I was teaching a linguistics class and I came across this topic "secondary articulation". It was the first time for me to hear the term. I had always known that the effect of a preceding or following sound is called "assimilation". But in the book I have , both terms seem to be different. I did some research on both terms, but I can't seem to reach a satisfying conclusion.

They say that assimilation involves quality and SA involves just place of articulation. I find that so vague. so, is assimilation the broader term? In other words, is secondary articulation a type of assimilation?

And I also came across the term "co-articulation". How is it different?

  • 2
    A real linguist can correct any mistakes: Assimilation is a phonological phenomenon (higher level) and secondary articulation is a phonetic phenomenon (lower level). Assimilation is an abstract concept to describe sounds that change in certain ways in proximity to one another. Co-articulation is a class of sounds that have places of articulation in one sound/phone. So there could be examples of assimilation which result in coarticulation. But the two are totally independent. Most assimilation does not result in co-articulation and most co-articulation is not the result of assimilation. Jan 1, 2014 at 10:56
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    Co-articulation and secondary articulation are pretty much the same thing. The first term assumes both places of articulation are equal, while the latter term suggests that one place of articulation is primary and the other secondary. Jan 1, 2014 at 10:58
  • Hippietrail has it right. The distinction between phonology and phonetics is crucial here, since assimilation is language-specific in its details (though very common because of the phonetic requirements of segmental ordering), whereas co-/secondary articulation is purely physical.
    – jlawler
    Jan 1, 2014 at 20:31
  • Apologies for my crucial word-omission typo. In my first comment it should be "Co-articulation is a class of sounds that have two places of articulation in one sound/phone" Jan 2, 2014 at 3:14
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    @Mitch yes, that's correct. But hippietrail is incorrect in that secondary articulations can be phonemic, as outlined in the answer from user6726. Dec 25, 2014 at 3:58

1 Answer 1


"Secondary articulation" refers to vowel-like properties that are superimposed on consonants with various "primary" articulations. So "alveolar" or "bilabial" are examples of primary (consonantal) articulations, and "rounding", "palatalization", "pharyngealization" are secondary articulations. The best-known example of secondary articulation is palatalization in Slavic, where most consonants have plain versus palatalized versions.

In a number of languages, secondary articulations arise from assimilation to a neighboring vowel, for example in Russian, consonants are palatalized before front vowel suffixes such as the suffix for locative (prepositional) -e or abstract nouns -izm; or, in Nupe, consonants are rounded before round vowels (also palatalized before front vowels).

It is true that an assimilation is an effect of a preceding or following sound, which need not be immediately preceding or following. But almost all phonological processes involve a preceding or following segment, and many are not assimilations (for instance, dissimilation, not to mention ornery arbitrary changes such as in Chukchi, becomes s before q). Unless a rule is context-free (for example, g -> ŋ everywhere), any rule involves a preceding or following segment, so there isn’t anything special about assimilations or secondary articulations in that respect.

Given a two-way division of phonological properties into "quantity" and "quality" (basically, everything except length), assimilation does involve quality, insofar as quantity is a structural property that doesn't assimilate. It is correct that secondary articulation is about a specific type of place of articulation. However, secondary articulation and assimilation are incommensurable (one is not a case of the other). Assimilation refers to the process of one sound becoming more similar to another in any sense, and secondary articulation is a very specific fact about the articulation of consonants (whether via a rule, or simply lexically). Accordingly, Russian [bratʲ] 'to take' has a consonant with a secondary articulation ([tʲ]], and there is no assimilation (the consonant is underlyingly palatalized, and contrasts with [t]: [brat] 'brother').

The term 'coarticulation' is ambiguous between the specialized sense applied to [kp, gb] as in Igbo and other languages with labio-velar stop, where the term has been used at times to make it clear that the consonant in question is a single segment with two simultaneous articulations (not a cluster), and the more common contemporary usage deriving from phonetic theory, where the articulatory state of one segment perseveres or is anticipated, and overlaps that of another neighboring segment. An example of that is how the lips round in anticipation of a following rounded segment in English 'cool', 'school'. The process is continuous over time, as one can see looking at a spectrogram of 'school' and noting the downward-sloping line arising from increased labial constriction.

Coarticulation is similar to assimilation, except that assimilation is a categorial phonological change from one sound to another along a featural dimension, whereas coarticulation is a continuous change, and it is specifically in terms of articulators whereas features are only loosely related to particular articulators. It is hypothesized that coarticulation relates to assimilation, in that coarticulation is a natural phonetic phenomenon, and is often phonologized into assimilatory rules. Many assimilations are due to acoustic overlap, which, if phonologized, can cash out as a change in articulator state.

It would not be correct to maintain that coarticulation is physically mandated (this is essentially the SPE position). So-called vowel nasalization in English is clearly coarticulatory, as Cohn 1990 clasically shows, and it is specific to English (French has a different pattern). There are universally-mandated kinds of coarticulation, for example, in Turkish, there is lip protrusion during the production of consonants like /p,t,k/ when preceded and followed by the vowel [u] -- the lips do not suddenly un-round during the production of the /l/ in [pulun]. It is an open research question which instances of coarticulation are due to physical necessity, and which are part of the phonetics of the given language.

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