When we produce the English Light L sound, the tongue touches the roof of the mouth. I feel like that's merely a Lateral consonant but not a Lateral Approximant consonant.

I know when we produce the English Dark L sound, the tongue does not touch the roof of the mouth. I feel like that's merely an Approximant consonant. (Yet, some speakers' tongue touches the roof of the mouth.)

Why do they, the author of these Wikipedia articles, use the term Lateral Approximant?

1 Answer 1


Terms like "approximant" aren't about the tongue's relationship to the roof of the mouth, but about the flow of air. In a lateral approximant, the air is able to flow relatively freely around the sides of the tongue—there's some obstruction, but no turbulence. (If there's turbulence, it's a lateral fricative instead.)

  • 1
    Approximant means approaching (getting closer). "Approximants are speech sounds that involve the articulators approaching each other but not narrowly enough" en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Approximant. In this case, the roof of the mouth and the tongue are the articulators. This "approach" creates the sound that you explained as the answer. Right?
    – Jinn Jinn
    Commented Aug 7, 2022 at 2:27
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    @JinnJinn In standard usage, "approximant" means the airstream is occluded somehow but there's no friction. In this case, the articulators that are close to each other are the sides of the tongue and the teeth or the sides of the mouth, since that's where the air is flowing.
    – Draconis
    Commented Aug 7, 2022 at 3:12
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    @JinnJinn In articulatory linguistics, the articulators are described by the word that comes immediately before the manner of articulation (‘approximant’). In this case, that’s ‘lateral’, meaning ‘going over the sides (of the tongue)’. The roof of the mouth and the tip of the tongue that touches the alveolar ridge are not primary articulators in a lateral approximant. And while ‘approximant’ etymologically does mean ‘getting closer’, that’s not what it means in linguistics – it doesn’t refer to movement, but to a ‘position fairly close to (but not close enough to cause friction)’. Commented Aug 7, 2022 at 7:46
  • @JanusBahsJacquet I feel like you have enough knowledge to answer my question. Would you mind posting an answer?
    – Jinn Jinn
    Commented Aug 7, 2022 at 22:51
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    @JinnJinn It is a little complex with laterals, that’s true. The primary place of articulation (PoA) is the gap between the sides of the tongue and the teeth in the side of the mouth. The tongue never makes contact there – it wouldn’t be an approximant if it did. Think of central and lateral continuants as opposites: with centrals, contact is between sides of tongue and molars with a gap in the middle; the gap is the PoA, not the molars. With laterals, contact is between blade/tip of tongue and palate, gaps along the sides. The gaps are the PoA, not the palate. Commented Aug 8, 2022 at 0:34

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