Palatal consonants are consonants articulated with the body of the tongue raised against the hard palate (the middle part of the roof of the mouth). Consonants with the tip of the tongue curled back against the palate are called retroflex.
The most common type of palatal consonant is the extremely common approximant [j], which ranks as overall, among the ten most common sounds in the world's languages. The nasal [ɲ] is also common, occurring in around 35 percent of the world's languages, in most of which its equivalent obstruent is not the plosive [c], but the affricate [tʃ]. Only a few languages in northern Eurasia, the Americas and central Africa contrast palatal plosives with postalveolar affricates - as in Hungarian, Czech, Slovak and Albanian.
Consonants with other primary articulations may be palatalized, that is, accompanied by the raising of the tongue surface towards the hard palate. For example, English [ʃ] (spelled sh) has such a palatal component, although its primary articulation involves the tip of the tongue and the upper gum (this type of articulation is called palatoalveolar).
In phonology, alveolo-palatal, palatoalveolar and palatovelar consonants are commonly grouped as palatals, since these categories rarely contrast with true palatals. Sometimes palatalized alveolars or dentals can be analyzed in this manner as well.
Palatal vs. palatalized vs. sequences with /j/
It is important to distinguish between true palatal consonants, palatalized consonants, and sequences of a consonant and a /j/. Palatal consonants have their primary articulation toward or in contact with the hard palate, whereas palatalized consonants have a primary articulation in some other area and a secondary articulation involving movement towards the hard palate. Palatal and palatalized consonants are both single phonemes, whereas a sequence of a consonant and /j/ is logically two phonemes.
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