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A Beginner's Guide to Consonants

by Ann McKenzie

In your language classes, you might have been taught about the difference between vowel and consonants on the basis of the beginning letters of any word. A letter would be called a consonant if it is not a vowel and vowel sound is anything that begins with the letters a, i, e, o, u. It is the statement of my eleven years old nephew which is dictated to me when I asked him to explain his understanding of a consonant.

So, if you are asked to identify whether the letter ‘y’ is a vowel or consonant in words yogurt (or yoghurt) and sky as per this definition, what would be your answer?

Tricky, isn’t it? You would say ‘y’ is a vowel in both words as the vowel sound of /i/ is produced when yogurt is pronounced and /ai/ when the word sky is pronounced. And, that is why the basic definition of a consonant is proved to be wrong in many cases. Well done if you guessed it right that y is a consonant in the word yogurt and a diphthong (a combination of two vowel sounds) in the sky! But if you guessed it wrong, then let us find out where you are mistaken!

Demystifying the Misconceptions of Consonants

What is a consonant?

A consonant is a speech sound produced through obstructions (either closure or narrowing of the vocal tract) in the air flow caused by articulators during the words articulation or sound production.

Whenever a speech sound is produced that is not a vowel, it is called a consonant sound. It is surprisingly believed that there are only 21 consonants in English language and thus, only 21 consonant sounds are there. Lesser people are aware that in spite of being only 21 consonant letters, 24 consonant sounds are produced based on the variants of articulators. (See Fig. 2)

What are articulators then?

In phonetics, the articulators are the physiological structures that play major roles in speech mechanism. There are two types of articulators whose interaction produces a consonant sound: the active articulators and passive articulators.

Active Articulators

The speech organs that can freely move as compared to the other parts of the vocal tract and are responsible for modulation during articulation. These include tongue, uvula, & glottis.

Passive Articulators

The speech organs in the vocal tract that are immovable and thus becomes the place of articulation where the active articulators are presses against. These include upper teeth, hard palate, and velum.

The organs of speech

Classification of Consonants through Means of Articulators

Hopfully you are now getting on the right track to understand what a consonant is. Now, let us begin with a few tricks that enable you classify the consonants correctly.

You only need to memorize the following formula for classification and labelling of a consonant.

Voicing + Place of Articulation + Manner of Articulation

Voicing

Whenever you say a word, if you can hear the humming sound originating from vibrating vocal chords, the sound produced is called voiced sound. If not, then the sound is voiceless.

For example, if you speak the word Jane, put fingers in your ears and hear the humming sound or feel the vibrating vocal chords. Can you see it? Good, that is because J makes a voiced consonant. Try the same while saying the word Peter. No humming sound, right? Then P makes a voiceless consonant.

However, this rule is not applicable in all conditions. When voiced consonants occur at the end of a word or syllable, its voiced sound seems similar to that of its voiceless letters. This process is called devoicing of consonants in English. For demonstrating, ‘P’ is unvoiced sound because it doesn’t come from vocal chords whereas ‘b’ is voiced as it comes from the vibration of vocal chords. So, if we take the word ‘stop’, the sound ends with p which is a voiceless consonant but when used in past tense such as ‘stopped’, ‘p’, a voiceless sound with the voice with suffix ‘ed’ sounds as ‘t’. Thus, it is called devoiced consonant. Also, it is to be kept in mind that whenever a word ends with unvoiced or voiced consonant sound, it would fairly affect the vowel sound preceding it. For example, if you closely look at ‘stop’, the duration of ‘o’ sound is short whereas in ‘sob’ the ‘o’ sound duration is fairly long. Can you see the difference?

Here comes another concept of aspirated sounds that would help you to understand the voicing of consonants better. Aspirated sounds are merely the sounds that are produced with a forceful release of air such as a hat, party, etc. All initial voiced sounds in English are unaspirated such as in ‘bin’; there is no puff of air released when pronounced the word ‘bin’. This is not the case with ‘pin’ as there is a slight puff released with ‘p’ sound. Hence, ‘p’ is unvoiced aspirated consonant in the word pin. However, if you see the word ‘spin’, you would find that p sound is unaspirated and that is because the word begins with ‘s’. Hence, here ‘p’ becomes an allophone. It's hard to understand the difference as such because the languages differ, and hence the pronunciation differs. Refer to the table below, and you will find that different words can be pronounced differently in American or British English.

Fig. 2

Sound Symbol Aspirated Unaspirated
/p/ Pin Split
/b/ - Bin
/t/ Tough Stuck
/d/ - End, Day
/k/ Crab Back
/g/ - Snag, Go
/f/ Fall Leaf
/v/ - Vote, above
/θ/ Thought Bathroom
/ð/ - Bother, This
/s/ Saw House
/z/ Zap Goes
/ʃ/ Shape Push
/ʒ/ - Azure, Pleasure
/h/ Hat Ahead
/x/ - loch
/t͡ʃ/ Cherry Match
/d͡ʒ/ - Judge
/m/ - Team, Man
/n/ - Nail
/ŋ/ - Singer
/l/ - Tall
/r/ - Scary
/w/ - away
/j/ - soya

Understanding the aspirated or unaspirated sounds is a challenging task which requires an in-depth study at a greater scale. The above table is drawn for the purpose of giving you a basic understanding of aspirated or unaspirated consonant sounds.

Place of articulation

It is where the active articulators such as tongue presses against a fixed passive articulator such as hard palate. Below are few of the consonants classified on the basis of their places of articulation:

  1. Alveolar: When the blade or tip of the tongue presses against the front part of the alveolar ridge, it produces the alveolar consonants. E.g. /n/, /t/, /d/, /s/, /z/, /r/, /l/.
  2. Labiodental: The labiodental consonant sound is produced when the lower lip is the active articulator, and upper teeth are the passive articulators. E.g. /f/, /v/.
  3. Palatal: When the blade or tip of the tongue becomes the active articulator pressing against the hard palate which is a passive articulator. E.g. /j/ (as in yes).
  4. Velar: When the back portion of the tongue presses against the soft palate or velum narrowing the vocal tract for creating an obstruction, the consonant sound produced is called velar. E.g. /ŋ/ (as in sing), /k/, /g/, /x/ (as in loch).

The manner of Articulation

The way you produce an oral or nasalized sound is called the manner of articulation. Below I have listed some of the basic consonants characterized on the basis of manner of their articulation:

  1. Plosive: A plosive consonant is produced by the sudden release of air pressure built up through complete obstruction or blocking of the outgoing air flow by the active or passive articulators. E.g. /p/, /b/, /t/, /d/, /k/, /g/.
  2. Fricatives: Fricative consonant is produced with an audible friction when the vocal tract is narrowed down by getting articulators closely together. E.g. /f/, /v/, /θ/ (as in thin), /ð/ (as in the), /s/, /z/, /ʃ/ (as in sheep), /ʒ/ (as in azure).
  3. Affricates: Affricates consonants are produced by blocking the airstream and releasing it slowly with audible friction. E.g. /t͡ʃ/ (as in cheap) /d͡ʒ/ (as in jeep).
  4. Nasals: Nasal consonant sounds are same as plosives but with a slight difference in the manner of their articulation. Nasalised sounds are produced through the nasal passage, unlike plosive sounds that are produced through the oral passage. E.g. /m/, /n/, /ŋ/ (as in sing).

So, now if you are asked to classify or label a consonant, I think you can do it now. For illustrating it, here I have classified two:

You need to say the words loudly ‘fine’ and ‘vine’ twice or thrice and carefully notice which category does the sound produced falls under.

Congratulations for you have completed beginner’s guide to consonants!

About the writer

Ann McKenzie is the sub-editor at Regent Editing. She is a post-doc researcher and has Structural Linguistics as her area of expertise. She has also worked as a research writing assistant at writing centres of various universities in the UK such as University of Edinburgh and Nottingham.

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