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Velar

When it comes to vocal tract anatomy, the velum is probably less familiar to you than the lips, teeth, and tongue. Located at the back of your mouth, the velum allows you to produce both nasal sounds and velar consonants, like velar plosives and fricatives. These are not the easiest sounds to produce—in the case of velar fronting, children sometimes substitute them with simpler sounds—but they are present and meaningful in most of the world's languages.

What is the Meaning of Velar?

When you make sounds like k and g, you can feel the back of your tongue touching the velum.

The velum, also known as the soft palate, is part of the roof of the mouth located behind the hard palate.

Velar, Labeled Diagram of the Velum in the Vocal Tract, StudySmarterFig. 1 - The velum is located behind the hard palate at the back of the mouth.

The velum is responsible for velar consonants in spoken languages.

A velar consonant is a sound that involves a constriction between the body of the tongue and the velum.

The velar consonants in English are [k], [g], and [ŋ] (the ng sound at the end of sing). These symbols represent the velar plosives and velar nasal in the International Phonetic Alphabet (IPA).

Velar Plosives

A plosive is also called an oral stop.

A plosive, or oral stop, is a sound produced by completely cutting off and then abruptly releasing airflow through the vocal tract. Examples of plosives are the sounds [p, t, k, b, d, g].

The velar plosives are the voiceless [k] and voiced [g] sounds. These are also known as velar oral stops.

IPA Symbol

Articulatory Description

Examples in English

k

voiceless velar plosive

crack [kɹæk], cookie [ˈkʊkiː]

g

voiced velar plosive

goat [ɡoʊt], bag [bæɡ]

When you produce a velar plosive, you bring the body of your tongue to your velum and block your nasal cavity with your velum, completely cutting off the airflow from your lungs. Pressure builds up behind this constriction and creates a burst of air when released. If the velar plosive is voiced, the vocal folds are in vibration during the closure.

Velar, Vocal Tract Diagram of Velar Plosive, StudySmarterFig. 2 - During a velar plosive, the body of the tongue touches the velum, cutting off airflow from the lungs.

Velar Fricatives

Velar fricatives are produced in the same place as velar plosives but in a different manner.

A fricative is a sound produced by forcing air through a narrow constriction in the vocal tract. Examples of fricatives include the sounds [f, v, s, z, h].

Unlike velar plosives, velar fricatives are not phonemes in English. In other words, a velar fricative can't set one word apart from another in English. That said, the sound of a velar fricative can sneak into some English expressions. A groan of frustration (think "ugh") often ends with a velar fricative.

IPA Symbol

Articulatory Description

Examples in English

x

voiceless velar fricative

Ach! [ax]

ɣ

voiced velar fricative

Ugh. [ʊɣ]

Velar fricatives are produced with a constriction between the body of the tongue and the velum, just like velar plosives. In a velar fricative, though, the constriction does not completely cut off airflow from the lungs. Instead, it forces air to move quickly through the constriction, creating turbulent noise. If you produce a [k] sound and release it very slowly, you can hear the sound of a voiceless velar fricative.

Even though they're not phonemes in English, velar fricatives are present as phonemes in several other languages. Arabic, for example, makes use of velar fricatives. The voiceless velar fricative [x] is present in words like khabar ['xabar], meaning news. You can hear the voiced velar fricative in the word balagha [ba'laːɣa], which means rhetoric.

Other Velar Sounds

Plosives and fricatives aren't the only consonants that involve the velum. The structure is necessary for producing other consonants and plays a special role in nasal sounds.

Nasal Sounds

The velum allows you to produce nasal consonants (or nasal stops). Nasal stops are like oral stops; they involve a constriction that keeps air from flowing through the mouth. In a nasal stop, though, the velum lowers to allow air to pass through the nose.

The nasal stops encountered in English are [m], [n], and [ŋ].

IPA SymbolArticulatory DescriptionExamples in English
mbilabial nasalmime [maɪm], match [mætʃ]
nalveolar nasalnose [noʊz], sun [sʌn]
ŋvelar nasalsing [sɪŋ], monkey [ˈmʌŋki]

When you produce a velar nasal, your tongue is in the same position as it is for a velar plosive, but your velum itself is lowered. Instead of cutting off the sound, it allows air to continue flowing through your nose.

Have you noticed that when you have a stuffy nose, you can't easily produce sounds like m and n? That's because airflow through the nose is necessary to make these sounds.

Velar, Vocal Tract Diagram of Velar Nasal, StudySmarterFig. 3 - During nasal stops, the velum lowers to allow air to pass through the nasal cavity.

Other Velar Consonants

The velar plosives, velar fricatives, and velar nasal are some of the most common velar consonants, but there are others that appear in many languages. Here is a more complete list of the velar consonants in the International Phonetic Alphabet.

IPA SymbolArticulatory Description
kvoiceless velar plosive
gvoiced velar plosive
ŋvelar nasal
xvoiceless velar fricative
ɣvoiced velar fricative
ɰvelar approximant
ʟvelar lateral approximant
ɠvoiced velar implosive
ʍvoiceless labial velar approximant
wvoiced labial velar approximant

Velar Fronting

As mentioned earlier, while velar plosives are present in most of the world's languages, they're difficult to produce compared to other plosives. This is because sounds at the back of the mouth require more movement and greater changes in air pressure than sounds at the front of the mouth. Try repeating a [b] sound to yourself as rapidly as possible, and then do the same with a [g] sound. You probably can't produce the [g] sound as quickly or as cleanly as the [b] sound!

Children sometimes have trouble producing velar sounds as they learn to speak and replace them with other sounds closer to the front of the mouth. This pattern is called velar fronting.

Velar fronting is a child speech pattern of replacing velar consonants with more frontal consonants.

A child who uses velar fronting may replace the [g] and [k] sounds with [d] or [t]. They may pronounce grapes as drapes or cup as tup. The pattern of velar fronting usually goes away as the child gets older. If the pattern doesn't seem to go away on its own, a speech-language pathologist can help teach the child to produce velar consonants.

Velar - Key takeaways

  • The velum, also known as the soft palate, is part of the roof of the mouth located behind the hard palate.
  • A velar consonant is a sound that involves a constriction between the body of the tongue and the velum.
  • The velar consonants in English are [k], [g], and [ŋ] (the ng sound at the end of sing).
  • In a nasal stop, though, the velum lowers to allow air to pass through the nose.
  • Velar fronting is a child speech pattern of replacing velar consonants with more frontal consonants.

Frequently Asked Questions about Velar

The velum, also known as the soft palate, is part of the roof of the mouth located behind the hard palate. The velum is responsible for velar consonants in spoken languages.

A velar consonant is a sound that involves a constriction between the body of the tongue and the velum. The velar consonants in English are [k], [g], and [ŋ] (the ng sound at the end of sing).

The velar plosives are the voiceless [k] and voiced [g] sounds. These are also known as velar oral stops.

Velar fricatives are produced with a constriction between the body of the tongue and the velum. The constriction does not completely cut off airflow from the lungs. Instead, it forces air to move quickly through the constriction, creating turbulent noise.

Velar fronting is a child speech pattern of replacing velar consonants with more frontal consonants. A child who uses velar fronting may replace the [g] and [k] sounds with [d] or [t]. They may pronounce grapes as drapes or cup as tup.

Final Velar Quiz

Question

What is the velum?

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Answer

The velum, also known as the soft palate, is part of the roof of the mouth located behind the hard palate.

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Question

A velar consonant is a sound that involves a constriction between the _____ and the velum.

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Answer

body of the tongue

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Question

Which of the following are velar consonants in English?

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Answer

m

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Question

The velar plosives are:

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Answer

[k, g]

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Question

What is the articulatory description for the sound [k]?

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Answer

voiceless velar plosive

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Question

What is the articulatory description for the sound [g]?

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Answer

voiced velar plosive

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Question

True or false: the velar fricatives are not phonemes in English.

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Answer

True. Even though they show up in some English expressions, the velar fricatives can't set one word apart from another in English.

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Question

During a velar _____ , air is forced quickly through the constriction at the velum, creating a turbulent noise.

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Answer

fricative

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Question

What kind of velar consonant does this diagram represent?

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Answer

velar plosive

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Question

The velar fricatives are: 

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Answer

[x, ɣ]

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Question

In a nasal stop, the velum _____ to allow air to pass through the nose.

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Answer

lowers

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Question

What kind of velar consonant does this graphic represent?

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Answer

nasal

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Question

What is the articulatory description for the sound [x]?

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Answer

voiceless velar fricative

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What is the articulatory description for the sound [ɣ]?

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Answer

voiced velar fricative

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Question

True or false: all nasal sounds are velar nasals.

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Answer

False. Although the lowering of the velum is part of all nasal sounds, the velar nasal only describes the nasal consonant with a constriction between the body of the tongue and the velum.

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Question

What is the articulatory description for the sound [m]?

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Answer

bilabial nasal

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Question

What is the articulatory description for the sound [ŋ]?

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Answer

velar nasal

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Question

What is velar fronting?

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Answer

Velar fronting is a child speech pattern of replacing velar consonants with more frontal consonants.

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Question

True or false: a child pronouncing cat as tat is an example of velar fronting.

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Answer

True. The velar plosive [k] has been replaced with the alveolar plosive [t]. This is an example of velar fronting.

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Question

True or false: a child pronouncing goat as coat is an example of velar fronting.

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Answer

False. This pronunciation doesn't involve moving the velar consonant [g] to a more frontal place of articulation.

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