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I have found out that the English letter 'W', as in the word "weep", is classified as a voiced labiovelar approximant. To quote Wikipedia:

Its place of articulation is labialized velar, which means it is articulated with the back part of the tongue raised toward the soft palate (the velum) while rounding the lips.
Voiced labiovelar approximant - Wikipedia

I'm surprised to find out that this sound relies on the back part of the tongue being raised towards the soft palate. The reason I find this strange is because, for example:

If a doctor tells me to open my mouth and say "ahhh" I will most likely say something like [ɑ], [ɐ] or [ʌ], all open vowels (which is good for the doctor because my tongue is as low as possible).

If I then round my lips as if I'm whistling without doing anything else I get a sound sounding like [ʊ] or [u]. These two sounds are described as being close or near-close back vowels, and according to the IPA vowel chart if you say [ɑ], and then round your lips, you get the vowel [ɒ], which is said to be the vowel sound in General American "thought". However, as I explained, if I open my mouth and make an open vowel sound and then close my lips as if whistling I get a sound much like [ʊ] or [u], which sounds nothing like the General American "thought" vowel sound.

IPA vowel chart

If I then go from this rounded lips position back to the original position my doctor told me to be in I get back to the open-mouth position with the same open vowel I started off with, let's say [ɑ], [ɐ] or [ʌ].

As far as I can tell in this case I've essentially said the "wah", as in the "wah" (or "wah-wah") pedal for an electric guitar, or something close to it. My point is that I've pronounced the 'W' letter in English without my tongue being anywhere near the top of my mouth, or specifically soft palate.

Can someone explain this to me? Essentially I can (and actually might, as far as I know) pronounce the English 'W' letter without any part of it being a velar approximant which Wikipedia and the IPA information I've checked insists it is. That is, the information I've found is that English speakers pronounce it with the tongue high, close to the soft palate. However that's not particularly the case, is it?

  • are you a native speaker? – CoffeeTableEspresso Jul 23 at 19:52
  • @CoffeeTableEspresso Yes, I am a native speaker. When I read that the 'W' is labiovelar approximant I pronounced the 'W' over and over to try to notice if my tongue was raising to the roof of my mouth, or nearing my soft palate. To be honest, it's actually difficult to notice even when paying close attention, so as a matter of fact I'm not sure whether I do or don't pronounce it as a velar approximant. But as I described, it seems to me 'W' can easily be pronounced without it being a velar approximant. I thought the 'W' required only a specific shape of the lips but I must be wrong. – Zebrafish Jul 23 at 20:09
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    @melboiko Yes, if I do what you say and round the lips while saying /i/ ('eeee...') sound I make something like the French 'u' sound, which is what the IPA vowel chart says is the rounded version or /i/, so that part makes sense I guess. I stuck my pinky in my mouth and my tongue definitely moved. The 'ooo....' sound seemed to drop my tongue, which I thought was strange, as the 'ooo...' sound is generally supposed to be a close vowel. Then I realized what was happening probably is that the front part of the tongue lowered while the back part raised nearing the soft palate. – Zebrafish Jul 24 at 8:10
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    @Zebrafish That is precisely what is happening. It’s much easier for us to feel the front of our tongue moving than the back – both because the back is thicker and moves in a narrower space (so smaller overall movement), but also because the inside of the front part of the mouth is more sensitive than the uvula and surrounding areas, so there is less neural feedback when the back of the tongue touches something back there. – Janus Bahs Jacquet Jul 24 at 13:20
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    Teaching phonetics via text is frustrating. Learning it is even more so. A good book for the autodidact is J.C. Catford's A Practical Introduction to Phonetics, which is full of little experiments you can do yourself to get an inside feel (literally) for what's going on phonetically. There's no other book like it, and many satisfied readers commend it. – jlawler Jul 25 at 20:06
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It is fairly difficult to accurately introspect about what your oral cavity anatomy is doing when you speak, and even harder when you're trying to follow abstract articulatory instructions. To verify what you are doing, you need specialized articulatory gadgetry, to rule out the possibility that you are actually backing and raising your tongue when you think you are only protruding your lips.

It's probably easiest to convince yourself that the tongue is backed, by comparing [wi] and [ɥi] where [ɥ] is the tongue-fronted version of [w] (compare French oui and huit). The height of the tongue is less important, perceptually, and probably in actual speech, the tongue "aims for" the soft palate (a close position is the ideal target), but may not make it all the way. However, if the tongue were not raised in producing [w], you would not expect there to be any tongue-lowering when you say "woe". Comparing "wooed" (past tense of "woo"), "wood", "wode" and "wad", you should notice tongue lowering in the case of "wad" and not in "wooed". Tongue lowering is generally implemented by jaw-lowering, so put your thumb under your chin and say these words, and notice how your jaw pushed your thumb when you say "wad" but not "wooed". If that doesn't work for you, maybe you are, um, unusual in how you articulate vowels.

  • I tried sticking my finger in my mouth above my tongue and I did certainly feel upward pressure on my finger when saying "wooed" as opposed to "wood" or "wad". Apparently [u] and [ʉ] are both close vowels, just [ʉ] being more fronted. I didn't exactly notice this, but a finger in the mouth isn't exactly an ideal instrument. Also I couldn't find [ɥ] on an IPA chart, but searching for this character led to an article saying that it can also be transcribed [jʷ] or [y̑], and that: "[y] alternates with [ɥ] in certain languages, such as French...". I am confused, but that's another question. – Zebrafish Jul 24 at 8:53
  • Also, can [wi] be seen the same as [ui] or [ʊi]? It just sounds as if 'W' is pronounced with a "oooo..." sound followed by whatever vowel is next. So I've seen [u] is the sound made in French "où" (where), and French "oui" (yes) in the French phonology page transcribed as /wi/ under the IPA heading. It's funny because I thought the IPA uses brackets, not forward slashes. – Zebrafish Jul 24 at 9:08

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