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Phonetis: The Sound of American English

Articulatory Anatomy

The alveolar ridge is also referred to as the alveolar process. This

inferiority directed ridge of the maxilla houses the upper teeth.

The soft palate is also referred to as the velum. This musculotendinous

structure extends posteriorly from the hard palate and acts to modify the
comunication between the oral cavity below and the nasal cavity above.

The teeth are embedded in the alveolar process of the maxilla and

The lips form the oriffice of the mouth and are comprised of muscle fibers
from a number of different facial muscles.

The oral cavity is also referred to as the mouth. It is a resonating chamber

whose shape is modified by the articulators to produce the various oral and

nasal speech sounds.

The epiglottis is a leaf shaped cartilaginous structure located behind the

hyold bone and roof of the tongue.

The paired vocal folds are located in the larynx, coursing from the thyroid
cartilage anteriorly to the arytenoids cartilages posteriorly. The vocal folds
vibrate to create sounds for vowels and voiced consonants.

The pharynx is a resonating cavity or chamber lying above the larynx and
posterior to the oral cavity.

The nasal cavity is a resonating chamber lying above the hard and soft

Also known as the lower jaw, the mandible houses the lower teeth. The
tongue and lowe lip also ride on the mandible.

Along with the soft palate, the hard palate forms the roof of the mouth.

The blade is the part of the tongue lying just below the upper alveolar

The tongue back is that part of the tongue lying below the soft palate.

The tongue tip is that part of the tongue lying closest to the front teeth.

Alexis Contreras writes from Mexico with what at first sight is a simple
and straightforward question.
I have been trying to figure out something about the alveolar flap or tap. I'm not
sure whether the Spanish r as in words like "pero", "cero", "caro" and the like is the
same as the English sound in words and phrases like "matter", "natalie", "order",
"water", "how to" "about a" and the like. At first I thought the sounds were the
same. But then I started to do some research and began doubting whether or not
they were the same sounds. I began leaning towards them not being the same. But
right now I'm in doubt again. I think they might be the same, but I'm still not sure.
[] Could you please tell me if there is any articulatory difference between the two
sounds or not?

In saying "English", Alexis is of course referring only to AmE. The usual

BrE consonant in the middle of water wt is very different from the
Spanish single /r/ in pero peo. This BrE t is voiceless, slow, perhaps
somewhat aspirated and indeed often affricated, whereas Spanish is
voiced, and rapid. But in AmE, on the other hand. the etymological t in
the words quoted is a voiced tap (flap, say some) that is indeed very
similar to the Spanish /r/, and is indeed sometimes transcribed
identically, as .
Are the two sounds merely similar, or are they the same? Partly the
problem is one of asking what we mean when we say that two sounds
are the same. Do we just mean that language learners can safely treat
them as equivalent? Or is it deeper than that?
Not all Spanish are identical. For example, some speakers articulate it
with the tongue tip against the teeth, making it dental; but for others it
may rather be alveolar. The duration of the closure is usually about 20
ms, but may on occasion be somewhat longer or shorter. The AmE sound
is at least as variable, and probably more so. For example, it may not
always be fully voiced (particularly for those relatively few Americans
who consistently distinguish pairs such as shutter and shudder).
Following the NURSE vowel, as in dirty, it may involve a ballistic

movement, a true flap, in which the active articulator strikes the passive
articulator and continues in the same trajectory, as opposed to the more
usual type in which the active articulator bounces off the passive,
involving an up-then-down movement. In Natalie, battle etc, the tap is
unlike anything in Spanish, since it has lateral release. (But some
speakers use a glottal stop here rather than a tap. A glottal stop is
equally un-Spanish.)
More importantly, perhaps, the tongue configuration before and after the
consonant may differ considerably in the two languages, giving rise to
different formant transitions in the on-glide and off-glide of the segment
we are discussing.
The clincher comes, though, from x-ray tracings. I reproduce this from
Ladefoged and Maddiesons The Sounds of the Worlds
Languages (Blackwell 1996).

The authors comment

The English speaker has a preparatory raising and retraction of the tongue tip
during the preceding vowel [] The tongue is then moved forward to make the
contact which is captured in the frame illustrated here, after which it returns to the
floor of the mouth. The Spanish tap does not involve any substantial anticipation,
but instead has a quick upward and downward movement confined to the tongue

It is possible that in the case of water, the word illustrated here, the
preparatory retraction of the tongue tip may be in anticipation of the r-

coloured which follows. Would we find the same retraction in a word

such as atom m? I do not know.
So what is my answer to Alexis? I think we can say that the two sounds
are not really exactly identical, but that for language learning purposes
we can treat them as if they were.