Skip to main content
Social Sci LibreTexts

3.4: English Consonants

  • Page ID
    7014
  • [ "article:topic" ]

    We have seen how the vowels of languages can be described in terms of values on a small number of dimensions, or equivalently, features. In this section we will see that the same holds true for consonants. Languages vary a great deal with respect to how many vowel and consonant phonemes they have, but all languages seem to have more consonants than vowel phonemes. Not surprisingly, more consonant dimensions than vowel dimensions are contrastive for languages. We'll first look at the dimensions and the values on those dimensions that are relevant for English. In the next section, we'll see how the consonants of some other languages differ from those of English.

    Stops

    Exercise \(\PageIndex{1}\)

    With your tongue touching your upper teeth, pronounce a syllable like dah. Then do the same thing with the tip of your tongue touching a position a little further back. Continue moving your tongue back a little at a time, and see how many distinguishable consonants you can produce, some like English, some not. Now try the same thing with the body of your tongue (you can put the tip of your tongue behind your lower teeth to keep it out of the way). The furthest forward you can put it is probably close to the position for the consonant at the beginning of the word church.

    Let's start with the simple consonants that the speaking Lexies developed. Recall that these are produced with a complete closure of the vocal tract, blocking the passage of air. Consonants made by completely closing the vocal tract are called stops. As we discussed informally, different consonants can be produced by varying the place where the closure occurs. This consonant dimension is known asplace of articulation; we will see later that the place of articulation is also relevant when there isn't a complete closure of the vocal tract. In one sense place of articulation is really six different dimensions because it involves the independent movement of six separate parts of the vocal tract. Each of these structures is called an articulator. The articulators relevant for place of articulation are the lips, the tongue tip, the tongue body, the tongue root, the pharynx (the region behind and below the oral cavity), and the glottis (the gap between the vocal cords). Each of these, except the glottis, is indicated in this figure from the last section.

    You Get Different Stops by Making the Contact at Different Places in the Vocal Tract.

    Each language makes of use of several places of articulation, usually between three and six, to distinguish its consonant phonemes. In this section, we'll only consider those places that are relevant for English.

    There are two possible places of articulation involving the lips as articulators. For bilabial place of articulation, the lips are brought together (or for non-stops, as we'll see later, close together). The first and last consonants in the word bib are bilabial stops. The symbol for this consonant is /b/, so the pronunciation of bib is written /bɪb/. A further possible position of the lips is contact between the lips and upper teeth; this is not used for English stops, though it used for other English consonants. It is discussed below.

    With one part or another of the tongue as articulator, there is a continuous range of possible places for contact with the roof of the mouth, beginning with the upper teeth and extending back to the uvula at the back of the mouth. All languages apparently make use of at least two positions within this range. For English stops, two positions are relevant. One of these is contact between the tip of the tongue and the ridge that is just behind the upper teeth, the alveolar ridge. This is referred to as alveolar place of articulation. It is a feature of the first and last consonants in the word did. The symbol for these stops is /d/, so the pronunciation of the word did is written /dɪd/. The configuration of the vocal tract for the pronunciation of /d/ is shown in the figure below.

    d.gif

    There is a further possibility for contact between the tongue and the roof of the mouth that is used in most languages. The back of the tongue body contacts the region near the back of the roof of the mouth, near the structure called the velum, which I'll have more to say about below. This is called velar place of articulation. It is a feature of the first and last consonants in the word gag. the symbol for these stops is /g/, so the pronunciation of gag is written /gæg/. The position of the vocal tract for the pronunciation of /g/ is shown in the figure below.

    g.gif

    So English distinguishes the stops /b, d, g/ along the dimension of place of articulation. Other places of articulation are utilized for other English consonants that are not stops and for consonants in other languages.

    Now notice what these three stops share. Like all stops, they are produced with complete contact between the articulators. In addition, all of them are accompanied by voicing, that is, vibration of the vocal cords, during the contact. Thus when they appear at the beginning of a word, the voicing starts before the contact is released (and continues through the following vowel), and when they appear at the end of a word, the voicing continues after the contact is made. (Note that the voicing can't start too much before the beginning of a word like bib or stop too much after the end of a word like bib because the air being passed through the vocal cords can't escape, and pressure builds up quickly behind the point of contact, preventing more air from being expelled from the lungs. You can verify this for yourself by trying to pronounce a long /b/, /d/, or /g/ sound without releasing the contact between the articulators.)

    You Get Different Stops by Varying When You Start or Stop Voicing.

    But this is not the only possibility for how the voicing and the beginning and end of the contact can be timed. When the stop consonant comes at the beginning of the word, we get a different effect when the voicing begin after the release of the contact; listen to the difference between the words bay and pay. Similarly at the end of the word, the effect is different if the voicing ends before the contact or roughly at the same time as the contact; compare add and at. The dimension that distinguishes these pairs of words from each other is called voicing. For the moment we will consider only two values for this dimension — voiced and voiceless — but, as we will see later, voicing is actually more complicated than this.

    Just as English has voiced stops at the bilabial, alveolar, and velar places of articulation, it also has voiceless stops at these places. The voiceless bilabial stop is illustrated at the beginning and end of the word pep. It is symbolized with /p/, so the pronunciation of pep is written /pεp/. The voiceless alveolar stop is illustrated at the beginning and end of the word tot. It is symbolized with /t/, so the pronunciation of tot is written /tαt/. The voiceless velar stop is illustrated at the beginning and end of the word kick. It is symbolized with /k/, so the pronunciation of kick is written /kɪk/. There is also a voiceless stop with its place of articulation at the glottis; this is referred to as glottal place of articulation. For a glottal stop, the vocal cords are brought together, blocking the airstream as for other stops, and then released suddenly. The glottal stop may appear at the beginning of English words that begin with a vowel, and it appears in the middle of the word uh-oh. It is not normally considered an English phoneme, however, because it is not used to create new English words or to distinguish English words from one another. The symbol for a glottal stop in this book is /ʔ/ (the IPA symbol is like a question mark with no dot at the bottom), so the pronunciation of uh-oh is written /ʔ^ʔo/.

    Fricatives and Affricates

    Exercise \(\PageIndex{2}\)

    Produce the syllables /ba/, /da/, /ga/. Now do the same thing but instead of making a complete closure for the stops at the beginnings of the syllables, leave a little gap between the articulators, and see what consonants result. Do the same thing for /pa/, /ta/, /ka/. (Note that the resulting consonants should sound like English only for /da/ and /ta/.)

    So far all of the consonants we have looked at have involved a complete closure of the vocal tract, blocking air from passing out. But this is not the only way to make consonants. In fact we need a new dimension for the various possibilities (really a whole cluster of dimensions); this is called manner of articulation. One crucial variable within manner of articulation is the distance between the articulators. For stops, the closure is complete, but there are two further possibilities. One, discussed in this subsection, involves a narrow, but not complete, closure that allows air to pass through the aperture but with accompanying noise. The other, discussed in the next subsection, involves an opening that is wide enough for the air to pass through unimpeded.

    Stops and Fricatives are Different Manners of Articulation.

    Consider what happens when you bite your lower lip with your upper teeth and then blow air out. Unless you're biting too hard, some of the air can pass between your teeth and lip, creating a sound like that at the beginning and end of the word fife. A phone made like this, with an incomplete or approximate closure that permits air to pass through and produces a noisy sound due to the resulting turbulence, is called a fricative. The fricative at the beginning and end of the word fife is voiceless because the fricative sound is not accompanied by voicing. That is, the voicing starts after the vocal tract is opened up for the vowel and stops just before the closure made again at the end of the word. The place of articulation for this consonant is one we didn't encounter for English stops; it is the second of the possible places associated with the lips (in addition to bilabial place of articulation). It is called labiodental place of articulation. The symbol for the voiceless labiodental fricative is /f/, so the pronunciation of the word fife is written /fayf/. English also has a phoneme that is the same as /f/, but voiced. This is the sound at the beginning and end of the word verve. It is symbolized by /v/, so the pronunciation of verve is written /vərv/.

    English has a pair of fricatives at another place of articulation where there are no English stops. Try putting your tongue between your teeth or against the back of your upper teeth and then expelling air from your mouth. Again if the contact is not too tight, some air should pass between your tongue and your teeth, generating turbulence that results in the consonant that appears at the beginning of the wordthing and at the end of the word both. The place of articulation for this consonant is called dental place of articulation. The symbol for the voiceless dental fricative is /θ/, so the pronunciation of the word bothis written /boθ/. English also has the corresponding voiced phoneme; it is the initial consonant in the word this and the final consonant in the word bathe. It is symbolized by /ð/ in this book, so the pronunciation of bathe is written /beð/.

    Although English has no bilabial fricatives, it does have alveolar fricatives. When the tongue is allowed to approach but not quite come in contact with the alveolar ridge, we get the consonants in the word sauce if it is not accompanied by voice and the consonants in the word zoos if it is accompanied by voice. The symbols for these alveolar fricatives are /s/ and /z/, so the pronunciation of sauce is written /s⊃s/, and the pronunciation of zoos is written /zuz/.

    Most English Fricatives are Produced at Different Places of Articulation than English Stops.

    Somewhat behind the alveolar ridge, it is possible to bring part of the body of the tongue near the roof of the mouth and produce voiceless and voiced fricatives that are distinguishable from /s/ and /z/. The voiceless fricative appears at the beginning and end of the word shush. It is symbolized by /š/, so the pronunciation of shush is written /š^š/. The voiced fricative at this place of articulation is a somewhat marginal phoneme in English, and it does not normally appear at the beginnings of words. It is the consonant in the middle of the word Asia. The symbol for this consonant in this book is /ž/ (somewhat like the IPA symbol), so the pronunciation of Asia is written /ežə/. /š/ and /ž/ are produced at what is called the postalveolar place of articulation.

    English does not have velar fricatives, but it does have a voiceless glottal fricative, produced by making the glottis narrow enough for a breathy sound to be created. This is the consonant at the beginning of the word hot; this phoneme does not occur at the end of English words. It is symbolized by /h/, so the pronunciation of hot is written /hαt/

    We have seen that stops involve complete closure, and fricatives involve approximate closure. It is also possible to combine these two by beginning with a complete (stop) closure and ending with an approximate (fricative) closure. Such phones are called affricates. English has two of them, voiced and voiceless affricates produced at the postalveolar place of articulation. The voiceless postalveolar affricate is the first and last consonant in the word church; it is symbolized by /č/ in this book, so the pronunciation of church is written /čərč/. The voiced postalveolar affricate is the first and last consonant in the word judge; it is symbolized by /ǰ/ in this book, so the pronunciation of judge is written /ǰ^ǰ/. Notice how /c/ is similar to a /t/ followed by a /š/ and how /j/ is similar to a /d/ followed by a /ž/; in fact, an alternate way to write these affricates is /ʧ/ and /ʤ/.

    Sonorants

    Exercise \(\PageIndex{3}\)

    Produce the syllables /ba/, /da/, /ga/. Now do the same thing but instead of making a complete closure for the stops at the beginnings of the syllables, leave a little gap between the articulators, and see what consonants result. Do the same thing for /pa/, /ta/, /ka/. (Note that the resulting consonants should sound like English only for /da/ and /ta/.)

    Pronounce the syllable /ba/ while holding your nose. Now try the same thing, replacing the /b/ with an "m" sound (as in mama). What can you conclude about the difference between /b/ and the sound of "m"? The the same thing with /d/ and the sound of "n". Also try to pronounce the word sing while holding your nose, and notice what happens to the final consonant (written with the letter combination "ng").

    English Nasal and Lateral Consonants Have a Complete Stop-like Contact in One Place, But the Air Escapes Somewhere Else.

    One way to produce a sonorant consonant is to completely close theoral cavity, just as for a stop, but to open up the nasal cavity, the empty region behind the nostrils and above the oral cavity. This is achieved by lowering the velum, the flap at the back of the roof of the mouth. The nasal cavity and velum are shown in the figure below, in which the vocal tract is configured for the production of the sound at the beginning and end of the word mom. Such phones are callednasal consonants (as we will see later on, there are also nasal vowels). For nasal consonants, the air is allowed to pass through the nasal cavity, but it also resonates in the oral cavity, and the place of articulation (within the oral cavity) distinguishes different nasal consonants from one another. English has three nasal consonant phonemes, at the bilabial, alveolar, and velar places of articulation. The bilabial nasal is the one at the beginning and end of the word mom; it is symbolized by /m/, so the pronunciation of mom is written /mαm/. The alveolar nasal is the one at the beginning and end of the word none; it is symbolized by /n/, so the pronunciation of none is written /n^n/. The velar nasal is the one at the end of the word sing(this phoneme does not appear at the beginning of words in English); it is symbolized in this book by /ŋ/, which is close to the IPA symbol, so the pronunciation of sing is written /sɪŋ/.

    m.gif

    The other way to produce a sonorant is to leave an opening in the oral cavity that is wide enough so that there is none of the noise that characterizes fricatives. These consonsants are calledapproximants because the approach of the articulators is only approximate. One way to achieve this is to make a complete contact as for a stop consonant but release the air at one or both sides of the tongue. Such a sound is called a lateral approximant. English has one lateral approximant phoneme, with the contact at the alveolar place of articulation. This is the sound at the beginning and end of the word lull; it is symbolized with /l/, so the pronunciation of the word lullis written /lʌl/.

    A further possibility is for no closure of the oral cavity at all. English has three such consonants. One is produced with the tip of the tongue curled somewhat back and approaching the roof of the mouth behind the alveolar ridge. This is the sound at the beginning and end of the word rear (as pronounced by most North Americans). I will use the symbol /r/ for this consonant (though the more precise IPA symbol is [ɹ]; [r] is often used for an alveolar trill or tap, described in the next section). Sounds produced with the tongue curved in this way are called retroflex; we can treat this as a particular place of articulation (though not everyone does).

    The two other approximants are produced similarly to high vowels, except that the articulators are usually not brought as close together as they would be for vowels. One of these consonants approaches the vowels /u/ and /ʊ/. It is the consonant found at the beginning of the word we and is symbolized by /w/, so the pronunciation of we is written /wi/. Note that this phoneme has two simultaneous places of articulation: velar, because the back of the tongue approaches the velar region, just as for /u/, and bilabial, because the lips are rounded and brought close together, as for /u/. The other English approximant resembles the vowels /i/ and /ɪ/. It is the consonant found at the beginning of the word you and is symbolized by /y/, so the pronunciation of you is written /yu/. (Note that in IPA, this consonant is symbolized by /j/.) The place of articulation for this consonant is one we haven't seen yet for any consonants; as for the vowel /i/, the middle of the tongue approaches the region in the middle of the roof of the mouth. This is referred to as the palatal place of articulation.

    It should be clear by now that the distinction between vowels and consonants is really a matter of degree. The consonants that are the least vowel-like are stops, which involve a complete closure of the vocal tract and cannot be pronounced continuously. A little more like vowels are fricatives, which can be pronounced continuously but which still have the characteristic fricative noise resulting from the narrow opening in the vocal tract. Closest to vowels are sonorants. All of these can be pronounced continously. In fact, the English sonorants /m/, /n/, /ŋ/, /r/, and /l/ can all be pronounced as separate syllables by themselves, in which case they behave something like vowels. We have already seen how the combination /ər/, as in burn, is sometimes treated as a separate English vowel phoneme. We can treat it as a retroflex vowel or a syllabic retroflex consonant; it really doesn't matter for our purposes. We find the syllabic variant of /n/ in the usual pronunciation of the word button; unless the word is pronounced very carefully, there is no /ə/ between the /t/ and the /n/. The same is true for the /l/ in saddle. To indicate that a sonorant is syllabic, a short vertical line as added under the consonant symbol, as in [sædl̩].

    Not All Phones are Unambiguously Vowels or Consonants.

    The phones /w/ and /y/ are the closest of all to vowels. Each has a place and manner of articulation very similar to a high vowel. The main difference between these phones and "true vowels" is that, unlike the other sonorants, they cannot be syllabic; they always require a vowel before or after them to create a syllable. So possible English syllables include [kway], [pyus], and [yaw], but not [kw], [py], or [y]. Because of their similarity to "true vowels", [w] and [y] are sometimes called semivowels. For our purposes (and maybe for anyone's purposes) there will be no point to arguing about whether semivowels are vowels or consonants. When I am emphasizing their consonant properties, I will speak of them as consonants; when I are emphasizing their vowel properties, I will speak of them as vowels.

    The tables below are a summary of the English consonants in terms of three dimensions, place of articulation (POT), manner of articulation (MOT), and voicing, but recall that place and manner of articulation are more precisely viewed as multiple dimensions.

      /p/ /b/ /m/ /f/ /v/ /θ/ /ð/
    POA bil bil bil lbdn lbdn dent dent
    MOA stop stop nas fric fric fric fric
    Voice vcls vcd vcd vcls vcd vcls vcd

     

      /t/ /d/ /s/ /z/ /n/ /l/
    POA alv alv alv alv alv alv
    MOA stop stop fric fric nas lat
    Voice vcls vcd vcls vcd vcd vcd

     

      /č/ /ǰ/ /š/ /ž/ /r/ /y/
    POA alvpl alvpl alvpl alvpl rflex pal
    MOA affr affr fric fric approx approx
    Voice vcls vcd vcls vcd vcd vcd

     

      /k/ /g/ /ŋ/ /w/ /h/ (/ʔ/)
    POA vel vel vel vel+bil glot glot
    MOA stop stop nas approx fric stop
    Voice vcls vcd vcd vcd vcls vcls

    The table below gives examples for each English consonant phoneme. As with vowels, each phoneme may vary somewhat from word to word.

    /p/ pinspinlap
    /b/ binlab
    /m/ manham
    /f/ finif
    /v/ vinelive
    /θ/ thinbothether
    /ð/ thisbatheeither
    /t/ talkedstonelit,
    /d/ denlidhugged
    /s/ sinkisslips
    /z/ zooeasyloseeggs
    /n/ pinmannerlisten
    /l/ lipsellcastle
    /č/ churchnature
    /ǰ/ genejargradual
    /š/ shinmissionnationfishmachine
    /ž/ leisuregarage (for some speakers)
    /r/ ripnarrowyear
    /y/ yearcute /kyut/
    /k/ kincalllickchemical
    /g/ getangerleg
    /ŋ/ singangeranchor
    /w/ witchwhichreward
    /h/ hip
    /ʔ/ uh-oh /ʔ^ʔo/

    In this section we have seen how the consonants of one language, English, can be described in terms of three dimensions. These three dimensions do most of the work in distinguishing the consonants of the world's languages, but, as we will see in the next section, others are also required. Furthermore, as you can see from the tables above, there are gaps in English, combinations of features on the three dimensions for which there is no English phoneme. For example, English has no velar fricative, either voiced or voiceless. To some extent, this is just an accident of the history of English, and other languages will fill those gaps (and have gaps of their own elsewhere). The next section gives examples.