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Velar Shifting

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Velar shifting – consonants

Consider the articulation of the voiceless velar plosive /k/ in the following sequence of words.

keyed curd cooed
/kid/ /kɜd/ /kud/

Say the sequence out aloud a few times to gain a feeling for what is happening at the point of velar closure, i.e. the location at which the back of the tongue contacts the soft palate. If you are struggling to detect what is taking place, first say the sequence a few times slowly, with careful and precise enunciation and then repeat it rapidly a few times, as you might do in everyday talk.

This exercise should have highlighted that the location of velar closure shifts slightly for each articulation. The velar closure in keyed is the furthest forwards in the mouth. In contrast, the word cooed has its velar closure furthest to the back of the mouth. The location of velar closure for the word curd appears to be somewhere in between the forward position of keyed and the back position of cooed.

A similar shift in the actual point of contact of the velar closure occurs for the voiced velar plosive /g/. Try saying the following sequence aloud a few times.

gad gird god
/ɡæd/ /ɡɜd/ /ɡɒd/

You should have detected a similar shift in the point of contact of the velar closure. The /g/ in the word gad has its point of closure the furthest forwards in the mouth. The /g/ is closed the furthest back in the mouth in the word god. The closure in gird appears to be intermediate between the forward and back points.

The trigger for the slight shifts of the point of contact of velar closure is the nature of the vowel that immediately follows the initial velar plosive. The words keyed and gad both have a front vowel /i, æ/ following the initial velar. The effect of this is to draw the articulation forwards. In contrast, the words cooed and god each have a back vowel /æ, ɒ/ after the initial velar. The effect of this is to draw the articulation backwards. The words curd and gird each share the same central vowel /ɜ/ and, consequently, the point of velar closure is intermediate between front and back. Let us take this intermediate position as our reference point to represent ‘velar’. The articulation before front vowels is, therefore, pre-velar (or advanced) and the articulation before back vowels is post-velar (or retracted).

We represent advanced articulations with a plus (+) and retracted articulations with a minus (-). So, before front vowels /k/ has the allophone [k̟ʰ], and before back vowels it has the allophone [k̠ʰ]. Remember that, as the /k/ does not appear after /s/in our examples, it is also aspirated. In a similar vein, /g/ has the allophone [ɡ̟] before front vowels and [ɡ̠] before back vowels.

We can conclude, therefore, that the phoneme /k/ has at least four allophones: [k], [kʰ], [k̟ʰ] and [k̠ʰ].

The phoneme /g/ also has at least four allophones: [g], [ɡ̊], [ɡ̟] and [ɡ̠].

Table 10. Velar-shifted allophones

Table 10. Velar-shifted allophones.

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