound with a strong puff of air (or /h/ sound) afterwards. As in English /p/, /k/, /t/ when these sounds occur at the begining of a word.
The vocal cords/folds are vibrating, causing the individual sound of ones voice. Compare English /b/, /v/, /d/, /z/ with their voiceless counterparts.
The glottis is closed during the production of the consonant, permitting no air to leave the lungs. The result is that the consonant as a glottal stop-like gap before and after the sound. Used to describe stops or affricates.
Ejective when referring to fricatives or resonants. These sounds (especially the resonants) end up sounded with a creaky voice.
Tense (Fortis) / Lax (Lenis)
Tense and lax are somewhat arbitrarily used descriptions of sounds. Generally speaking, tense means the sound is pronounced with more constricted mouth and tongue muscles, lax more weakly constricted. For example, an English long /ā/ is tense, while the short /ĕ/ is lax (both are mid front vowels).

Fortis and lenis are similar to tense and lax: Fortis is more a more strongly exploded sound, and lenis is weaker. English /t/ is fortis, while the French /t/ is lenis.

These terms are useful as in some languages, the idea of voiceless and voiced are not entirely appropriate. So in Korean, ‹k› is a fortis-tense stop, ‹g› is a lenis-lax stop, and ‹kk› is a lenis-tense stop. In Korean, voicing of stops depends on the position of the sound in the word, not on an inherant quality of the consonant.
The term used to describe long consonants. Compare English ‘good-day’ with ‘today’. In the first word, the /d/ is a geminate (held longer).
A sound which completely blocks of air through the mouth, such as English /p/, /t/, /k/, /m/, /n/, /ŋ/. The first three are oral stops (or obstruents), the latter three are nasal stops. On these pages oral stops will be labelled simply as “Stop”, whereas nasal stops will be called “Nasals”.
c.f. Stop
The air is only partially blocked off, so that friction occurs, like English /f/, /s/, /h/. Lateral fricatives occur very commonly in North American languages, as in Welsh ‹ll›.
The air is even less restricted than a fricative, meaning the tongue is only shaping the mouth cavity to produce a sound. English /l/, /r/, /w/, and /y/ are approximates. Notice that there is a fine line between approximates and vowels, compare /y/ with /i/, as in “year”, and whether a sound is an approximate or a vowel often depends more on the phonological grammar of the language than the phonetics.
A useful term which groups approximates, nasal stops, and other sounds which grammatically share characteristics.


The tongue is close to the top of the mouth: English /i/ /u/.
The tongue is close to the bottom of the mouth: English /a/, /ɑ/ .
The tongue is half way from the top to the bottom: English /e/, /o/. Variations of mid occur, i.e. high-mid and low-mid, when necessary.
The front of the tongue is shaping the vowel as either high or low: English /i/, /e/
The back of the tongue is shaping the vowel as either high or low: English /ɑ/, /o/
The middle of the tongue is shaping the vowel as either high or low: English /a/, /ʌ/
Long and Short
Do not confuse “long” and “short” with what you may have learned in English phonics classes. Long simply means that the sound’s duration is stretched out for a longer time than usual, the quality of the vowel does not change. Sometimes for stylistic reasons, vowels are written as long in English like “no-o-o-o” – an emphatic “no”.
For vowels, nasal means that the air is passing through the nose, not the mouth. French has nasal vowels in words like: ‹bon›, ‹chanson›, and ‹France›.

Supersegmentals – other stuff

Stress or Emphasis
The syllable is pronounced louder, longer, more strongly than usual. English has two or three degrees of stress – primary, secondary, and tertiary (in some dialects). The word “pràcticálity” has secondary stress on the “à” and primary stress on the “á”.
Tone can be high, low, middle, raising, falling, etc. Tone is purely pitch related, and is not necessarily related with stress – although it often is. East Asian languages (Vietnamese, Cantonese, Thai) are famous for their tone diversity; other tonal languages are found in Mexico, the western sub-Arctic, and pretty much everything in sub-Saharan Africa. Like stress, tone is usually indicated by accents over vowels, so that “à” is low tone, “ǎ” is rising tone, and so on.


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Last Update: August 22, 2008