Place of articulation of English and Vietnamese consonants

Contrasting English and Vietnamese sound systems could be easier if we treat the articulatory aspects independently and progressively, rather than jointly and simultaneously. Based on this belief, this contrastive analysis treats the place of articulation, a prominent articulatory feature of every consonant, as the tertium comparationis to examine the similarities and differences between English and Vietnamese consonants.

Pronouncing some certain English sounds, such as /ð/ or /θ/, can be a formidable task to many Vietnamese learners, especially the adult ones. After years imprisoned in a non-English speaking environment, their tongue has developed the muscular habits which hinder the possibility of speaking any languages other than their mother tongue. Facing these unfamiliar sounds, they feel reluctant and eccentric; some even substitute /ɗ/ (the sound of “đ”) for /ð/ and /tʰ/ (the sound of “th”) for /θ/. This tactic at first seems harmless to the intelligibility. However, the accumulation of such substitutions may result in misunderstanding to many listeners.

The contrastive analysis of English and Vietnamese consonants in terms of place of articulation needs to adopt both phonetic and phonological approaches. While phonology helps us quantify the number of consonants in each language, phonetics, particularly articulatory phonetics, facilitates the description of consonant articulation.

Consonants and Place of Articulation

From the articulatory perspective, consonants are produced when the airstream from the lung is somehow obstructed on its way through the vocal tract (Ladefoged, & Johnson, 2011, p.10). Many articulatory features of consonant could be noticed in this obstruction event, such as the place of articulation, the manner of articulation, the duration of articulation, the aspiration, or the muscular energy of vocal organs involving in the articulation. Among these features, the place of articulation is what this study pays much attention to. It is “where the consonantal obstruction occurs in the vocal tract by the placement of the tongue or by lip configuration” (Yavas, 2011, p.6). Before getting to know more about the places of articulation, it is important to briefly introduce the components of the vocal tract with the figure below.

1. lips; 2. teeth; 3. alveolar ridge; 4. back of alveolar ridge; 5. palate; 6. velum (soft palate); 7. uvula; 8. tip of the tongue; 9. blade of the tongue; 10. front of the tongue; 11. back of the tongue; 12. root of the tongue; 13. glottis; 14. pharyngeal

The vocal tract consists of the active articulators, which are highly mobile, and passive articulators, which are more stable. According to Moulton (1962, p.9), the name, adjective and compounding form of these vocal organs are presented as in the table below.

The articulation of a consonant is actually a gesture in which an active articulator moves towards a passive articulator. Where the gesture takes place is the place of articulation. A place of articulation is addressed by the two articulators involved in the articulation.

For example, the articulation involving the upper lip and the lower lip is called labio-labial, though usually called bilabial. The articulation involving the lower lip and the upper teeth is called labio-dental.

The number of consonants in English and Vietnamese

Although two or more consonants can have the same place of articulation, it is necessary to quantify the number of consonants of a certain language to examine the places of articulation of such language. This is, however, often disputable because the quantification of consonant depends on the phonological theory we use to describe consonant and vowel phonemes (Bùi, 2008, p.189). The sound /w/ in Vietnamese, for instance, can be treated as either an approximant consonant (Kirby, 2011) or a semivowel (Nguyễn, 2017, p.143). In this study, the sound /w/, together with /j/, /ʔ/, /h/ will be regarded as consonants, both in English and in Vietnamese.

It is widely accepted that the number of English consonants is 25, including the glottal stop /ʔ/. Roach (1991) does not include this sound in the phonemic system, which results in 24 consonants. Later works include this sound in the phonemic system (Rogers, 2000; Yavas, 2011; Ladefoged, & Johnson, 2011).

The quantification of Vietnamese consonants is much more complicated. Some scholars believe there are 23 consonants (Đinh, L. T. & Nguyễn, V. H. 1998); some others believe this number is 22 (Nguyễn, Đ. H., 1997; Kirby, 2011). Nguyễn Thị Hai (2017, p.137) declares this number may vary from 21 to 23, depending on how we describe a consonant.

The disagreement over the consonant number is resulted from not only the difference in theory applied to description, but also from a reality that Vietnamese has so many varieties. In Hanoi Vietnamese, the three letters “d”, “gi” and “r” are pronounced with only /z/ sound. In the Southern and Central regions of the country, however, these letters are usually pronounced with three distinctive sounds: /j/, /z/ and /r/. Another example is the pronunciation of “ch” and “tr”. While Hanoi Vietnamese does not differentiate these two letters in speaking, using only /tɕ/ sound, other areas have two different sounds /tɕ/ and /c/. The letters “s” and “x” are pronounced only with /s/ sound in Hanoi, but are pronounced with /s/ and /ʃ/ sounds in other places. Such disagreement cannot be stopped until there is an agreement on the so-called ‘standard spoken Vietnamese’. This, of course, has a lot to do with our attitude toward different dialects and accents of Vietnamese language, not only in academia but also in other social contexts. This study is not based on any assumption of a standard spoken Vietnamese. In order to solve the problems of Vietnamese varieties, we adopt the method of Kirby (2011): using a sample, which is the recordings of a Hanoi native speaker, to examine the sound system. In other words, only one sound /z/ is accepted for “d”, “gi” and “r” in this study. The similar treatment is applied to the case of “tr” and “ch” and the case of “s” and “x”. Thus, there are 22 Vietnamese consonants in total.

There are also differences in the symbols chosen to represent the sounds. Thompson (1991) used the letters of Vietnamese traditional orthography; other scholars used IPA. The latter option, which is also this study’s solution to phonemic transcription, is much more favorable since it provides the foundation for further discussion in international context.

Even using the same system of phonetic notation, scholars cannot reach an agreement on the transcription of some sounds. For example, Nguyễn Đình Hòa (1997) transcribes the letter “r” with the voiced post-alveolar fricative /ʒ/ whereas Đinh Lê Thư and Nguyễn Văn Huệ (1998) transcribe it with the voiced retroflex fricative /ʐ/. Or, the sound of “tr” is transcribed with the voiceless retroflex affricate /tʂ/ by Bùi Mạnh Hùng (2007), but with the voiceless retroflex stop /ʈ/ by Thompson (1991) and Nguyễn Thị Hai (2017). The reason for this might be that there have never been any grandiose experimental researches using the latest tools to inspect the acoustic features of Vietnamese sounds. In this study, the findings of Kirby (2011) will be utilised to determine the articulatory features of Vietnamese consonants. However, some sounds are not sufficiently described in Kirby’s work. The missing data will be supplemented by the researcher’s native speaker articulatory intuition.

Previous works on phonological contrastive analysis between Vietnamese and English

The literature of contrastive linguistics has been developed by many scholars for decades. Noticeable works with some parts discussing Vietnamese language are Ngôn ngữ học đối chiếu và đối chiếu các ngôn ngữ Đông Nam Á (1992) by Nguyễn Văn Chiến, Nghiên cứu đối chiếu các ngôn ngữ (2004) by Lê Quang Thiêm and Ngôn ngữ học đối chiếu (2008) by Bùi Mạnh Hùng.

These works provide the background for a great number of contrastive analyses between Vietnamese and English by college students. However, these analyses are just small projects. Most works on phonetic and phonological aspects only choose to contrast a specific sound, a group of sounds or the whole phonemic system. Hardly any works with an articulatory feature of sound as tertium comparationis is found.

In many books on Vietnamese phonetics and phonology, the articulatory similarities and differences between Vietnamese and English consonants are mentioned (Thompson, 1991; Đinh, L. T. & Nguyễn, V. H., 1998; Nguyễn, T. H., 2017). However, these points are not sufficiently and systematically presented with the emphasis on the place of articulation.

Place of articulation of English consonants

In respect of the place of articulation, the 25 consonants of English are classified into 8 groups, as in the table below.

Bilabials: produced by the closure of the two lips. They comprise /b/, /p/ and /m/. Roach (1991) includes /w/ in this group. However, Rogers (2000), Yavas (2011), Ladefoged & Johnson (2011) believe that /w/ is not bilabial but bilabial-velar approximant consonant because the production of /w/ sound includes two simultaneous articulations: the raising of the back of the tongue towards the velum and the rounding of the lips (Rogers, 2000, p.20). Thus, /w/ cannot be simply put into this group.

Bilabial-velar: /w/

Labio-dentals: produced by the constriction between the upper teeth and the lower lip of the mouth. They comprise /f/ and /v/.

Dentals: include /ð/ and /θ/. Rogers (2000) said these sounds are produced by the tip of the tongue, not the blade, approaching the upper teeth. Roach (1991) and Yavas (2011) do not have this distinction. Ladefoged & Johnson (2011) believe that whether the tip or the blade of the tongue is used is not distinctive. Both are accepted as the articulators producing the dentals. They also mentioned the variations of these sounds. In some varieties of English, speakers have their tongue protruding the teeth; the sounds produced with this articulation are called interdentals. In other varieties, speakers keep the tongue behind the upper teeth.

Alveolars: produced by the tip or the blade of the tongue approaching the alveolar ridge. These sounds are /t/, /d/, /s/, /z/, /n/ and /l/. Roach (1991, p.31) said the active articulator is the blade of the tongue. He added “the tongue does not touch the front teeth as in dental plosives in some languages”. Rogers (2000), on the other hand, said the tip of the tongue is the active articulator.

Post-alveolars: produced by the tip or the blade of the tongue approaching the back of the alveolar ridge. These include /ʃ/ /ʒ/ /tʃ/ /dʒ/. There is also the consonant /r/. This consonant is pronounced differently in different varieties of English. Some speakers have their tongue curled backwards so that the underside of the tongue approaches the roof of the mouth, which is called retroflex. Others have the ‘bunched’ /r/ sound with tip turned down. These are treated as the allophones of the /r/ sound. The place of articulation, however, does not change.

Palatal: The only palatal in English is /j/, which is an approximant consonant produced by the front of the tongue approaching the palate.

Velars: include /k/, /g/, /ŋ/. These sounds are produced by the back (dorsum) of the tongue approaching the velum (soft palate).

Glottals: include /h/ and /ʔ/, which are produced by the vibration or closure of the two vocal folds of the larynx.

Place of articulation of Vietnamese consonants

Similarly, the 22 consonants of Vietnamese are categorised into the following 7 groups, as in the table below.

Bilabials: /ɓ/, /m/, /p/ (only distributed in the coda position of the syllable).

Bilabial-velar: /w/

Labio-dentals: /f/, /v/

Denti-alveolars: /t/, /tʰ/ (Kirby, 2011)

Alveolar: /ɗ/, /n/, /l/, /s/ and /z/

Palatals: /tɕ/, /ɲ/ and /j/

Velars: /k/, /ŋ/, /ɣ/ and /x/

Glottals: /ʔ/, /h/

Similarities and differences

The places of articulation of Vietnamese consonants are largely similar to those of English consonants. Both languages have: bilabial, bilabial-velar, labio-dental, palatal, velar, and glottal. However, probably differences can be found when we choose other articulatory features, like the voicing or the manner of articulation, to be the tertium comparationis in contrastive analysis.

The most obvious difference between the two languages is that English has the dental articulation which are absent in Vietnamese. This is the reason why many learners find it difficult to pronounce /ð/ or /θ/. The Vietnamese sounds that can be roughly equivalent to /ð/ and /θ/ in terms of place of articulation are /t/ and /tʰ/. While the tongue pronouncing /ð/ and /θ/ may protruding the teeth or contact with the upper teeth (more forward), the tongue pronouncing /t/ and /tʰ/ approaches against the contiguous point between the teeth and the alveolar ridge (more backward).

Another difference worth discussing is the places of articulation around the alveolar ridge area. In English, whether the place of articulation is alveolar or post-alveolar contributes to the distinctive features of alveolar sounds (/t/, /d/, /s/, /z/, /n/, /l/) and post-alveolar sounds (/ʃ/ /ʒ/ /tʃ/ /dʒ/). This is, however, not a distinctive feature in Vietnamese sound system. In Vietnamese, on the other hand, whether the place of articulation is denti-alveolar or alveolar does contribute to differentiation between the denti-alveolar sounds (/t/, /tʰ/) and the alveolar sounds (/ɗ/, /n/, /l/, /s/, /z/). Kirby (2011) also noticed the part of the tongue which involves in the alveolar articulation of Vietnamese consonants is the tip, not the blade. He believes Vietnamese alveolar consonants should be apical, not laminal.


Bùi, M. H. (2007). Giáo trình Dẫn luận ngôn ngữ học. Hồ Chí Minh: Đại học Sư Phạm publishing house.

Bùi, M. H. (2008). Ngôn ngữ học đối chiếu. Hồ Chí Minh: Giáo Dục publishing house.

Đinh, L. T., & Nguyễn, V. H. (1998). Cơ cấu ngữ âm tiếng Việt. Hà Nội: Giáo Dục publishing house.

Kirby, P. J. (2011). Illustration of the IPA – Vietnamese (Hanoi Vietnamese)
Journal of the International Phonetic Association, 381-392. doi:10.1017/S0025100311000181.

Ladefoged, P., & and Maddieson, I. (1996). The Sounds of the World’s
. Oxford: Blackwell Publishers Ltd.

Ladefoged, P., & Johnson, K. (2011). A Course in Phonetics. (6th ed.). Boston: Wadsworth Publishing.

Moulton, G. W. (1962). The Sounds of English and German – A systematic
analysis of the contrasts between the sound systems
. Chicago: The University of Chicago Press.

Nguyễn, Đ. H. (1997). Vietnamese – Tiếng Việt không son phấn. Amsterdam: John Benjamins B.V.

Nguyễn, T. H. (2017). Ngữ âm học tiếng Việt hiện đại. Hà Nội: Thanh Niên
publishing house.

Roach, J. P. (1991). English Phonetics and Phonology – A Practical Course. (2nd ed.). Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.

Rogers, H. (2000). The Sounds of Language – An Introduction to Phonetics. New York: Routledge.

Thompson, C. L. (1991). A Vietnamese Reference Grammar. Honolulu:
University of Hawaii Press.

Yavas, M. (2011). Applied English Phonology. (2nd ed.). Chichester: WileyBlackwell Publishing.