More Positions

On the previous pages, you met 62 basic letters. But there are many more than 62 sounds in all the world's languages; many single languages have more sounds than that! To write all the sounds in most of the world's languages, Musa uses two tricks:

In general, these tricks are only used where needed, in other words if the language being written has two sounds that would otherwise be written with the same Musa letter. For example in English, the k in keel and the c in cool are written with the same Musa letter - there's no ambiguity even though they're pronounced slightly differently. But in Arabic, those are two different sounds (written with the letters ك kāf and ق qāf in Arabic), and so Musa has a different letter for qāf.

On this page, I'll show you some new tops and bottoms and a few more unusual letters. I'll show you the other tricks on the following pages.

In English, we only use three general places of articulation, and most languages use the same three:

But there are other places of articulation used in many languages, and Musa has bottoms for them:

Labio-dental and Labial-velar Letters

On the last page, you met the bilabial fricatives bh and ph, which are made by whistling between your two lips. They're relatively rare, although for example bh occurs in Spanish and ph in Japanese. More languages have, instead, labio-dental v and f, made by whistling between your upper teeth and lower lip. Ewe (Èʋegbe), a language of Ghana and Togo, has both sets: bilabial β and Φ and labio-dental v and f. In Musa, we write labio-dental sounds with a "pick" (half a pickaxe) on the bottom:

Musa also has a letter for a labiodental approximant, a sound which appears in several languages; it's written ʋ in IPA . To pronounce it, put your mouth in position to say v, but say w instead. I'll transcribe it as vw.

This bottom is also used for labial-velar sounds, as found in many West African languages : kp and gb (as in the name of the Nigerian language Igbo) and nasal ŋm. They're not clusters - the two sounds are pronounced simultaneously.

There are also labial sounds written with the rhotic top, even though they're not rhotic. Kom has a bilabial trill, not to be confused with the labiodental flap of Mangbetu :

This last letter is also used for bilabial flaps in some languages, so it could be called simply a labial flap.

Retroflex Letters

The retroflex letters use the  or  bottoms. They're actually quite common, for example used in almost all of the languages of India. For retroflex sounds, the tongue should be flat, concave or even curled upwards, to contrast with the palatal sounds, for which the tongue is pushed upwards to fill the mouth. There are retroflex versions of the plosives d t and sonorants n l.

The sharp retroflex bottom is used for the common retroflex flap, while the rare retroflex trill uses a smooth retroflex bottom:

Retroflex affricates and sibilants use a rounded bottom (as do almost all affricates and sibilants).

That last letter also spells the northern pronunciation of Swedish sj.

On the Consonants page, I mentioned that letters for affricates replace stop+sibilant, even across morphemes; cat's and cats are spelled alike. But in cases where the stop and the sibilant have different positions, we write them differently. In the Polish example below, we would combine them if the t were also retroflex.

Palatal Letters

Many Romance languages have palatal ns, as in Italian Spagna, French Espagne, Catalan Espanya, Spanish España and Portuguese Espanha. In Musa, those palatal ns are written using a letter with the nasal triangle on top and the i/y triangle on the bottom:

Italian, Portuguese and Catalan also still have the palatal ly (spelled as gl, lh and ll), although this sound has disappeared from French and from most Spanish dialects leaving just the semivowel y. (Many textbooks describe this sound as being the one from English million, but that's not correct : it's a y with your tongue pressed firmly against the roof of your mouth.)

Those two sounds contrast in Italian:

In German, when the dorsal fricative kh (written ch) follows a front vowel, it becomes palatal, as in the words ich and nicht, but not Nacht. This is called ich-Laut :

Hungarian has unusual palatal plosives, ty and gy. Czech spells them t' and d', or more commonly t and d before i.

Alveolo-palatal affricates and sibilants use a rounded bottom (as do almost all affricates and sibilants). We also use alveolo-palatal versions of nasal and lateral sounds. They're very close to the "true" palatals, and often confused with them, even by the same person. So we use the following rule of thumb: when a language has alveolo-palatal sibilants, then we use the corresponding alveolo-palatal nasal and lateral.

A note on the use of retroflex and palatal sibilants: when a language has only two series, like English z s ("hissing") and zh sh ("hushing"), then they can be written   and   without worrying too much about the exact articulation of the back series. But when a language has three series, the two back series usually contrast retroflex and palatal. We would write   for the "hissing" series,   for the "rustling" series, and   for the "humming" series. The corresponding affricates work the same way.

In Chinese, the velar plosives g and k have softened to palatal affricates (pinyin j q) before front i ue y and yw, and the velar fricative kh (pinyin h) has become a palatal sibilant (pinyin x), and we write all three of them with palatal letters. These contrast with both hissing dz ts s (pinyin z c s) and rustling dj ch sh (pinyin zh ch sh) :

Polish and several other Slavic languages also contrast three series of affricates/sibilants, for which we use the hissing, rustling, and humming letters. The humming series is soft; it incorporates the soft round suffix you'll meet on the Suffixes page:

Here's a full list of palatal letters :

Uvular Letters

At the top of the page, you met the Arabic ق qāf, a uvular sound. The Quechua languages also distinguish a uvular q from a velar k. Musa has five other uvular letters as well, used for sounds further back in your mouth than velar. Here they all are :

The uvular r is one of the many realizations of the guttural r, a phoneme whose exact pronunciation varies to include fricatives and unvoiced allophones. We usually write it as it's pronounced in the standard dialect, but when we want to include all the allophones, we write it with this letter to show that it's some kind of rhotic.

Radical Letters

There are also sounds articulated between your uvula and your glottis, deep in your throat, like the sounds of the Arabic letters ع ayn and ح heh.

Lateral Letters

Musa has five letters for lateral fricatives, as occur in Welsh, Zulu, Navajo and Tlingit, for example. The hushing series can be used for all postalveolar fricatives, as for example in Archi, Dahalo and Toda. The unvoiced lateral fricatives can also be used for a voiceless lateral approximant, as in Tibetan, or murmured lateral approximants as in Gujarati, Nepali and Marathi.

The lateral circle is used as a bottom to indicate a lateral release, as in the unvoiced lateral affricate tl (from Navajo and Tlingit), the voiced lateral affricate dlz (from Oowekyala) and the lateral flap (from Venda).

Most sources analyze the Czech ř as an alveolar laminal non-sibilant fricative trill, but in my personal experience, it is only trilled when initial, and the common feature linking all of its allophones - initial, intervocalic, final and medial after both voiced and unvoiced consonants - is lateral frication: that's what distinguishes it from ž/š. Despite that, we write it as a rhotic letter with a hushing bottom:


That's 50 additional letters, for a total of 112. Here's what you've seen so far (with transcriptions in IPA):

< Consonants More Voices >

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