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May 4, 2014

Approximants


Definition

The subcategories of sounds, such as frictionless continuants, semi vowels/ glides are grouped together in the larger category named approximants. The term ‘approximant’ was first used by the English-American linguist and phonetician Peter Ladefoged in 1964 in his Phonetic Study of West African Languages. The phoneticians are still divided in their opinion whether to classify the approximant sounds as vowels or consonants. Generally, approximants are produced  by bringing the articulators into closer contact or approximation but not quite close enough to create air turbulence and audible friction. Therefore, approximants fall between fricatives, which do produce a turbulent airstream, and vowels, which produce no turbulence.

Classification

There are three approximants in English: /w/, /j/, /r/. They are generally described on three bases:
(1) Place/Point of Articulation
The place of articulator refers to the place or point where the speech organs create a closure by either coming close or near contact. This is the place where the sound is produced. There are three types of closure producing the approximant sounds:

i. Labio-velar
ii. Palatal
iii. Post-alveolar
(2) Manner of Articulation
The manner of articulation refers to how the articulators approach to each other to create a closure. It also determines the type and degree of hindrance the airflow meets on its way out affected by the closure. The closure adopts different manners for different sounds. For instance, during the articulation of the approximant sounds the following sequence of events occurs:

i. The active articulator moves towards its target/passive articulator and narrows the vocal tract slightly.
ii. The soft palate is raised to shut off the nasal passage of air.
iii. The air from the lungs comes out through the gap between the active and the passive articulators without friction.
 (3) Voicing/Phonation
Voicing refers to whether or not the vocal folds are vibrating. If the vocal folds vibrate during the articulation then a voiced sound is produced. Contrariwise, if the vocal folds do not vibrate then a voiceless sound is produced. Some phoneticians use the terms Lenis and Fortis to describe the voiced and voiceless sounds respectively. Generally, all approximants are voiced sounds.

Approximants at a Glance

The approximant sounds can be summarized in the following table:

Criteria
/w/
/j/
/r/
Place/Point of Articulation
labio-velar
palatal
post-alveolar
Manner of Articulation
approximant
approximant
approximant
Voicing/Phonation
voiced
(lenis)
voiced
(lenis)
voiced
(lenis)

Detailed Description of Approximants

/w/- Labio-velar Semi Vowel
Place of Articulation: The soft palate and the back of the tongue. The position of the articulators for this sound is shown in the following illustration:

 Labio-velar Semi Vowel

Manner of Articulation: During the articulation of /w/ the soft palate is raised to completely shut off the nasal passage of air. The back of the tongue is raised in the direction of the soft palate to the position for a vowel between close and half close and the lips are rounded. Then the tongue quickly glides towards the position of the following vowel. The position of the lips also changes depending upon the immediately following vowel. It is thus a voiced rounded labio-velar semi vowel. It is called labio-velar semi vowel since it always has lip-rounding.

Voicing: During the articulation of /w/ the vocal folds vibrate, hence it is a voiced labio-velar semi vowel.

Spellings: /w/ is represented by:
  • the letter “w” as in west
  • the letters “wh” as in why
  • the letter “q” or “gu” as in queen, language
  • the words, such as one, once, suit also have the sounds of /w/
Distribution: /w/ can occur initially and medially, for instance:


Initial Medial Final
/w/ wet queen -
/j/- Palatal Semi Vowel
Place of Articulation: The front of the tongue, the hard palate, and the soft palate. The position of the articulators for this sound is shown in the following illustration:

Palatal Semi Vowel

Manner of Articulation: During the articulation of /j/ the front of the tongue is first raised towards the hard palate and assumes a position for a vowel between close and half-close and quickly glides to the position of the following vowel. The soft palate is raised to shut off the nasal passage of the air. The air goes along the central part of the tongue. The lips are normally spread or neutral. It is thus an unrounded palatal semi vowel.

Voicing: During the articulation of /j/ the vocal folds are kept together and are vibrating, hence it is a voiced palatal semi vowel.

Spellings: /j/ is represented by the letter “y” as in yard, beyond, yellow. The letters “u”, “eau”, “ue”, “ew”, “iew” as in unit, beauty, due, dew, view.

Distribution: /w/ can occur initially and medially, for instance:


Initial Medial Final
/w/ yes beyond -
/r/- Frictionless Continuant
Place of Articulation: The tip of the tongue and the alveolar ridge. The position of the articulators for this sound is shown in the following illustration:

Frictionless Continuant

Manner of Articulation: During the articulation of /r/ the tip of the tongue is raised in a position near to but not touching the back part of the alveolar ridge. The soft palate is raised so as to shut off the nasal passage of the air. The air from the lungs comes out through the gap between the tip of the tongue and the post-alveolar region without any friction. It is thus a post-alveolar frictionless continuant. /r/ is generally referred to as alveolar sound but it is much more appropriate to call it post-alveolar, since it is slightly further back than that of the other alveolar sounds.

Voicing: During the articulation of /r/ the vocal folds vibrate, hence it is a voiced frictionless continuant.

Spellings: /r/ (written as /ɹ/ in IPA) is generally represented by the letter “r”. /r/ has different ways of being articulated in English depending on the speaker.  For instance, in R.P. it occurs only before vowel sounds, such as red, run, dry, trial. /r/ is not pronounced in other positions, such as garden, early, jerk, etc.

Distribution: In R.P. /r/ can occur initially and medially, but only before a vowel sound, for instance:


Initial Medial Final
/r/ rain bright -


References

Roach, Peter. English Phonetics and Phonology: A self-contained, comprehensive pronunciation course.
3rd ed. Cambridge: CUP, 2000.

Varshney, Dr. R.L.  An Introduction of Linguistics & Phonetics. Dhaka: BOC, n.d. 98-101.

Yule, George. The Study of Language. 2nd ed. Cambridge: CUP, 1996. 46-47.

“Approximant.” Encyclopædia Britannica. 2013. Encyclopædia Britannica Inc. 28 April 2014
<http://www.britannica.com/EBchecked/topic/30771/approximant>.

“Introduction to American English Approximant Sounds.” Pronuncian. 2011. Seattle Learning Academy.
28 April 2014 <http://pronuncian.com/Lessons/Default.aspx?Lesson=35>.

“Learn Good Manners.” The Mimic Method. 2014. The Mimic Method. 28 April 2014
<http://www.mimicmethod.com/manner-of-articulation.html>.

Mannel, Robert.“ Articulation of Approximants.” Macquarie University. 2009. Macquarie University.
28 April 2014<http://clas.mq.edu.au/speech/phonetics/phonetics/consonants/approximants.html>.

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