I. Consonants

            Consonants are described in terms of three dimensions:   whether or not the vocal cords are vibrating—voicing;  where the sound is being made—the place of articulation;  and how the sound is being made—the manner of articulation.    All three are really just descriptions of what happens as to the flow of air as a consonant is produced.   

Diagram of the vocal tract

showing the places of articulation

            Voicing.   If the vocal cords are vibrating when the air flow passes through the larynx (in the voice box), the sound is described as voiced;  if not, the consonant is described as voiceless. 

            It is possible to hear the difference between voiced and voiceless consonants.  Cover your ears and pronounce a long, drawn-out /z/;  the vibration in your ears, head, and so on results from the vibration of the vocal cords.   Now, still covering your ears pronounce a long, drawn-out /s/.  There is no parallel vibration;  this sound is voiceless.  

            Place of articulation.  Consonants are made by constricting the air flow as it moves through the vocal tract—through the throat and mouth.  The place of articulation is the place where this constriction of the air flow occurs.    The horizontal row of labels across the top of the consonant chart  lists the places in the mouth at which the air flow is constricted in forming various English consonants.  The labels themselves are just names of the articulators involved in the constriction.    The row of labels begins with the lips at the front of the mouth and ends at the voice box.  Once the names of parts of the mouth become familiar,  the names of most of the terms makes sense.

            bilabial bi- 'two' +  labi- 'lip' + -al  'adjective marking suffix'.  Sounds made with two lips. 

            labiodentallabio- 'lip' +  dent- 'tooth' + -al.  Sounds made with the upper teeth and the lower lip.

            interdentalinter-  'between' +  dent- 'tooth' + -al.  Sounds made between the teeth.

            alveolar:   alveol- + -ar.  Sounds made at the alveolar ridge, the bumpy ridge just behind the teeth.  

            palatal:   palat- + -al.   Sounds made behind the alveolar ridge.

            velar:   vel-  + -ar.   Sounds made at the velum. 

            glottalglott-  + -al.   Sounds made at the voice box,  that is, at the glottis.

            Manner of articulation.   The manner of articulation is the way in which the sound is produced.  The various labels for manner of articulation describe how the air flow is modified.    In most cases,  the reason for the term is fairly obvious. 

            stops:  If the air flow is totally constricted, that is, stopped,  the consonant is described as a stop.

            fricatives:  If the air flow is constricted enough to cause friction, but not completely stopped,  the consonant is described as a fricative.  

            All but two of the fricatives occur both before and after vowels.  The /h-/ only occurs before a vowel and the /-z&/  only occurs after a vowel.

                  bilabial labio- inter- alveolar palatal velar glottal

                              dental dental     


   voiceless         p                                     t                            k  ?

   voiced             b                                     d                           g


   voiceless                                                             c& (=ts&)

   voiced                                                                               j& (=dz&)


   voiceless          f           Q            s                    s&                  h-

   voiced                               v          D            z                    -z&

nasals:                     m                                 n                              -N


   lateral                                                      l

   retroflex                                     r


   consonants:      w                                                         y          w        

   (= glides)   

Chart of English consonant phonemes

            nasalsnas- 'nose' + -al.   Nasals are characterized by air flow through the nose.   Although the other two nasals occur both before and after vowels,  the /-N/ only occurs after a vowel.

            affricates:  ad- 'to; toward' + fric-  cf. 'friction'.  On the chart,  the affricates have been deliberately placed between the stops and the fricatives.   Notice that both the affricates can be transcribed in more than one way;  that is, /c&/ can also be written as /ts&/ and /j&/ can also be written as /dz&/.   The two-symbol representation best shows the phonetics:  an affricate starts off as a stop and finishes as a fricative.  If you were to tape record one of the affricates and then play it back slowing down the tape recorder,  at some point the affricate would impressionistically break into two;  that is, at some point it would sound not like one sound but two.

Note:  The 'stop + fricative' character of affricates helps explain the substitutions that speakers of other languages often make when learning English; for example, the French speaker's frequent substitution of the fricative /z&/ for the English affricate /dz&/.  

             The 'stop + fricative' character of affricates also helps explain the "extra" stops that English speakers add when they first learn to transcribe the sounds of English.    For example,  beginners sometimes transcribe a word like much  as /m´tc&/ rather than as /m´c&/;   here,  the /t/ is the /t/ in the affricate /c&/ (=/ts&/).   In words spelled with a -t- such as witch (transcribed as /wIc&/),  the spelling makes the tendency for beginners to add an "extra" /-t-/ even stronger.

            liquids:  Although most of the terms we have run into so far seem to have some fairly transparent connection with the type of sound they label,  the term liquid  does not.   Perhaps it is because they "flow"?  

            Anyway, there are two liquids:  /l/ and /r/.   The /l/ is called a lateral, because the air flows over the side of the tongue (lateral '(to the) side').   The /r/ is called a retroflex because during its production the tongue is bent back (retro- 'back' + -flex  'bend').

            semi-vowels/semi-consonants (glides):  As might be guessed from the variation in the terminology, the glides are half-way between vowels and consonants.    The glides /y/ and /w/ have counterparts in the vowel system:   the consonant /y/ has as its counterpart the vowel /i/, and the consonant /w/ has as its counterpart the vowel /u/.    

            This variation between /y/ and /i/ and between /w/ and /u/ shows up in the spelling system of English.  The sound /Oy/ is spelled as -oy in boy  but as -oi- in boil.  In a parallel way,  the sound /aw/ is spelled as -ow- in brown  but as -ou- in found.

            The /w/ has been put in two places on the consonant chart.   It is placed with the velar consonants because it involves constriction in the velar region of the mouth.    It is also placed with the bilabial consonants because it has a bilabial component.

Exercise 1. Consonant chart.

Without looking up the answer, fill in the blanks with the terms supplied.  Some terms must be used more than once;  one term is not used at all.

bilabial           voiced                    labiodental                   interdental            lateral

alveolar           palatal                    velar                             retroflex               glottal

liquids            semi-vowels           affricates                      nasals                   fricatives

voiceless         voiced                    stops                            interdigital           

                         ____  _____  ____   _____   _____   _____   ______


   ________            p                                         t                                   k               ?

   ________            b                                         d                                  g


   ________                                                                        c&

   ________                                                                        j&


   ________                        f          Q             s               s&                                  h

   ________                            v         D              z              z&

__________:     m                                             n                                   N


   ________                                                        l

   ________                                                        r

__________:     w                                                             y                  w

Practice transcription 1a:  Consonants only (vowels given)

rich                     ridge                     sham                          jam                          gem

__ I __                __ I __                 __ œ __                     __ œ __                   __ E __

bush                   mush                    knot                           myth                        gap

__ U __              __ ´ __                 __ A __                     __ I __                    __ œ __

his                      hiss                      hung                          box                          zest

__ I __                __ I __                 __ ´ __                       __ A __                   __ E __

things                 that                       dumb                         hook                        scotch

__ I __                __ œ __                __ ´ __                       __ U __                   __ A __

Practice transcription 1b:  Consonants only (vowels given)

buff                    guess                    witch                          which                      should

__ ´ __                __ E __                __ I __                       __ I __                    __ U __

thank                  vex                       shock                         Butch                      cup

__ œ __              __ E __                __ A __                     __ U __                   __ ´ __

debt                    ring                      wring                         latch                        late

__ E __               __ I __                 __ I __                       __ œ __                   __ ey __

could                  cud                       this                             them                        thumb

__ U __              __ ´ __                 __ I __                       __ E __                   __ ´ __

jug                      yes                       give                            zinc                         pod

__ ´ __                __ E __                __ I __                       __ I __                    __ A __

Exercise 2.  Consonant chart. 

Without looking up the answer, make a consonant chart from the following:

stops    voiceless        nasals labiodental voiced interdental alveolar  bilabial affricates palatal fricatives velar glottal liquids retroflex lateral glides (semi-vowels/consonants)

         p             t               k              b          d            g          -N        l         r                      c&          j&             f               Q         s            s&       h-         v        D                                            -z&          y          z            m         n          w

Exercise 3.  Consonant chart. 

Without looking up the answer, place the given consonants on the consonant chart.

                       bilabial labio- inter- alveolar palatal velar glottal

                                   dental dental     

















            l           p          -z&      t           z          r           y          w         s

            s&       m         f           Q         b          d          k          ?          g                                  h-         n          -N        v          D         j&        c&

            Aspiration.   When they occur at the beginning of a word (and in certain other positions) in English,  the voiceless stops /p-, t-, k-/ and the voiceless affricate /c&-/ of English are followed by "a little puff of air" called aspiration.    There is no need to indicate aspiration in writing as its occurrence is for all practical purposes predictable.   

            Note:  If you are interested in "seeing" this puff of air—aspiration, take a thin strip of paper and, holding it at one end, put the free end in front of your lips.  Alternately pronounce the syllable /ba/ (beginning with an unaspirated consonant) and then the syllable /pa/ (beginning with an aspirated consonant).  Once the paper is appropriately placed,  the paper remains relatively still after the unaspirated /ba/, but it jumps quite noticeably after the aspirated /pa/.

            Although when listening to English it is more than any other feature the aspiration of the voiceless consonants such as /p-/ more than any other feature that allow us to distinguish them from the voiced consonants such as /b-/,  being aware of aspiration does not become that important until we attempt to learn other languages, such as Thai or Hmong.   In these languages, the presence or absence of aspiration is not predictable and is important in distinguishing different words from each other.

            Clusters.   The English sound system is rich in consonant clusters.  Syllables may have a two- or even three-consonant cluster before the vowel, and a two- or three-consonant cluster after the vowel. 

Practice transcription 2a:   Consonant clusters

            Note that in some of the words below you can hear the /y/ of the diphthong /yuw/.

splits                   scripts                  sprints                        slumps                    slimmed

_____                 _____                   _____                        _____                      _____

streams               strips                    shouts                        smelts                      melds

_____                 _____                   _____                        _____                      _____

Practice transcription 2b:   Consonant clusters

punched              few                       music                         coot                   cute

_____                 _____                   _____                        _____                      _____

hooked               bushed                 bridged                      washed                    judged

_____                 _____                   _____                        _____                      _____

            The large number of clusters often presents a problem for learners of English who speak languages which have fewer clusters than English—many languages of the world.   Sometimes the learner's language has both sounds in the cluster, but does not have the combination.

            Learners who have problems pronouncing final consonant clusters will have problems with the words in the last row of the clusters exercise.  Although the spelling of the past tense marker -ed misleadingly suggests that all these words end with a vowel plus a consonant,  listening quickly to the sounds makes it clear that this is false; they all end in consonant clusters.   Notice that difficulty pronouncing these final clusters would interfere with the learner's ability to mark the past tense. 


chart of mouth needs labiodental added to it