Introduction. The first step to learning a new language is to learn the sounds of the language. The individual sound unit of language is the phone. Phones are usually described based on how they are produced physiologically, called articulation, though they can also be described acoustically by measuring the properties of the sound wave. There are two basic classes of phones: vowels and consonants. These two classes can be distinguished based on their articulation, but they also play different roles in the formation of syllables. It should be noted that this approach to phonetics assumes that the speech stream can be divided linearly into discernible units smaller than the syllable called segments.

1. Vowels. Vowels use the shape of the oral cavity to affect the sound. This can be augmented by the position of the body of the tongue and the shape of the lips. Vowels are also the central elements of syllables, usually called the nucleus or peak.

The articulation of vowels is described on two axes based on the height of the tongue (low, mid, or high) and its horizontal position in the mouth (front to back). The International Phonetic Alphabet (IPA) distinguishes seven heights and five degrees of “backness”. Vowels can also be described by their roundedness (how “round” the lips are) though this usually follows the position of articulation, reinforcing mid to high back vowels. For instance, in Hebrew and Phoenician the so-called Canaanite vowel shift [a] > [å] (on the way to [o]) is accompanied by rounding.

Table 1. Vowel Articulation.


  front central back
high i   u
mid e ə o
low   a  

Vowels can also be described as tense or lax. Tenseness seems to describe the vocal tract constriction, and tense vowels are also usually longer than lax vowels. The shewa is a reduced vowel that is lax and even shorter in duration. Vowel length is the duration a vowel is pronounced and is also called vowel quantity.

2. Consonants. Consonants are described by the place of articulation as well as the manner of articulation. They generally function as the boundaries of syllables. Consonants can also be voiced or voiceless depending on whether the vocal folds are vibrating or not during sound production.

2.1. Place of Articulation. The place of articulation can vary from the lips into the throat:

Labial sounds are made by closing the lips. Bilabials involve both lips while labiodentals involve the lower lip and upper teeth.Dental sounds are formed by placing the tongue against the teeth.

Interdentals are formed by placing the tongue between the teeth.

Alveolar sounds are formed by placing the tongue against the ridge just behind the upper teeth. Alveopalatal sounds are formed on the roof of the mouth just behind the alveolar ridge, and palatal sounds are formed at the highest point of the roof of the mouth.

Velar sounds are formed at the soft tissue towards the rear of the mouth. Labiovelars are formed by raising the tongue to the velum while rounding the lips at the same time.

Pharyngeal sounds are formed by retracting the tongue or constricting the throat to modify the airflow in the area between the uvula and the larynx. Glottal sounds use the vocal folds as articulators.

2.2. Manner of Articulation. There are also several manners of articulation.

Nasal sounds are formed by allowing air to simultaneously flow through the nasal passages. Some languages have nasal vowels as well as consonants.

Stops completely stop the airflow at the place of articulation while fricatives are produced with a constant airflow. Fricatives also belong to a larger class of sounds called continuants. Fricatives are sometimes also called spirants. Affricates are formed from the release of a stop articulation. Fricatives are also subdivided into two classes based on loudness. Stridents, also known as sibilants, are distinctly louder than nonstridents.

When forming approximates, the tongue gestures briefly at another articulatory point without actually making contact. Approximates can be divided into liquids and glides.

Liquids are a special class of consonants comprised of the variants of [l] and [r]. Varieties of [l] are also called laterals because when they are articulated air escapes through the mouth along the sides of the tongue. The English [r] is generally formed in the back of the mouth by curling the tongue tip or bunching the back of the tongue. This is called a retroflex. Other languages form [r] by flapping the tongue against the alveolar ridge. This is called a flap. The liquids have a higher level of sonority then other consonants and can sometimes occur as the nucleus of a syllable.

The glides are y (written [j]) and [w]. The articulation of [j] is very similar to the vowel [i] (as in “see”) while the articulation of [w] is very close to the vowel [u] (as in “who”), thus they are often called semi-vowels. A glide is a non-syllabic segment and therefore it will not occur at the peak of a syllable. A diphthong is formed when a vowel changes quality in the middle of a syllable by moving from the vowel articulation to a glide position.

2.3. Semitic Consonantal Inventory. Below is a table showing the general inventory of consonants in the Semitic languages with their normal transcription and the approximate Hebrew characters. Please note that this chart is a general guide and does not take into account dialectal differences over time or space. For instance, I have listed ayin as a voiced pharyngeal fricative, but over time the consonant has weakened so that it is no longer pronounced. For more discussion on other consonant groups that have changed pronunciation such as the sibilants see the section on Historical Linguistics.

Table 2. Chart of Semitic Consonants with Approximate Hebrew Equivalents.


  stop affricate fricative nasal Lateral
bilabial [b] בּ [p] פּ     [Φ] [β]   [m] מ  
labiodental         [f] פ [v] ב      
(inter)dental         [δ] [θ] ת      
alveolar [d] ד [t] ת   [ṣ] צ [z] ז [s] שׂ ס [n] נ   [l] ל
alveopalatal [ǰ] [č] [dʒ] [tš] [ž] [š] שׁ      
palatal [j] [c]              
velar [g] גּ [k] כּ       [x]      
uvular   [q] ק     [ʁ] ר [χ] כ ח      
pharyngeal         [ʕ] ע [ḥ]      
glottal [ʔ] א         [h] ה      

2.4. Coarticulation. In addition to the manners and places of articulation listed above, the Semitic languages have emphatic consonants (such as Hebrew ק, צ, and ט, though in pronunciation the emphasis is not realized). Emphasis is the result of coarticulation meaning the consonant has two nearly simultaneous places of articulation. This process usually affects the following vowel as much as the consonant itself. In some Semitic languages the following vowels are pharyngealized, meaning a pharyngeal constriction is made simultaneously with the articulation creating a tense vowel. In Ethiopic emphasis is realized with glottalization where the consonant is followed by a glottal stop.

2.5. Other Consonants. Other sounds in Semitic include the uvular trill /ġ/ grayin which is similar to a spirantized gimel /ḡ/.

3. Prosody. There are certain phonetic properties that are independent of the place or manner of articulation. These properties are therefore labeled suprasegmental and are related to prosody. Prosodic properties include pitch, loudness, length, and stress.

Pitch relates both to tone and intonation. Pitch is controlled by the tension of the vocal folds and the amount of air pushed through the glottis. Vowels and more sonorant consonants tend to naturally have a higher pitch.

A tone language uses differences in pitch to differentiate meaning. Tone my be distinguished based statically on the relative height of the pitch or dynamically by using rising or falling pitch. Static levels of pitch are called register tones, while dynamic pitch changes are called contour tones.

In non-tone languages pitch movement is called intonation. Intonation does not distinguish meaning at the word-level, but it can provide information. Falling intonation at the end of an utterance often signals that it is complete. This is called a terminal contour. In contrast, rising or level intonation is called nonterminal intonation and signals incompleteness.

Length can apply to either vowels or consonants whose articulation takes longer relative to that of the other vowels and consonants. In transcription length can be indicated either by doubling the letter or by adding a colon (:) after the letter. In Semtics, long vowels are also often marked by a line placed above (eg, ā).

Stress describes the combined effects of pitch, loudness, and length which cause some syllables to be perceived as more prominent then others. Exactly how these prosodic features combine varies by language. For instance, tone languages obviously would not use pitch to mark stress.

4. Articulatory Processes. In actual practice, speakers do not slowly and carefully articulate each segment. Often the articulation of one sound effects another as the lips, tongue, velum, and glottis work independently of one another. Speakers make adjustments in the articulation of one segement in anticipation of the following segment. For the sake of efficiency unstressed vowels may be dropped. On the other hand, speakers may also slow the process of articulation, lengthening vowels and consonants in order to make the output more distinct and easier to understand, even though it compromises efficiency. These processes can be seen in the Tiberian Hebrew system which marks reduced vowels explicitly with shewa, as well as lengthened pausal and contextual forms.

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