What’s this then?


Answers on a post card…


It’s the roof of your mouth.

Well, that’s not exactly true. I didn’t steal in there in the middle of the night while you were asleep. I’ve suffered enough for this post as it is. I should say, it’s the inside of my mouth.

It’s a sagittal profile – the contour running down the centre line of the mouth, from front to back.

That point at the left side is at the tip of the upper teeth; the short flat, running up at about 30 degrees is the back of my incisors; there is then a nearly flat area behind the teeth before the contour breaks up toward the roof of the mouth.

The suffering… well that was down to having my wonderful dentist take an impression of my upper teeth and palate. The dentist was keen to ensure that the mould was as near complete as possible, and I gagged and gagged and gagged.

This is a model taken from that mould.

Pretty, huh?

That mess of wrinkles and lumps behind the incisors, on what is often called the alveolar ridge, feels almost perfectly smooth to the tongue, but the dentist was able to show me that area on the video screen and it really does look like that.

I suppose you’ll have guessed by now that I have a passing interest in pronunciation.

When discussing pronunciation, and even sometimes when teaching it, we might use a diagram like this.

Of course, this is a diagram  – a representation. It highlights features relevant to the matter in hand. It doesn’t claim to be a life-like image.

Having referred to diagrams like this, and indeed drawn them, for a good number of years, it was a slightly strange feeling to be able to examine part of my own vocal tract, albeit in model form.

The angle of the back of the teeth surprised me greatly, as did the depth of the ripples on the alveolar ridge but, otherwise, it was much as I’d always assumed.

Then I had the chance to make a comparison with someone else’s mould. Let’s call her Anonymous.

In each of the following pictures, the one on the left is me. On the right is Anonymous.

Front view


Looking up from the left side




What interests me here is that the alveolar ridge is nothing like as well defined on Anonymous’s model. What I’d always assumed was a very clear feature and a very useful marker in describing pronunciation suddenly looks much less clear.

From the profile, you can see that there is still a bump above or behind the incisors, but not the clear ‘shelf’ visible in my profile.

I’d be most interested to know whether these two models are extreme cases, in which case most people would be somewhere in between, or whether we might expect to find some people with either a more pronounced alveolar ridge or no ridge at all.

Do you think your profile feels more like mine, the one on the left, or the one on the right, Anonymous?

If someone were to say to you, “First, place your tongue against the back of the upper teeth. Now, draw the tongue back until you feel a ridge,” would that feature or position be immediately obvious?

In the coming days, I’ll be posting about Chinese pronunciation.

15 responses to “2:30”

  1. Chris says:

    The diversity is interesting. I think my ridge is about as pronounced as yours, but much closer to my teeth.

    By the way, google image searches for medical terms tend to turn up photos of unhealthy individuals. :/

  2. John Pasden says:

    Very interesting!

    How exactly is the sagittal profile produced?

  3. Sima says:

    There are a number of high-tech solutions, I believe. But, for the kitchen linguist, a sheet of paper and a pair of scissors will do.
    As you might just manage to make that out from the pictures, I trimmed the paper until it fitted reasonably snugly along the centre of the mould. Obviously, it’s a little crude, but I didn’t want to try to cut the moulds and have them crumble in my hands. I also bought some kids modelling clay, but it looked likely to either stain or stick to the moulds, so settled for the paper and scissors approach. I might have asked the dentist for further help in this regard, had I thought about it sooner.

  4. pc says:

    “What’s this then?”

    Am I the only one who thought “[half of] a boa constrictor eating an elephant”?

  5. Sima says:

    pc, you’re a prince.

  6. Peter says:


    Hahahaha. That’s exactly what I thought of!

  7. Katie says:

    Nice! DId you get that done in China? If so, how much did you have to pay your dentist to do it. I might just have to try …

    And to answer your question, my alveolar ridge feels much more like the one on the left. Does anonymous feel like her alveolar ridge is defined? I’ve TA’ed phonetics before and don’t recall any students complaining that they couldn’t find theirs, so either the one on the left is more typical or else what we feel and what we see aren’t the same.

    • John Pasden says:

      I feel like my alveolar ridge is super-defined. It’s almost sharp. My tongue is earnestly trying to convince me that there’s like a 45-degree angle there on the upward slope!

      Not likely… I need to get a sagittal profile done at some point.

      Would also be interesting to see if there’s a correlation between accurate pronunciation (of Mandarin Chinese, for example) and a well-defined alveolar ridge. (I know, not likely…)

      • Sima says:


        It’s almost sharp. My tongue is earnestly trying to convince me that there’s like a 45-degree angle there on the upward slope!”

        That’s exactly how I would have described what I could feel in my own mouth.

        I’m not sure how such a feature would affect pronunciation, particularly amongst native speakers. Presumably, across a population of speakers of a given language, there is great divergence in the size and shape of different parts of the vocal tract.

        I suspect that there might be some variation though in how we understand descriptions used in language teaching.

        • John Pasden says:

          Yeah, I’m thinking it might be akin to one person trying to learn to play bass guitar the way most people do, and then another person having to learn to play a fretless bass.

  8. Sima says:


    I didn’t actually pay for the moulds. I stumbled across a great dentist a few years ago, and now direct everyone I know to go and see her when in need. It’s a one of those typical clinics with windows onto the street and prices are pretty low. I think a basic bottom of the range crown costs about 60-70 yuan, so doing a mould ought to be a fraction of that.

    Unfortunately, Anonymous really is anonymous. All I know is it’s a 50+ Chinese woman. My dear dentist actually collected several moulds for me.

    I taught a phonology course for three or four years and never paused to consider this. I’d first encountered a diagram like the one drawn above during my own introduction to phonology and, as it very much fitted with what I could feel/see in my own mouth, never stopped to think about potential variation. But looking around the web when preparing this post, I found that there’s considerable variation in the way these diagrams are drawn. This diagram from the wikipedia retroflex page, for example, shows no obvious ridge at all.

    I’ve surveyed about a hundred people informally using these profiles and pictures with the question, “Which do you feel is more like you?” Amongst Chinese students, <30% say like my profile, majority say like Anonymous. Three caucasians say they’re more like Anonymous. (I’ve only asked three.)

    It seems to me that, if your profile was like Anonymous, the distinction between alveolar and post-alveolar points of articulation would be much less obvious. But then what do I know!

    • Katie says:

      Hmm. Now that I think about it, out of ~60 students, only a few were Asian, and only one Chinese, that I recall, so if it’s a sort of areal genetic thing, it could just be that I didn’t hear complaints because there weren’t many who would have been likely to fall into the sloping category. It could well be that most of the articulatory phonetics descriptions are written by people who have well defined alveolar ridges. (Ladefoged and Maddieson are definitely both Caucasian, if in fact that’s relevant.) There are probably people who actually know these things but unfortunately I’m not one of them …

      It’s highly unlikely that the shape of people’s vocal tracts would render them unable to produce sounds in any given language (aside from things like cleft palates and such of course). However, it seems to be the case that some sounds are pronounced based on acoustic targets rather than articulatory targets. For example, American English /r/ is pronounced with the tongue bunched by some native speakers and as a retroflex by other native speakers.

      This is purely speculative and based on my very hazy memory, but I recall poking around a little bit and reading the description of Chinese retroflexes that the Wikipedia page has–laminal post-alveolar. I learned to pronounce them as sub-apical–just because I figured that was what a retroflex should be pronounced like–and no one has ever complained about (or had problems understanding) that pronunciation. But I wonder if the well-defined alveolar ridge might play into my pronunciation of choice? I also wonder if there might be some variation amongst native speakers? (Just how acoustically distinct is the choice between different types of retroflex sibilants?) I think the descriptions that I’ve read are based on three or so native speakers in a Ladefoged and Maddieson book, but unfortunately I don’t have that book handy. Again, I suppose somebody knows the answer to at least some of these questions …

  9. Sima says:


    I’m very doubtful that we’d find a clear difference along regional or racial lines. I asked the dentist about this – she looks a fair few mouths – and she didn’t think there was anything particularly unusual about either mine or Anonymous’s. That said, discussion of these things was incredibly difficult – the terminology used by doctors and dentists seems to be significantly different from the terms we’re using. After discussing things on the telephone, when I went in to have my mould done and to look at the others, we’d certainly not understood each other fully. All I can say for sure at the moment is that some East Asians and some caucasians fall in each category.

    As for your mention of Chinese retroflexes, you’ve anticipated me. I’m interested to hear you also stumbled into the sub-apical articulation. I have a series of posts on this very issue lined up and look forward to hearing what you make of them.

  10. Hugh Grigg says:

    I feel like mine is extremely defined, like it just abruptly goes from horizontal to vertical.

    Interesting stuff. I’m looking forward to you going on and relating this to learning to speak Chinese!

    • Sima says:

      Thanks, Hugh. I have a couple more posts lined up on retroflexes and there might be some kind of connection! I hope to get the next one up in a day or two.

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