Articulator Basics


To see the phonetic symbols in this post, please make sure that you have installed a Unicode font that includes all the IPA symbols, for example Charis SIL.

Browsers: Some older versions of Internet Explorer and Safari have bugs that prevent the proper display of certain phonetic symbols. If you’re experiencing problems, I recommend you try the free browsers Firefox or Opera.

Warming up your articulators is often what people, even the most uninformed, know about voice work. Good Diction, as many people will tell you, means being able to speak clearly, to articulate, using "the jaw, the lips, the tip of the tongue." In this brief articulator warm-up, we'll focus on energizing the tongue for plosive consonants, namely /p, t, k/ and /b, d, g/.

Pop Your P's!

Plosives are consonants that stop the airflow of the voice and may or may not release it with a puff of air or voice. Put the palm of your hand in front of your mouth and say "pop!" You should feel the puff of air that both begins and ends that word, though it is possible that you might make that word with only one explosion, and merely stop the air for the final /p/. If that was the case on your first attempt, try again, but this time make a point of popping both p's with a puff of air.

You might notice that /p, t, k/ are voiceless consonants, that is they are ones that are made without vibration of your vocal folds. Each of those consonants has a corresponding voiced consonant, /b, d, g/ respectively. Try whispering the consoant sounds of /b, d, g/ as in "bad, dad, gad." You'll notice that they aren't exactly the same as the sounds in a whispered "pad, tad, cad"—that's because initial /p, t, k/ in English have a very strong puff of air, or aspiration, associated with them, while /b, d, g/ do not. Those three pairs, /p, b/, /t, d/, and /k, g/ are known as "cognate pairs," because each pair is made in the same place in the mouth, and they're both plosive sounds, and all that is different between them is their voicing. The three places in the mouth are the lips, aka bilabial, the tongue tip on the gum ridge, aka alveolar, and the back of the tongue and the soft palate, aka velar.

To warm-up your articulators, one of the primary tricks we use is to drill quick alternations between consonant or vowel and another in rapid succession. That's what well do here. We'll start with the lips and the front of the tongue, using voiceless consonants. The vowel we’ll use is the neutral “huh” vowel, which the IPA represents with the symbol [ʌ], which I call “hut” (because that word has the sound “uh” in it, and I imagine the symbol like the peaked roof of a small hut!) Try repeating the following phrase (an mp3 of me doing this exercise can be heard here):

|: pʌ — tʌ, pʌ — tʌ, pʌ — tʌ :|

Now try the voiced version:

|: bʌ — dʌ, bʌ — dʌ, bʌ — dʌ :|

Now, we’ll alternate the gum ridge sounds with the soft palate sounds—first with voiceless sounds /t, k/:

|: tʌ — kʌ, tʌ — kʌ, tʌ — kʌ, :|

And now, with the voiced sound /d, g/:

|: dʌ — ɡʌ, dʌ — ɡʌ, dʌ — ɡʌ, :|

Now, we’ll put all three sounds together in a single drill:

|: pʌ–tʌ–kʌ–tʌ,    pʌ–tʌ–kʌ–tʌ,   pʌ–tʌ–kʌ–tʌ, :|

|: bʌ–dʌ–ɡʌ–dʌ,    bʌ–dʌ–ɡʌ–dʌ,   bʌ–dʌ–ɡʌ–dʌ, :|

Finally, to combine these exercises into a single drill, try these:

|: pʌ–tʌ–kʌ–tʌ, kʌ–tʌ–pʌ–tʌ    pʌ–tʌ–kʌ–tʌ, kʌ–tʌ–pʌ–tʌ    pʌ–tʌ–kʌ–tʌ, kʌ–tʌ–pʌ–tʌ :|

|: bʌ–dʌ–ɡʌ–dʌ, ɡʌ–dʌ–bʌ–dʌ    bʌ–dʌ–ɡʌ–dʌ, ɡʌ–dʌ–bʌ–dʌ    bʌ–dʌ–ɡʌ–dʌ, ɡʌ–dʌ–bʌ–dʌ :|

You should be able to do this quickly, and with great ease. Try not to belabour it, or work to hard; let your jaw relax, and make sure to energize your lips so that the /p/ and /b/ really make your lips MOVE, while your jaw stays still.


NEXT STEP: Taking it to Text Basics

Eric Armstrong is the voiceguy. Eric is a dialect, voice, speech and text coach based in Toronto, Canada, where he normally teaches full-time at York University’s Dept. of Theatre. Eric has been teaching voice for the actor full-time since 1994, and has taught in Canada and the US, at the University of Windsor, Brandeis University, Roosevelt University, Canada's National Voice Intensive and York University. He has worked for nationally and internationally recognized companies such as Crow’s Theatre, Volcano, SoulPepper, & Canadian Stage in Toronto, and The Court Theatre and Steppenwolf in Chicago. Eric holds a BFA from Concordia University (Montreal) in Theatre Performance, and an MFA from York University (Toronto) in Acting. His mentors were David Smukler (York, Canada’s National Voice Intensive) and Andrew Wade (Royal Shakespeare Company). He has also studied at the Drama Studio, London, and Il Stage Internazzionale di Commedia dell’Arte in Reggio Emilia, Italy. He’s a long time member of the Voice and Speech Trainers Association, where he has served on the board, as a conference planner, photo editor for the Voice and Speech Review, Founding Director of Technology and Internet Services, and has written numerous peer-reviewed articles, essays and reviews for the VASTA Newsletter, the VASTA Voice, and The Voice and Speech Review.

Tagged with: , , , ,