The Sounds of English
A Basic Course

The Vocal Organs

Speech is produced by the vocal organs. Every language has a definite set of speech sounds, and every sound can be described with reference to the vocal organ that is used to produce it. In this way sounds occurring in different languages can be compared, and foreign language learners can be helped to overcome pronunciation problems that arise from differences between languages. Knowledge of how the vocal organs function to produce the various sounds of a language will make near-native sound production possible.

Speech is produced by air from the lungs being processed or modified by all speech organs above the lungs: the glottis, pharynx, nose, tongue, and lips. The individual sound is identified by the closure or narrowing of these organs. If we see the tongue as the active articulator, the place which does not move can be called the passive articulator. Labels refer to the place where the closure or narrowing occurs, which means that the name normally refers to the passive articulator.

The speech sounds often have their names from the Latin name of the vocal organ:

Nasal sounds: through nose (velum down)
Oral sounds: through mouth (velum up)
Stops: full oral closure
Fricatives: partial oral closure (friction)
Approximants: narrowing (no friction)

Labial: from labium, lip(s) active
Dental: from dentes, teeth active
Alveolar: Alveoles, teeth ridge active
Palatal: Palate, hard palate active
Velar: Velum, soft palate active
Glottal: Glottis, vocal cords active