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 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 stop [c], but the affricate [t͡ʃ]. Only a few languages in northern Eurasia, the Americas and central Africa contrast palatal stops with postalveolar affricates - as in Hungarian, Czech, Latvian, Macedonian, Slovak, Turkish 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 consonants can be distinguished from palatalized consonants and consonant clusters of a consonant and the palatal approximant [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.
Irish distinguishes the palatal nasal /ɲ/ from the palatalized alveolar nasal /nʲ/. In fact, some conservative Irish dialects have two palatalized alveolar nasals, distinguished as "fortis" (apical and somewhat lengthened) vs. "lenis" (laminal).[example needed]
Spanish marginally distinguishes palatal consonants from sequences of a dental and the palatal approximant:
Sometimes the term palatal is used imprecisely to mean "palatalized". Also, languages that have sequences of consonants and /j/, but no separate palatal or palatalized consonants (e.g. English), will often pronounce the sequence with /j/ as a single palatal or palatalized consonant. This is due to the principle of least effort and is an example of the general phenomenon of coarticulation. (On the other hand, Spanish speakers can be careful to pronounce /nj/ as two separate sounds to avoid possible confusion with /ɲ/.)