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Term Definition

The alveolar consonant is one of several consonant types used by linguists in their classification schema. This schema is based on the way that the tongue moves within the mouth when it is pronouncing a given sound. The alveolar consonant is characterized by the fact that the tongue touches the alveolar ridge when pronouncing one. This happens automatically: the layperson, of course, does not think about such things in a conscious way.

Introduction & Definition

Alveolar is an adjective meaning of or relating to the particular speech sound made when the human tongue tip touches the roof of the mouth near the front teeth or the teeth ridge directly behind them. Alveolar consonants are consonants pronounced using this specific placement of the tip or blade of the tongue. Alveolar refers to phonetic sound that is heard when pronouncing a word with an alveolar consonant within it. There are no alveolar vowels in English, as the tongue does not touch the roof of the mouth directly behind the teeth when pronouncing them.

Examples & Rules

An example of an alveolar consonant is the /t/ in the word “two.” 

An alveolar consonant is articulated with the tongue against or close to the superior alveolar ridge (sockets of the superior teeth).

Apical consonants used the tip of the tongue, as in English to produce an alveolar consonant.

Laminal consonants use the blade, or flat, of the tongue to produce an alveolar consonant.

There are not separate symbols for alveolar consonants in the International Phonetic Alphabet, but several of them are denoted there. Some examples are alveolar nasal (as in English “run”); voiceless alveolar stop (as in English “stop”); voiced alveolar stop (as in English “debt”); voiceless alveolar fricative (as in English “suit”); voiced alveolar fricative (as in English “zoo”); voiceless alveolar affricate (as in German “zeit”); voiced alveolar affricate (as in Italian “zaino”); alveolar trill (as in Spanish “perro”), velarized alveolar lateral approximant (as in English “milk”).

Additional Information

Linguistic phonetic terminology such as alveolar is better understood with an overall understanding of pronunciation terminology and linguistic background study. A good way to begin to understand the sounds of a language is to listen as someone speaks, noting not the words they are saying, but rather the sounds within those words. This results in a better understanding of the phonetics of human language.

Is it equally as important to sound out words one sound at a time, and note the placement of the tongue, or the sounds made with the mouth. This will lead to a better interpretation of terms such as alveolar, and many other linguistic terms which rely upon an awareness of mouth, teeth, and tongue placement in order to define and describe different sounds.

Laminal alveolar articulation is often referred to as “dental,” but this is an error of approximation. The proximity to the oral cavity, which causes the resonance of alveolars, is the true indicator of their presence. When the word “dad” is articulated, the alveolar stop is used twice, once for each /d/ in the word.

Alveolars or dental consonants (/t/, /n/, and /k/) are the most common consonants in languages. However, some languages do not use them all, such as colloquial Samoan and the Makah language, used near the Puget Sound. In addition, Japanese speakers may find it difficult to distinguish between lateral and central alveolar approximates in second or third languages sincea alveolar lateral approximates do not exist in Japanese.

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