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In my native language, Russian, coronal stops and approximants are normally dentals. However, when they are "iotated", in addition to palatalization, it also changes their place of articulation to alveolar:

  • t̪ → tʲ
  • d̪ → dʲ
  • n̪ → nʲ
  • l̪ → lʲ

These also tend to be somewhat velarized when they are not palatalized. Wikipedia has this to say on velarization in the context of dentals:

For many languages, such as Albanian, Irish and Russian, velarization is generally associated with more dental articulations of coronal consonants.

My understanding is that velarization and palatalization is sort of mutually exclusive, because e.g. a palatalized velar consonant is practically indistinguishable from the corresponding palatal.

OTOH when looking at this table, dentals are in the same column as apical retroflex. Again, my understanding is that retroflex consonants also cannot be palatalized.

Looking for palatalized dentals in PHOIBLE, I only found entries for d̪ʲ|dʲ, t̪ʲ|tʲ, and t̪ʲʰ|tʲʰ. I'm not entirely sure what this notation actually means, but it's interesting that there's no "pure" d̪ʲ or t̪ʲ to be seen.

So, are palatalized dentals impossible in principle? And if so, what is the anatomical reason for that?

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  • Side note: there's no "dental" tag, but there probably should be. May 10 at 0:48
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    it is interesting to note that Irish also has dentals for its velarised "broad" ("hard" in Russian terminology) coronal stops and resonants
    – Tristan
    May 10 at 9:58

2 Answers 2

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It is hard to say. Phoible suggests some candidate languages. In some cases (t̪ʲ|tʲ) the description in the original source is not clear enough that they (the compilers) can decide whether the segment is indeed dental. They do suggest it more definitively for Bulgarian and Russian, but that is "given these (listed) sources". We can add Rusyn, Northern Mansi, Votic, Lezgian, Mishmi and Yuma as languages reputed to have [t̪ʲ].

I weakly think that there is no language with a contrast between [tʲ] and [t̪ʲ] (based on a bit of fallible time with the Phoible database). A contrast would be more definitive proof that such a thing exists. Otherwise, the question is a matter of expert phonetic judgment, i.e. is the final consonant in "brother" in Russian a palatalized alveolar or a palatalized dental? Those kinds of judgments are extremely difficult to make, and most linguists would say "I can't say", since there isn't a clear basis for saying (auditory phonetics is a regrettably moribund art). However, one might find concrete phonetic evidence supporting the "dental, not alveolar" phonetic claim in the referenced literature.

Nonexistence of a particular sound is not necessarily related to anatomy: it might well be because of perception – X and Y are so close together that the probability of perceiving that both X and Y exist and are distinct is miniscule. There is a general analytic prejudice against "dental" as a category (embodied in the vagueness of the letter t in IPA), which translates into the t̪ʲ|tʲ uncertainty in Phoible, and which may make unlikely registering a segment [t̪ʲ] when it could equally plausible be called [tʲ].

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  • The fact that someone gives t̪ʲ for Russian makes me suspect that this is rather a case of someone taking the base phoneme - t̪- and just tacking ʲ onto it to indicate iotation as palatization, without bothering to reflect other changes. It's certainly not dental for me, and in general, I know that Russians in general tend to perceive alveolar "t" (as in e.g. English) as somewhere in between "т" and "ть" - which makes perfect sense if the latter is both alveolar and palatized. May 10 at 2:21
  • Also, the final /t/ in "брат" is not palatalized at all? I was thinking of something like "net", "сеть" /setʲ/ when I wrote that it's certainly not dental for me above. Although it's also not dental when it happens between various vowels and consonants; at least, I haven't found any variation that would be so far. May 10 at 2:24
  • Brain fart: "to take".
    – user6726
    May 10 at 4:36
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There is certainly no phonetic reason that dentals cannot be palatalised.

Phonologically it's trickier. Contrasts between dentals and alveolars are already unusual (even the contrast between /θ/ & /s/ is not simply one of place of articulation, as /s/ is a sibilant fricative, whilst /θ/ is not; likewise their voiced & affricate counterparts). For a language to have phonemic palatalised dentals it would need t have this distinction on top of phonemic palatalisation.

As @user726 says in their answer, from PHOIBLE it does not appear that any language contrasts /t̪ʲ/ & /tʲ/.

I would suggest this is not a result of an impossibility of the phonemic contrast, but simply due to the extreme rarity of a phonemic contrast between dental and alveolar stops.

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