Moving on along the vocal tract

The pharynx doesn’t play an active part in the articulation of sounds, its main role being to link the larynx and the rest of the lower respiratory system to its upper part, thus functioning as an air passage during breathing. It is also an important segment in the digestive apparatus as it plays an essential role in deglutition (the swallowing of food).

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The pharynx branches into two cavities that act as resonators for the airstream that makes the vocal cords vibrate: the nasal cavity and the oral cavity. Before discussing the two respective cavities, it is important to mention the role played during articulation by the velum or the soft palate.

The velum is the continuation of the roof of the mouth also called the palate. The harder, bony structure situated towards the exterior of the mouth continues with the velum into the rear part of the mouth. The latter’s position at the back of the mouth can allow the airstream to go out through either the mouth or the nose or through both at the same time. Thus, if the velum is raised, blocking the nasal cavity, the air is directed out through the mouth and the sounds thus produced will be oral sounds. If the velum is lowered, we can articulate either nasal sounds, if the air is expelled exclusively via the nasal cavity, or nasalized sounds if, in spite of the lowered position of the velum, the air is still allowed to go out through the mouth as well as through the nose. If we nip our nostrils or if the nasal cavity is blocked because of a cold, hay fever, etc, we can easily notice the importance of the nasal cavity as a resonator and the way in which its blocking affects normal speech production.

The distinction nasal/oral is essential in all languages and it will further be discussed when a detailed analysis of both English consonants and vowels is given in the next chapters. We have mentioned above the oral cavity as one of the two possible outlets for the airstream that is expelled by our respiratory system. The oral cavity plays an essential role in phonation as it is here that the main features of the sounds that we articulate are uttered. The cavity itself acts as a resonator, and we can modify its shape and volume, thus modifying the acoustic features of the sounds we produce, while various organs that delimit the oral cavity or are included in it (the tongue) are active or passive participants in the act of phonation.

If we follow the airstream out through the mouth (oral cavity) we can easily notice the above-mentioned organs that play an important role in the process of sound articulation. Undoubtedly, the most important of all is the tongue, which plays a crucial role in oral communication, the very fact that in many languages (Greek, Latin, Romance languages) the same word is used to refer to both the anatomical organ and language as a fundamental human activity showing that in many cultures the two concepts came to be assimilated or at least considered to be inseparable. The tongue is actually involved in the articulation of most speech sounds, either through an active or a comparatively more passive participation. It is a muscular, extremely mobile and versatile organ (by far the most dynamic of all speech organs) and it plays an essential role in the producing of consonants, while its position in the mouth is also very important for differentiating among various classes of vowels.

The tongue can be “divided” into several parts: a) its fore part, made up of the tip (apex) and the blade; b) the front, and back part (the dorsum) – the label dorsum is often applied to front and back together – and c) the root (radix) of the tongue (the rearmost and lowest part of the organ, situated in front of the laryngo-pharynx and the epiglottis. The sides or rims of the tongue also play an important role in the uttering of certain sounds.

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(As we are going to see in a subsequent chapter, the various parts of the tongue lend their names to the sounds they help produce: thus, sounds uttered with the participation of the tip of the tongue will be called apical – from the Latin word apex, meaning top or extremity – those in the production of which the blade is involved will be called laminal – from the Latin word lamina having the same meaning – while the back part of the body of the tongue, the dorsum, will give its name to dorsal sounds, produced in the velar region.) The tongue is a mobile articulator that influences the way in which sounds are produced. But more often than not it does that with the help of other articulators (fixed or mobile i.e. passive or active) as well, like the roof of the mouth (the palate), the lips or the teeth. The palate essentially consists of two parts: the hard palate and the soft palate or the velum. We have shown the important role played by the velum in differentiating between the articulation of oral and nasal sounds. The hard palate in front of it functions as a fixed (passive) articulator.

Not less important are, at the other end of the mouth, the teeth and the lips. Just behind the teeth we can notice the alveolar ridge (the ridge of the gums of the upper teeth). While the upper teeth are fixed, the lower jaw (the mandible) is mobile and its constant moving continuously modifies the size and shape of the oral aperture. The lips also play an important role in the articulation of some consonants by interacting with each other or with the upper teeth and their position (rounded or spread) is also relevant for differentiating between two major classes of vowels. They are pretty mobile articulators, though far less so than the tongue. Just like the tongue, they can yield a variety of configurations. The lower lip can “cooperate” with the upper teeth to produce labio-dental sounds, the two lips can interact to articulate bilabial sounds, while lip position (rounded or spread) is essential in determining one of the basic configurations of vowels.

Congratulations! By now, you should be an expert on articulatory anatomy. You can test your knowledge with a little quiz here before you move on to expand your knowledge on acoustic phonetics and auditory phonetics.

You can also move on directly to the second chapter of this module: Describing sounds