Phonetics and Phonology Tutorial and Resources

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Austrian (as opposed to Australian)
Phonetics and phonology tutorial and resources

Please contribute resources ->here<-. Also, remarks on content (and typos, etc.) are welcome!
A section about phonology will follow soon.
Meanwhile, thank you all for your contributions!

Notation convention
Please note that the use of parenthesis indicates the kind of notation:

= phonetic notation: more or less "written as spoken". Often further marks (diacritics) are added to reflect more accurately the sound denoted. Square brackets [] are used.

= phonemic notation: used by most dictionaries. There is no attempt at detailed representations of the sounds because these vary so much from speaker to speaker. Only distinctive sounds are differentiated. For example the /l/ of "leaf" and of "feel" are pronounced very differently ([l] and [ɫ] respectively) but, because they are felt to be the same sound in English, dictionaries tend to use the one symbol /l/ in the transcription. For this reason dictionary transcription is often just an indication of pronunciation. In other languages these two sounds might be meaningful - that is two words differ in meaning based on which is used - and in this case a phonemic transcription for that language would differentiate them. Slashes // are traditionally used for phonemic notation but phonetic square brackets are often found in dictionaries also.

<feel> = graphemical notation: written according to spelling conventions (misspellings included ;-)

Phonetic alphabets

- IPA alphabet (international standard):
Its advantage is that it is standardised internationally; so it is supposed to be universal, IPA sounds are supposed to sound "exactly" the same all over the world. However that's not entirely true in real life as many times IPA is used as a half-way phonemic script, as explained above.
Further examples would be the sound [v], used both in German and French even though in German this sound very often is realised as an approximant [ʋ] while it is a true labiodental fricative in French; or vowel [uː] which is much less rounded (and less back) in English <boot> than in German <gut>: German long [uː] sounds significantly "darker".
An exact, that is a narrow phonetic transcription should mark these differencies by diacritics, but this is rarely done: broad transcriptions are much more common, they're also used in dictionaries - and they suggest more accuracy than they give.
So here you have the problem with IPA: it is highly formalised and very complex in order to be precise, thus it is difficult to learn; and it isn't even consistantly used - you will find that many dictionaries use more or less phonemic notation when using phonetic square brackets []. Further it may be hard work to write something in IPA - and some browsers and other applications do not support all IPA characters (or any, in some cases); only fully Unicode compatible applications will have no problem with it.

- SAMPA alphabet (simplified version):
This is a simplified alphabet (here the German version) which one can easily type on any typewriter - so decoding is no problem here: that is its main advantage.
The problem however is that you still have to learn SAMPA (and different versions for different languages at that); also it is more or less a phonemic alphabet only which allows to write the most important allophones - it is no match for a precise phonetic alphabet like IPA; finally, SAMPA is not as common and broadly known as IPA characters, and a SAMPA transliteration of a French text will be read incorrectly by someone who only knows Bulgarian or English SAMPA.
If you need SAMPA characters for a specific language just google SAMPA + language name and the SAMPA chart for this language most likely will appear as first hit of the page.

- IE alphabet (used exclusively by historical linguists):
Its sole advantage is that it is used in authoritative dictionaries and works of historical linguists: it is the standard alphabet of IE science.
There are quite some problems with this script: encoding (there's not even yet a full IE character list even in Unicode, as far as I know, you need to improvise with diacritics); it is difficult to learn; also this alphabet is more or less a phonemic alphabet - or more precisely, it certainly isn't phonetic; and last but not least in some cases it is quite unclear which sounds are represented with some graphemes.
The most extreme case is the one of IE "laryngeals" of which there may have been up to three: *h1 (neutral) *h2 (a-coloured) *h3 (o-coloured). No one ever managed to pronounce an IE laryngeal of this kind correctly (and most likely no one ever will) because we do not know how they were pronounced, nor do we even know if those three laryngeals even existed.

The vocal tract

Don't worry, there won't be any medical descriptions of the vocal tract: :)
- lips: there exist articulations lip-to-lip and lip-to-teeth
- teeth: involved with sibilants and lip-to-teeth-articulations
- alveoles: the sockets of our teeth, involved in tongue-to-alveoles-articulations
- palatum (hard palate, front part): the hard palate is involved in tongue-to-palate-articulations
- velum (soft palate, back part): same with the soft palate, tongue-to-palate
- tongue: also used as main organ for articulation in trills and flaps
- uvula: is used both for tongue-to-uvula and trills
- pharynx: lies behind the root of our tongue, thus beyond the region where in most languages sounds are produced; however, some languages use pharyngeal sounds
- epiglottis: an elastic membrane just above the glottis; it is only very rarely used to produce sounds
- glottis: used in all languages to produce sounds, but mostly only for voicing (which is produced here) and glottal stops; it is also involved in some more exotic articulations which will be explained below
- nose: is involved with nasal vowels and nasal consonants
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  • Online resources
    IPA = API: International Phonetic Association = Association phonétique internationale - IPA keyboard (and chart), excellent for typing IPA - IPA chart with audio files (QuickTime player needed) - Ladefoged's Course in Phonetics (with audio!) - online resources pages which includes courses to learn hearing and producing exotic sounds


    I. Phonetics

    1. Plosives

    1.1 Pulmonic plosives
    1.1.1/2/3/4 Voicing, Aspiration, Length, Affricates
    1.2/3/4 Ejectives, Implosives, Clicks
    2. Nasals
    3.1 Fricatives I
    3.2 Fricatives II
    4. Laterals and lateral fricatives
    5. Trills and flaps (taps)
    6. Approximants (half-vowels)
    7. Vowels (vowel diagram)

    II. Phonology
    (under construction)
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    1. Plosives

    A plosive is a sound where air-flow is blocked in the vocal tract for a short period of time. A plosive consists of:
    - stop of air-flow (onset, catch): air-flow is blocked; only very weakly audible;
    - occlusion phase (duration of stop): easily audible for those who speak languages with long plosives/geminates;
    - release phase (marked by an explosive sound, thus 'plosives'): important and distinctive in all languages; may or may not include aspiration or voicing (or both); also there may be an absence of a release.

    Or in other words: what we hear of a plosive basically is the explosive sound upon its release; secondary articulations are length, voicing, aspiration and others as explained below.

    No audible release (which you can hear in word-final position of many English accents) removes the most easily audible auditive marker of a plosive: you hear plosives with no audible release mainly by the abrupt stop of the vowel and a rather weak auditive signal denoting the articulation place (that is wether it is p, t or k). If you aren't used to them you may hear them as a glottal stop, or you might not perceive them at all.

    Tips how to produce uncommon sounds:
    - no audible release: in a word that ends on plovise, pronounce the word as you would usually but do not release the stop, that is keep your lips closed, or keep your tongue firmly on the palate
    - voicing: try pronouncing a sequence of vowel-nasal-plosive-vowel: [anda] or similar: this is a phonetic environment where unvoiced plosives may become voiced unconsiously even in languages which do not have voiced plosives phonemically
    - aspiration: try on purpose pressing air through your vocal tract upon release of a stop, this should produce at least an approximation of proper aspiration

    Place of articulation:
    Note that below only "major" places of articulation are given - and that sounds like [t d] oftentimes are used for slightly different places without usage of any diacritics.
    For example, in some languages [t d] are pronounced alveolar but in others dental; or both articulations exist in one language and make for a difference in accent. In India many even pronounce English [t d] as retroflex [ʈ-ɖ] as to their ears English alveolar [t d] sounds more like the retroflex sounds of their native languages rather than their dental plosives.
    So a small difference in place of articulation may be very important indeed, and IPA offers plenty of diacritics to mark them; however, as this is only a tutorial we won't deal with them unless it is necessary (such as with the explanation of English in India).
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    1.1.1 Voicing and VOT
    VOT is defined as the moment when voicing begins (see also Wikipedia): voicing may begin some milliseconds before the release of a stop, or simultanuously with release, or after release.
    Usually voiced consonants are defined as consonants where voicing begins before release: this is called negative VOT. In this case air is already beginning to flow through glottis before release. There are degrees of voicing; Slovene voiced plosives usually are fully voiced while I have the impression that Bosnian-Croatian-Serbian voiced plosives are much less voiced (but still definitely have a negative VOT).
    Unvoiced, unaspirated consonants have a VOT of around about zero: voicing begins simultanuously with release.
    Plosives with a positive VOT are perceived as unvoiced or even aspirated (even if there may be no aspiration = articulation of a voiceless glottal fricative the pause between release and voice onset) depending on one's native language.
    VOT thus is a continuum with no sharp borderlines: the spectrum goes from 'lenis' (fully voiced plosive) to 'fortis' (strongly aspirated plosive), in-between there are weakly voiced plosives, unvoiced (but not aspirated) plosives and varying degrees of aspiration.

    1.1.2 Aspiration
    Aspiration basically means to add an sound to a plosive, that is produce a glottal fricative upon release of a plosive. The degree of aspiration however may vary between languages; here one can again VOT is used to measure this - as voice onset marks the end of pronunciation of . In phonetic transcription occasionally [kʻ] (weak) [kʰ] (strong) and [kʰʰ] (very strong aspiration) is used. VOT of aspirated plosives also varies according to place of articulation - typically VOT is lowest for [p], medium for [t] and highest for [k].
    Wikipedia gives the following VOT's for [p t k] (in this order):
    - Spanish: 5 - 10 - 30 ms
    - Korean "unaspirated": 20 - 25 - 50 ms
    - English: 60 - 70 - 80 ms
    - Korean "aspirated": 90 - 95 - 125 ms
    In German speaking nations aspiration also varies hugely according to region (and class, to a degree).

    1.1.3 Length
    In many languages length is not distinctive with plosives - in those length still may vary according to place of articulation or phonetic context, but usually not even phoneticians bother to write down this differencies in IPA.
    In languages where there is a distinction of length we differentiate:
    - long consonants: those may occur in any phonetic context, even word-initial and word-final; they are defined through a longer duration of the occlusion phase [tːa], [atː], [akstːa] (where [] marks length)
    - geminates: exist only on syllable borders as geminates are defined as long consonants where the syllable border lies within the long (geminate) consonant: [at.ta] (where the dot marks syllable border)
    Some languages only have geminates, others have both but in those usually long consonants are restricted to syllable-initial and syllable-final position.

    Many languages combine vowel and consonant length so that for example long vowels may be followed by short consonants only, and that long consonants or geminates only may occur after short vowels; however, some languages can combine long vowels and long consonants.
    Note that phonetic length of vowels and/or consonants exist independent from the phonology of a language: thus it is perfectly possible that in a specific language both long vowels and long consonants exist but that this language is analysed as only having long vowel phonemes, but no long consonant phonemes, or that long vowels in another language only are allophones of short vowels.

    1.1.4 Affricates (plosives with fricative release)
    IPA provides some symbols for affricates; phonetically they correspond to aspirated plosives, only that instead of aspiration a fricative is articulated. It is possible (if difficult) to produce aspirated affricates; many Caucasian languages have them: in this case release of the plosive is followed by a fricative is followed by aspiration.
    To decide wether such a combination of sounds is a plosive plus fricative (plus aspiration) rather than an affricate depends on the phonology of a language, thus the term affricate by rights could be considered rather a phonemic term than a phonetic one; however phoneticians frequently use it.
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    1.1 Pulmonic plosives (stops) (egressive pulmonic airstream)
    They are produced through obstruction of air-flow as described above; they are defined through place of articulation and optional features: voicing or its absence, length or no differentiation in length, and aspiration or its absence:
    IE CHARACTERS -----p-b--------------ɡʷ------t-d----------------------------------g'-k'----k-ɡ
    SAMPA CHARACTERS---p-b------------------------t-d----------------------------------ty-dy--k-ɡ---q-G--------------------?
    Aspiration: pʰ tʰ cʰ kʰ etc. - no audible release: p̚ t̚ c̚ k̚ etc.
    Air always flows in one direction only: from the lungs through the vocal tract - thus pulmonic (from the lungs) and egressive ('outwards') airstream mechanism.
    Retroflex consonants ʈ ɖ are pronounced with the tip of the tongue 'bent' back: very difficult to do if you don't know it from your mother tongue (which I don't).
    I'm not sure if I ever managed to pronounce an epiglottal plosive - but if you listen to it (see IPA sound chart above) I think that at least the epiglottal fricative (and possibly the plosive too) is produced occassionally by children when trying to frighten away someone - or when playing monsters or the like.
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    1.2 Ejectives (egressive glottal airstream)
    Ejectives are marked in IPA by [’] - the most common ejectives are voiceless plosives [p’ t’ k’] but ejective fricatives [s’] are possible.
    Ejective plosives are defined as a plosive with simultanuous stop at the glottis (= closed vocal folds) where during occlusion glottis is moving upwards, thus air is compressed in the cave between glottis and place of articulation; upon release this pressure produces a very distinctive explosive sound which sounds more emphatic than normal plosives.

    It is quite difficult to produce this sound: try to produce a very "intense" plosive, and put a finger or two on your neck, right on top of your larynx: your voicebox should move slightly upwards during pronunciation. If you manage to do that, and produce a "popping" sound, you've got it.
    Ejectives aren't aspirated plosives - or not intrinsically at least as it is possible to also aspirate ejectives: so try not to aspirate.
    They are not very common in the world's languages but many languages spoken in the Caucasus have them, and historically they were used for emphatic consonants in Arabic. Also, some speakers produce them in free variation with "ordinary" plosives without being aware of it.

    1.3 Implosives (ingressive glottal airstream)
    For implosives there's set of special characters [ɓ ɗ ʄ ɠ ʛ] in IPA.
    They are defined as voiced plosives where during occlusion the larynx is moving downwards, with vocal folds vibrating (as is the case when voicing is involved): thus in the cavity between larynx and articulation place negative pressure is building which results in air streaming through the vocal folds with much more intensity than would be the case with "ordinary" voiced plosives.

    You should find it relatively easy to produce them if you know how to produce a decent voiced plosive: try nonsense syllables like [amba] (with nasal before the plosive) and try to emphasise voicing as much as you can while you try to hold the occlusion as long as possible. Again, put two fingers on your voicebox so that you feel when it is finally going downwards during pronunciation.
    A syllable like [ba] also would suffice: just do the same, try and hold the voiced plosive as long as you can.
    You will perceive implosives as "strongly voiced" plosives, or "emphatically voiced" plosives.
    Implosives aren't too common but neither are they rare; they're used in plenty of African and Asian languages (Indoeuropean ones amongst them).

    1.4 Clicks (ingressive velar airstream)
    Here's the IPA set of clicks: [ʘ ǀ ǃ ǂ ǁ] - in theory, even more click sounds are possible.
    Clicks are produced by the tongue as sole articulation organ, or by tongue and lips combined - the vocal folds are not involved at all. (In theory there could be simultanuous articulation of a click and a nasal.)
    To produce a click three steps are necessary:
    - form two occlusions: either the tongue blocks the mouthcave both at the velum (soft palate) and the palatum (hard palate), and in-between a small cavity is formed, or tongue and lips form those two occlusions;
    - make that cavity bigger to build up negative pressure: this usually is done by movements of the tongue;
    - release either occlusion (or both simultanuously): as soon as you do this air will rush into the space with negative pressure, an explosive sound is created in the process.

    Clicks are very easy to pronounce, I'm sure most of you use them at least occasionally - but only isolated, as interjections: a bilabial click ʘ may be used to send a person a kiss at a distance, a dental click ǀ may be used to express displeasure, a lateral click ǁ may signify that you're clueless etc. (those are some I know, they might not be limited to [Austrian] "German" only ;-).
    However, only a very few languages use clicks as phonemes - noticeably Khoisan languages and their neighbours (who might have loaned the phonemes from them) in Southern Africa.

    These three sound groups are the only ones used in human language which do not employ egressive pulmonal airstream mechanism: ejectives use egressive glottal mechanism (air is pressed into the mouth cavity by upwards moving glottis), implosives use ingressive glottal mechanism (air is sucked into the mouth cavity by downwards moving glottis), and clicks use ingressive velar mechanism (air is sucked into a cavity formed by tongue or tongue/lip occlusion).
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    2. Nasals
    Nasals are defined by an occlusion of the vocal tract and lax soft palate (velum) which allows air to stream through the nasal cavity.
    In IE notation only two nasals /m n/ are written, /ŋ/ traditionally is not considered being a phoneme of IE protolanguage. SAMPA may use capital letters for more exotic nasals.

    There's nothing exotic about nasals except for the more exotic places of articulation like uvular nasals.
    As well as laterals and trills nasals may be syllabic, that is they may form the peak of a syllable.
    Syllabic nasals are represented by [ m̩ n̩ ŋ̩ ] in IPA and by / m̥ n̥ / in IE characters (which is a little bit misleading as the circle below a letter would signify "voiceless" in IPA).
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    3. Fricatives
    Fricatives are defined as sounds where the vocal tract is not blocked (like is the case with plosives) but where a small channel between two (or more) articulation organ stays open; air is streaming through this channel and producing a fricatve sound.
    Contrary to approximants this channel is too small for air to flow free, turbulences are building - which make for the typical sound.
    Fricatives are further defined through voicing or its absence and other secondary articulations: palatalisation, velarisation, pharyngealisation, etc. (which also are possible secondary articulations for plosives); here we focus on primary articulations.

    Supposedly there was only one fricative in Proto-IE /s/; all other IE fricatives evolved from plosives: this is the classical interpretation, based mainly on Aryan phonemic systems.
    Also there were probably three laryngals /h1 h2 h3/ (see above; h1 = neutral, h2 = a-coloured, h3 = o-coloured), this is based mainly on Hittite (where supposedly there were two laryngals - but even this is shaky as Hittite spelling was vastly irregular, and of course we only have indirect means of finding out how Hittite /h/ and /hh/ might have sounded).

    In SAMPA there are some symbols which are more or less consistent even for different languages, like:
    There are however noticeable exceptions.
    Take Arabic: <ظ> "za" (Unicode 1592) is represented in SAMPA as /D'/ which is (in standard MSA) [ðˤ] (pharyngealized, an emphatic consonant) - which explains SAMPA representation /D'/. However, in more colloquial speech this sound is pronounced [zˤ], which still is represented by /D'/ in SAMPA. So SAMPA might be quite confusing for learners of a language: it is clearly not an "international" notation system nor is it phonetical, but it is rather a phonological script adapted for specific languages - as said above, there are SAMPA "alphabets" for different languages which differ ever so slightly (or not so slightly) in representation of sounds.
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    Some sounds which you may find exotic:
    [ɸ β] bilabial: sound like frail counterparts of labiodental [f v]

    [ʍ] labio-velar (voiceless fricative): an unvoiced approximant [w] whith fricative sound (so, only a very narrow channel open for air to flow through)

    -ð] dental: same symbol but different sounds in English (slightly interdental or dental) and Spanish (very pronounced interdental articulation)

    -ʒ] palato-alveolar: vary significantly in pronunciation (and usually they aren't marked by diacritics): they are pronounced with additional rounding in some languages; also the "dent" in the tongue tip (which rests on the lower teeth, and which is typical for these sounds) is slightly less pronounced in some languages which results in a "less voluminous" sound; oftentimes there's also significant diversity within the speakers of a speech community

    -ʑ] alveolo-palatal: with these sounds, contrary to [ʃ-ʒ], there's no "dent" in the tongue tip but the tongue forms a small channel from hard palate to alveoles to direct air over the teeths tips which causes a high-frequency fricative sound sounding "less voluminous" than [ʃ-ʒ]

    [ʝ] palatal: is just a [j] with such a narrow passage left for air to flow through that a fricative sound is produced; same with [ç] only that you leave out voicing

    [x-ɣ] velar: both are quite common sounds but very difficult to pronounce for most English and Romance languages native speakers; to produce them, do not quite block the vocal tract at velar position (try a [g] and then try relaxing your tongue), and press air through: it can't be that difficult :) - same thing with [x], only unvoiced, and [χ], only on uvular position

    -ʕ] pharyngeal: sounds like a deep roar; you need to form a small channel in your pharynx which requires some effort; not so difficult to produce isolated but difficult to use in words

    -ʢ] epiglottal: see glottal plosives; a very exotic sound about which I know almost nothing

    [ɦ] voiced glottal fricative: an where however vocal folds are vibrating; sounds like a frail ; and as some languages don't have an : that sound is produced with glottis half-open, so the focal folds are not vibrating but the passage left free for air to flow is small enough to produce fricative sound
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    4. Laterals and lateral fricatives
    Laterals are sounds where air is allowed to flow around either (unilateral) or both sides (bilateral) of the tongue freely, without any fricative sounds (= laterals proper), or with added fricative sound due to a very narrow passage (= lateral fricatives).

    Most languages have an [l] where the tip of the tongue rests behind the upper teeth on the alveoles.
    For [ʎ] put the tip of the tongue behind your front teeth which will automatically move up the mid-section of your tongue to the palatum, and for retroflex [ɭ] the tip of the tongue is bent back and resting on the palate.
    In order to pronounce velar [ʟ] try pronouncing the consonant cluster [-gl-] without moving the tongue: if you manage to do so then [ʟ] should come naturally.

    All laterals may be pronounced as lateral release of preceding plosive; that is, clusters [-gl- -ɖɭ- ɟʎ- -gl-] (and its voiceless equivalents) may be a sequence of sounds as follows:
    - stop of air-flow; [= onset of plosive]
    - occlusion phase; [= duration of plosive]
    - lateral release: [= lateral]
    that is, instead of releasing the plosive and forming the lateral only after release lateral release is replacing the release phase of the plosive.
    Such lateral releases are much more common than you'd think, they probably exists in most languages which allow those clusters at all.

    Lateral fricatives [ɬ] (voiceless) [ɮ] (voiced) are rather easy to pronounce: just make sure that the passage for lateral air-flow is narrow enough to produce friction. The difficulty is producing them in a way which is socially agreeable.
    I suggest you practice in front of a mirror, and that you don't try lateral fricatives in public before you manage to pronounce them without drops staining the mirror.
    They're quite rare in natural languages - they exist in Mongolian, Navajo, Welsh, Dravidian, Caucasian, Kushitic and a few other language(s) (groups).

    As well as nasals (and trills) laterals may be syllabic. In IPA [ l̩ ] is used; in IE notation the same diacritic symbol as for nasals, that is [ l̥ ]. IE notation only uses [l] (syllabic and non-syllabic); in SAMPA capital letters, double consonants or clusters are used to denote the more exotic laterals.
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    5. Trills and flaps (taps)
    Trills are quite similar to laterals (no fricative sound) but are defined through a moving part of an articulation organ - which could be the tip of the tongue or the uvula.

    Trills also may be syllabic - again IPA uses [ r̩ ], IE notation [ r̥ ]. And again, IE notation only uses [r] and its syllabic counterpart, and in SAMPA capital letters may be used.

    Bilabial trill only is used in a few native South American and African languages, and in New Guinea (and probably some others); babies all over the world however discover this sound [ʙ] quite early in their language acquisition (and forget them later, as well as clicks which also some babies love to reproduce in their early stages of speech).

    Alveolar and uvular trills are fairly common but still difficult to pronounce for those who aren't used to them; to learn either try pronouncing clusters like [-dr-] and [-gʀ-] where upon release you should try to trill tongue resp. uvula. After some practice you should manage to do so without the assistance of coarticulated [d g].

    A flap (tap) is an alveolar trill where the tongue only flips once toward the alveoles; it is the sound you hear frequently in English (especially American English) - in words like "better" [beɾə]: so here it is not an [r] which turned into a flap. A bilabial flap is theoretically possible, and indeed used in one natural language according to Wiki.
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    6. Approximants (half-vowels)
    Approximants are phonetically the same as vowels, only that they're defined as (1) being non-syllabic (which may be the case for vowels too) and (2) being produced with a channel left for air to flow through as narrow as possible but without producing fricative sound.
    So in theory approximants are just maximally closed vowels which are always non-syllabic - and could be subsumed under vowels, if one would choose to do so. I've thus added the vowels corresponding to them:
    [ʉ] is not quite the equivalent of [ɹ] but it is the closest you get; and labiodental approximant [ʋ] (by the way, a sound much more common than you'd think, very frequently used e. g. in German) has no direct equivalent in any vowel (except if you'd like to think of it as a "de-velarised" [w]).

    ɹ] is difficult to pronounce for those who don't have it in their mother tongue; try to put the tip of your tongue close to hard palate and alveoles, your tongue should be curved concave (that is, it should form "a hill" rather than "a vale", I too always mix up concave and convex).
    Also rounded front approximant [
    ɥ] and unrounded back approximant [ɰ] may prove difficult if you don't know them from your native, but for rounding see below - vocals.
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    7. Vowels

    7.1 Vowel diagram (vowel trapezia)
    blue vowels
    = tense vowels = 'strong vowels', 'full vowels'
    red vowels = lax vowels = 'weak vowels', 'schwa vowels'
    Vowels are defined by the position of tongue (close/open and front/mid/back) and by rounding.


    The left vowels of the pairs above are unrounded, the right ones rounded; of isolate vowels, [ə ɐ æ] are unrounded and [ʊ] is rounded.
    Front vowels are intrinsically unrounded while back vowels are intrinsically rounded - this has anatomical reasons. So the most unmarked vowel system would be [i (e) a (o) u] with only back rounded vowels. Rounding is produced by rounding of the lips; alternatively, rounding of the tongue (that is, concave back of the tongue, forming a "hill" rather than a vale) results in a very similar sound and is used for central (mid) rounded vowels. Both lip and tongue rounding may be combined.

    Note that vowels are the most elusive sounds of all - our tongue is surely capable of producing way beyond a hundred sounds which could be distinguished by people with good phonetic hearing capabilities, and even novices in phonetics should be able to more or less differentiate 50 or more vowels.*) However, IPA only offers 28 basic vowels: so we don't have nearly enough vowel symbols; to mark different "versions" of e. g. /e/ therefore diacritics are necessary (see IPA chart list).
    *) To elaborate: many languages differentiate up to 15 or more vowels phonemically; English (BE, RP) has 12 monophtongs with different quality - but native speakers still are able to differentiate different accents and dialects (British, American, Scots, Australian, etc., plus upper class vs. working class or regional dialects). Of course not only vowels mark accents but in English vowels are quite important; I guess that an average English native speaker should be able to differentiate at least 50 vowels (monophtongs), if only intuitively.

    Tense vowels are "full" vowels = articulated relatively sonorous (with tongue being held tense) compared to less sonorous lax vowels (where the tongue is relaxed) - so this is a feature defined only in comparision with another sound. Some languages have two sets of vowels, a tense one in strong and/or stressed position and a lax one for weak and/or unstressed position (Russian), or a tense set for long vowels and a lax one for short vowels (English, German), other language do not distinguish here (Austrian German, Spanish, Italian).

    Please note that phonetically speaking there is no sharp division between vowels, the vowel diagram shows a gradual continuum where in theory a thousand different vowels are possible. Also there are secondary articulations marked by diacritics (see IPA chart, we will focus on basics here).

    Length is written with "triangular colon" [aː] while in IE notation macron /ā/ is used (which again is misleading as IPA uses macron for the tones which you find in some East Asian and African languages).
    In IE notation ordinary vowel symbols /i e a o u/ are used (it is still disputed how many vowels Proto-IE had), and for IE notation of modern languages oftentimes individual language symbols are used - that is, even German /ü ä ö/, or Slavic /č š ž/ etc., which might be confusing and misleading.
    In SAMPA the vowels usually are represented with (front) /i e E a/ (front-rounded) /y 2 9/ (back) /u o O A/ and /:/ for length; those strange symbols for rounded ones go back to French: /2/ = <deux> and /9/ = <neuf>. But many special symbols for more exotic sounds make it difficult at times to read SAMPA vowels.
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    At this site, run by Háskoli Íslands (The University of Iceland) there is a set of 2 courses, Phonetics I and Phonetics II. The first one is an introduction to phonetics and a great way to get into the topic if you are new with plenty of examples. The second course deals with prosody and has information on how to analyse prosody with programs such as Praat. It is taken from the lecturers course and the links are provided for other people who wish to follow that course too. The lecturer is a native English speaker and a renound linguist. I found this very useful.
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