Retracted tongue root

Advanced and retracted tongue root

In phonetics, advanced tongue root and retracted tongue root, abbreviated ±ATR, are contrasting states of the root of the tongue during the pronunciation of vowels in some languages, especially in West Africa. It has in the past been suggested that this may also be the basis of the distinction of tense and lax vowels in European languages such as German, but this no longer seems tenable.

Advanced tongue root

Advanced tongue root, abbreviated ATR or +ATR, also called expanded, involves the expansion of the pharyngeal cavity by moving the base of the tongue forward — and often lowering the larynx — during the pronunciation of a vowel. The lowering of the larynx sometimes adds a breathy quality to the vowel.

The International Phonetic Alphabet represents ATR with a "left tack" diacritic, [  ̘].

In languages where they occur, advanced-tongue-root vowels very often contrast with retracted tongue root (RTR) vowels in a system of vowel harmony. This occurs commonly in large parts of West Africa.

ATR vowels involve a certain tension in the tongue, and often in the lips and jaw as well; the ear can often perceive this tension as a "brightness" (narrow formants) compared to RTR vowels. Nonetheless, phoneticians do not refer to ATR vowels as tense vowels, since the word tense already has several meanings in European phonetics.

Retracted tongue root

Retracted tongue root, abbreviated RTR or −ATR, is either

  1. the neutral position of the tongue during the pronunciation of a vowel, contrasting with advanced tongue root, or
  2. the retraction of the base of the tongue in the pharynx during the pronunciation of a vowel, the opposite articulation of advanced tongue root. In this case it is in effect partial pharyngealization, although it may also contrast with full pharyngealization.

The diacritic for RTR in the International Phonetic Alphabet is the right tack, [  ̙].

RTR vowels are often called "lax", but this is not consistent between languages or even between vowels in the same language.

Tongue root and vowel harmony

As mentioned above, many African languages, such as Maasai, have systems of vowel harmony based on tongue root. This is illustrated here with the Fante dialect of Akan, which has fifteen vowels: five +ATR vowels, five −ATR vowels, and five nasal vowels.

Fante ±ATR vowels
Approx. European
i /i̘/ [i]
e /e̘/ /i/ [e], [ɪ]
ɛ /e/ [ɛ]
a /a̘/ /a/ [æ], [ɑ]
ɔ /o/ [ɔ]
o /o̘/ /u/ [o], [ʊ]
u /u̘/ [u]

There are two harmonization rules that govern which vowels may co-occur in a word:

  1. All −ATR vowels become +ATR when followed by a peripheral +ATR vowel (). That is, orthographic e ɛ a ɔ o become i e a o u before i u and sometimes before a.
  2. As long as it does not conflict with the previous rule, the +ATR mid vowels become −ATR high vowels when preceded by a −ATR non-high vowel (). (This is not reflected in the orthography, for underlying and surface vowels are both spelled e o.)

In the Twi dialect, the ±ATR distinction has merged in the low vowel, so that /a/ is harmonically neutral, occurring with either set of vowels. In addition, the two vowels written e (/e̘/ and /i/) and o (/o̘/ and /u/) are often not distinguished, being approximately equivalent to European [e] and [o], as reflected in the orthography; for such people the second harmonization rule does not apply.

Tongue root and phonation

With advances in fiber-optic laryngoscopy at the end of the twentieth century, new types of phonation were discovered, which involve more of the larynx than just the glottis. One of the few languages studied thus far, the Togolese language Kabiyé, had a vocalic distinction that was assumed to be one of tongue root. However, it turned out to be a phonation distinction of faucalized voice versus harsh voice.

It is not yet clear whether this is characteristic of ±ATR distinctions in general.


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