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What is the difference between active articulators and passive articulators?

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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:

  1. Expelling air from your lungs through your vocal tract, and
  2. 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.)

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Payal Khullar eNotes educator | Certified Educator

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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:


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