In articulatory phonetics, articulators are the speech or vocal organs (above the larynx) that take part in articulation or production of sound. Articulators are divided into two types:
1. Active articulators
2. Passive articulators
Consonant sounds are produced when there is an obstruction of the airflow somewhere in the vocal tract. This obstruction is the point of contact between an active articulator and a passive articulator.
As the name suggests, active articulator is that organ which “moves” and passive articulator is that organ which that remains “stationary” or passive during articulation. Hence, during articulation, the active articulator moves towards the passive articulator and causes complete or partial obstruction of the flow of air in the vocal tract.
The tongue can be called as the main active articulator because the tip, the front, the back and the root of the tongue act as active articulators in the production of most of the sounds. For example, the tip of the tongue touches the alveolar ridge during the production of alveolar sounds like /t/, /d/, etc. Lower lip can also act as an active articulator during the production of bilabial sounds like /p/, /b/, /m/, etc. and labio-dental sounds like /f/, /v/, etc. Passive articulators occur in continuum in the vocal tract. Examples of passive articulators are alveolar ridge, soft palate, hard palate, etc. The speech sounds are mainly named after the passive articulators.
The active articulator does all or most of the movement when a speech sound is made. It is usually the lower lip or a part of the tongue, because the tongue and lower jaw are free moving.
The passive articulator does little or no movement. It is the part of the place of articulation where the active articulator presses against: usually the upper jaw, upper teeth, roof of the mouth, or back of the throat (pharynx).
(B) In a bilabial articulation, the active articulator is the lower lip and the passive is the upper.
(T) In a denti-alveolar articulation, the top of the tongue (flat) is the active and the back of the upper teeth and the alveolar ridge is the passive.
In the context of phonetics, “to articulate” means “to produce speech sounds.” “Articulators” are the parts of the mouth, tongue, and throat that we use to articulate. Exactly which articulators you use, and how, depends on which language you’re speaking.
Say the word “cat” out loud. Pay attention to how the sounds feel in your mouth. (You can even take a look in a mirror if you want.) Focus on the first sound in the word: [k]. (Remember, phonetics has nothing to do with spelling. It’s all about sound, so we write the first sound in “cat” with a phonetic symbol: [k].) Can you feel how the middle of your tongue rises up to touch your hard palate? That’s how you articulate the sound [k].
Now, about your question. Each time you articulate a consonant, you’re doing two things:
- Expelling air from your lungs through your vocal tract, and
- Interrupting that air flow by bringing two articulators together (or almost together.)
That’s exactly what you did when you said the [k] in “cat,” right? Each time you pair up two articulators like that, one will move (like the center of your tongue) and one will stay still (like your palate.) The ones that move are called “active articulators,” while the ones that don’t are called “passive articulators.”
Say “cat” one last time, and pay attention to the last sound. Which two articulators are you using? Which one is active, and which is passive?
(Answer: you’re using the tip of your tongue and either the back of your teeth or the hard ridge on the roof of your mouth just behind your teeth [the alveolar ridge.] The tongue is active; the teeth and alveolar ridge are passive.)