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Out of many varieties of English, it is the British “received pronunciation”, mainly based on South England dialects, which has traditionally been  used as a standard for ESL teaching in Europe and in many other places around the world. Below I shall give a brief description of its basis of articulation. Note that I distinguish between ‘basis of articulation’ and ‘articulatory setting’. I have outlined this difference in this resume:

Basis of Articulation and Articulatory Setting in pronunciation teaching – Abstract of a Poster Presentation at the Leeds BAAP Colloquium, March 26-28, 2012 .

The peculiar tongue position of English has been described by some early phoneticians. John Wallis  noted that “the English […] push forward the whole of their pronunciation into the front part of the mouth, speaking with a wide mouth cavity” (Quoted from the translation of Kemp; 1972). To achieve the wide mouth cavity one has to either lower the jaw or retract the tongue from the teeth to create more space in the front.

Christopher Cooper (1685, 10-11) wrote that the English “speak their syllables and words distinctly and outwardly from the lips (cited by Laver (1978, 4)). English was often contrasted with German as not being guttural.

Wallis and Cooper only mentioned the tongue position indirectly. It was Henry Sweet who clearly described it as “broadened and flattened, and drawn back from the teeth (which it scarcely ever touches), and the forepart of it is hollowed out […]” Sweet (1890, 4). This was repeated on page 72 dealing with the `Organic Basis’: “In English we flatten and lower the tongue, hollow the front of it, and draw it back from the teeth.” This description was repeated later by Heffner (1952, 98) who described the BA of English as “relatively low and retracted, with the tongue surface quite broad”.

German phoneticians mentioned the same general tendency of the tongue position in English. So Viёtor (1887, 193) wrote: “[The English manner of articulation is different from the German in general by pulling back and widening of the tongue f…]”. Storm (1896, 32) quoted Sievers that in English “[the tongue must be pulled back slightly and broadened]”.

Prokosch (1920)  described the “preferred tongue position” (which he equalled to the basis of articulation) in English as: “[…] the tip of the tongue is apt to be withdrawn from the teeth and raised in the direction of the front palate, while the body of the tongue is comparatively inert, being neither raised nor lowered to any marked extent” (1920, 15).

According to Heffner (1952, 98) the English basis of articulation is “low and retracted, with the tongue surface quite broad”.

As we can see, generally the tongue was described as either “retracted” or “withdrawn from the teeth”. Modern empirical research largely confirms such impressionistic accounts. For example Gick et al. (2004) observed that “English has a narrower pharynx width [implying retraction], a higher tongue body, and a higher tongue tip”. The basic tongue profile for the English BA extracted from X-Ray pictures (Fig.1) clearly shows the ТВ (tongue body) system centre as slightly retracted and raised. The TBL (tongue blade) system is held at some distance from the lower teeth. The specific English basis of articulation is well seen in comparison with Russian having a more centralised basis.

Figure 1: Tongue profiles for English (adaptation of Hardcastle 1976) and Russian (adaptation of Panov 1967). The mid-vowel area is highlighted.

The tip of the tongue may be slightly raised forming a concave profile. The degree of the tip rising is subject to considerable dialectal variation. In some English and most American dialects the tip of the tongue is markedly raised giving the neutral vowel a specific [r] sound. Such rhotacism causes some additional backward displacement of the tongue root (Gick; 2002).

The basis of articulation of English has some important consequences. Its notable secondary feature was described in Honikman (1964) who defined it as the “tongue anchorage”:

Almost throughout English, the tongue is tethered laterally to the roof of the mouth by allowing the sides to rest along the inner surface of the upper lateral gums and teeth; the lateral rims of the tongue very seldom entirely leave this part of the roof of the mouth, whereas the tip constantly (or some other part of the dorsum, occasionally) moves up and down, periodically touching the central part of the roof, but generally not for very long at a time, before it comes away. Thus, one might regard the tethered part — in this case, the lateral contact — as the anchorage, and the untethered part as the free or operative part of the tongue-setting (Honikman; 1964, 76).

Figure 2: EPG mapping of the lateral contact surfaces for /e/ (left) and a 3-dimensional tongue shape showing the grooving (right) (Stone and Lundberg; 1996)

Physiologically, such locking of the lateral parts of the dorsum to upper molars is quite natural for the specific English basis of articulation. The tongue being a hydrostatic body any contraction needed to withdraw the tip from the teeth would be compensated by the increase of the height of the tongue body which would push the rear part of the dorsum to upper molars creating the characteristic “anchorage”.

The secondary feature, directly relating to this anchorage, is the so-called “grooving” which is well attested in English. Stone et al. (1988) measured the continuous lateral contact with the upper molars throughout the production of all English vowels (Fig.2), particularly, the middle and front ones. The 3-D tongue images clearly show the groove, particularly, for [e] (Stone and Lundberg; 1996). Grooving has a functional explanation. The retracted and raised English BA causes the specific lateral anchorage. The groove in the central part of the dorsum is needed to allow the air to pass during phonation. It should be noted that this anchorage also creates an additional constriction of the air passage requiring some extra expiratory effort. It also changes the resonating properties of the oral cavity and consequently the formants qualities of vowels.

The basis of articulation of a language has its specific acoustic representation. As noted by Delattre (1969, 2), English typically centres its articulation on the neutral vowel /ə/ which has also been singled out as the principal hesitation vowel in English (Schourup; 1981). Candea et al. (2005) reported that English hesitation vowel is in the area of low-central vowels (between [ə] and [ʌ] ). It generally corresponds to the tongue shape of the neutral position as shown in Fig.3.

Fig.3 The neutral position according to Laver (1980; 1994)

Due to considerable dialectal variations it is difficult to pinpoint a specific value so for the linguo-didactic purposes it would be convenient to consider [ə] as the acoustic instantiation of the English basis of articulation. There are teachers who intuitively feel the connection between the neutral vowel and the basis of articulation. This is an interesting account of schwa by a Japanese teacher of English:

[Schwa] is the most elusive, selfless and yielding vowel of all. Teaching schwa is almost like teaching “nothingness.” Schwa is in the path from the previous segment to the next segment without having its own identity […] acquiring schwa means the acquisition of the co-articulatory pattern of English, and it seems to greatly improve the level of pronunciation [my emphasis](Kondo, 2001, Quoted by Gilbert, 2008).

Learning to assume and maintain the basis of articulation described above during speech and in pauses may help to naturally and systemically improve pronunciation.

See other posts

Further reading


Candea, M., Vasilescu, I. and Adda-Decker, M. (2005). Inter- and intra-language acoustic analysis of autonomous fillers, Proceedings of DiSS’05, Disfluency in Spontaneous Speech Workshop.

Cooper, C. (1685). Grammatica Linguae Anglicanae, London: B. Tooke (Reprinted by the Scolar [sic] Press Limited in 1968).

Delattre, P. (1969). The general phonetic characteristics of languages, final report, Technical report, US Department of Health, Education and Wellfare. ERIC: ED051725.

Gick, В. (2002). An x-ray investigation of pharyngeal constriction in American English schwa, Phonetica 59(1): 38-48.

Gilbert, J. B. Teaching Pronunciation Using the Prosody Pyramid Cambridge University Press, 2008

Hardcastle, W. (1976). Physiology of Speech Production, London: Academic Press.

Heffner, R. M. S. (1952). General Phonetics, Madison: The University of Visconsin.

Honikman, B. (1964). Articulatory Settings, in P. M. N. S. . L. T. D. Abercrombie, D.B. Fry (ed.), In Honour of Daniel Jones, London: Longmans, pp. 73-84.

Kemp, J. A. (1972). John Wallis: Grammar of English Language with an Introductory Treatise on Speech, London: Longman.

Kondo, Y, “Prosody-based approach to English pronunciation teaching”, Tsuda Review 46 (2001), pp. 165–190.

Laver, J. (1978). The Concept of Articulatory Settings: An Historical Survey, Historiographia Linguistica 5(1/2): 1-14.

Panov, M. (1967). Русская фонетика (Russian Phonetics), Moscow: Prosvescenije.

Prokosch, E. (1920). Elementary Russian grammar, Chicago: Univ. of Chicago Pres.

Schourup, L. (1981). The Basis of Articulation, Ohio State University Working Papers in Linguistics 25: 1-13.

Stone, M. and Lundberg, A. (1996). Three-dimensional tongue surface shapes of English consonants and vowels, Journal of The Acoustical Society of America 99(6): 3728-3737.

Stone, M., Shawker, Т. H., Talbot, T. L. and Rich, A. H. (1988). Cross-sectional tongue shape during the production of vowels, The Journal of the Acoustical Society of America 83(4): 1586-1596.

Storm, J. (1896). Englische Philologie (1896), О. R. Reisland.

Sweet, H. (1890). A Primer of Phonetics, Oxford: Clarendon Press.

Viёtor, W. (1887). Elemente der Phonetik und Orthoepie des Deutschen, Englisch en und Französischen, Heilbrom: Verlag von Gebr, Henninger.

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