Tuesday, 12 April 2011

how to hiss

Gosh, I only have to turn my back for a moment and we end up with 75 comments posted in response to my most recent blog (7 April). Most of the comments have nothing to do with my topic, which was Scottish vowels. And none of the commentators so much as mention the classifications sociolinguists commonly make involving ausbau languages, abstand languages and umbrella languages. Can I recommend that those interested read this article before commenting further?
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Someone signing himself just Hammer writes as follows.
I have a question about the pronunciation of /s/.

Most of the books on phonetics describe that "the tip and blade of the tongue are very close to the alveolar ridge" (Better English Pronunciation, J.D. O'Connor). However, I found it is hard for me to articulate a decent /s/. (Maybe it's because I'm a little buck-toothed?) Instead, I found the "alternative method" is much easier, that is, place the tip of the tongue behind the bottom teeth.

I would like to thank you very much if you could tell me:

1) Do you think the "bottom teeth" method is correct?
2) Do you regard the "bottom teeth" method as "having an accent"?
3) I find that some native English speakers also adopt the "bottom teeth" method. If that is true, could you please tell me what percentage of people actually saying hat way. I do like your Preference Poll method.
4) What are the pros and cons of these 2 methods, and why?

I would describe (my) English s as being articulated by the BLADE of the tongue rather than by the tip. The side rims of the tongue are in close contact with the upper teeth or the adjacent gums and roof of the mouth, so that there is no lateral escape. The soft palate is up, so that there is no nasal escape. The important point is that the tongue adopts a posture involving a narrow mid-sagittal GROOVE between the tongue and the alveolar ridge (‘mid-sagittal’ = running along the centre of the tongue, from back to front). All the escaping air is channelled along this groove. The effect is to cause turbulence in the airstream, with the auditory consequence of producing the noise of friction as it passes along the groove and strikes the upper teeth. The palatogram you see (taken from the current edition of Cruttenden/ Gimson's Pronunciation of English) shows the groove clearly, as white spots of non-contact.

Since the tip and blade are contiguous, with no sharply defined border between them, it is trivially true for all kinds of s that “the tip and blade are very close to the alveolar ridge”.

It is also necessary that the lower jaw is quite close to the upper jaw. (If you lower the jaw and try to produce s with it in that position you’ll find that you can’t — not a normal s, anyway.)

There are minor differences in anatomy between different speakers. What matters is not this or that exact anatomical positioning of the tongue so much as the creating of the appropriate sound effect — friction at the appropriate range of frequencies (3.6–8kHz).

Experimenting with the position of the tongue TIP in (my own) s, I find it doesn’t seem to matter much, because it is not the active articulator. It merely has to keep out of the way.

Bladon and Nolan, in their 1977 article ‘A video-fluorographic investigation of tip and blade alveolars in English’ (JPhon 1: 185-193), found that most speakers articulate s with the blade (‘laminal’) rather than with the tip (‘apical’).

In many other languages s is apical. Does it matter if you use a ‘foreign’ s in English? As long as you keep s clearly distinct from θ in one direction and from ʃ in the other, I suspect that subtle distinctions in the quality of s are not very important for EFL.

To answer Hammer’s questions in order:
1. It is irrelevant where the tongue tip is in relation to the bottom teeth. I think you are really asking about laminal s vs apical s, i.e. which part of the tongue articulates with the alveolar ridge.
2. No — see 1.
3. I don’t know (but see Bladon and Nolan). I don’t think people responding to a questionnaire would be able to report accurately on what they do in this regard, so I wouldn’t ask them.
4. I hope what I have said above answers the question you are worried about.


  1. Yep, my /s/ is laminal too. I speak "General American". As John says, the important thing is that you keep /s/ distinct from /θ/ and /ʃ/.

    I think apical /s/ might be part of what gives people a Dutch accent when they speak English, if you're worried about that kind of thing. Some native English speakers imitate this accent by substituting /ʃ/ for /s/, but really that isn't accurate as far as I know.

  2. Ad John

    We were discussing things not directly connected with the topic of your last entry (Scottisch vowels), but since I was one of the 'culprits', I feel obliged to mention the following:

    1. this is what happens with many blogs of this sort (linguistic in nature, let us say), if my experience is any reliable. One has to go whither the wind takes us (Plato, The Republic, III, 349d.)

    2. this shows that your topic was an 'ausbau' topic ... .

    3. and eventually, much of that ausbau, umbrella and other stuff IS connected with your Scottish vowels, as it shows their relevance for deciding what is ausbau, umbrella and what not. At least for Scottish.

    I dunno if this brings any comfort, hope so, though.

  3. Neither ausbau nor abstand is in the OED. Fortunately, umbrella is.

  4. Very interesting. My /s/ is laminal, and I've always had the sense that this is unusual for American English speakers. At the very least, of the (few) people I've been able to ask to figure out which they use, I've never found another American English speaker who has a laminal /s/. Do you have any sense of whether the laminal articulation is more common across English as a whole, or might it be that apical /s/ is more common in American English?

    One last question: you mentioned that laminal /s/ is more common; does this extend to other alveolars as well? All of my alveolars are laminal, and I definitely feel like this is not typical, at least for American English.

  5. I think I can articulate /s/ either with either apical or laminal restriction but with a tendency to prefer apical for more energetic articulation.

    My front teeth are not my own and one crown is bent forward following what could be called a 'heavy bread accident'. Perhaps one of my articulations is a recently learned compensation.

    I may be deceiving myself, but I seem to find the /sksθ/ cluster of 6th easier with apical articulation.

  6. David Crosbie - I assume you really mean the /ksθs/ cluster of 6ths? I don't think I've ever produced that in my life!

  7. I pronounce t,d,n,l apically and s,z laminally.

  8. This is an evergreen question. It keeps coming back. I used to check all my beginning phonetics classes, mostly Swedish students with a few others from elsewhere. I forget the proportions now, but a good majority reported tip behind lower teeth, and a few with the tip raised. The action is nevertheless a variant of laminal, the blade is trough-shaped and turbulence is created as explained by John above. The spot among the upper teeth that produces the best hiss differs individually, the palatogram quoted by John shows it is off centre.

  9. Leo

    Yes, that was a typo muddle.

    I could produce a demonstration /ksθs/ for the benefit of students, but generally I share your difficulty. I can however manage the singular/ordinal — which, it seems, more and more people are reducing to sɪkθ.

  10. The thread has also sidestepped into apical/laminal articulations generally. I also used to check this in classes. Most had apical dental/alveolar stops, a few had laminal. The difference is similar to that between palatalized dentals (the laminals) and non-palatalized dentals (the apicals), the pharynx also being wider for palatalized and laminal versions. Both work in, say, English. It would be interesting to know how speakers of Russian do it - they presumably have to constrain their apical and laminal articulations. Gunnar Fant (The Acoustic Theory of Speech Production, Mouton, 1960) has x-rayed profiles and computations for the Russian consonants.

  11. Sidney

    I asked my wife Elena, a native speaker of Russian, where she point the tip of her tongue for /s/. She said towards the back of the top teeth. She uses the same sound speaking English. This accords with the description by Daniel Jones and Dennis Ward in The Phonetics of Russian.

    '(1) articulating organs: blade of tongue near back part of teeth-ridge, without making complete contact; the tip of the tongue is either pointing towards the upper front teeth, lying under the middle part of the teeth-ridge or is lowered to the base of the lower front teeth;'

    However, Elena's perception differs from what Jones & Ward describe for 'soft' //. She feels that the tip of her tongue is pointing upward towards the palate. But Jones and Ward write:

    '(1) articulatory organs: blade of tongue near back part of teeth=ridge, without making complete closure; front of tongue simultaneously raised towards thethe hard palate; tip of tongue lowered to a position behind the base of the lower front trrth or pointing towards the gap between the upper and lower teeth;'

    The second point in Jones & Ward descriptions seems pretty uncontroversial:

    '(2) state of-air passage: narrowed at the place of primary articulation, i.e. between blade of tongue and teeth-ridge so that friction is produced by the air-stream as it passes through the gap;'

    '(2) state of-air passage: narrowed at the place of primary articulation (i.e. between blade of tongue and teeth-ridge), fairly narrow at place of secondary articulation (i.e. between the front of tongue and hard palate);'

  12. I feel that what Hammer might have meant when he wrote about the tip of his tongue placed behind his bottom teeth was that he necessarily brought his lower jaw up, so that his tongue would generally be quite close to the floor of the mouth. MG

  13. Andrej Bjelaković12 April 2011 at 22:58

    Could someone please explain in articulatory terms how exactly does s̪ differ from the usual /s/ in English?

  14. If I remember correctly, Hewlett and Beck's Introduction to the Science of Phonetics describes the laminar articulation of /s/ as involving anchoring the tip of the tongue behind the lower teeth and raising the blade to the alveolar ridge (which is where the reference to lower teeth come in). I think they also say that their informal surveys show the laminar articulation to be more common in the UK.