Consonant Sound Introduction
Why Study Consonant Sounds?
English is Difficult to Pronounce:
It is difficult to know how to pronounce English from how the word is spelled. For example, how is the letter ‘C’ pronounced in the following words?
Ocean, Cat, Fence, Chat
You probably noted that the pronunciation of the ‘c’ in each of the words is not the same although represented by the same letter. Not understanding the sounds of English can cause problems with pronunciation and spelling, as well as listening and reading comprehension.
Consonant sounds in English vary very little throughout the world as opposed to vowel sounds; consonant sounds are the same in most dialects of English. So, consonant sounds are more consistent and applicable to more learning environments than vowel sounds i.e. some students might want to focus on a British accent while others on a United States one.
Note: However, the consonants of /t/ and /r/ DO vary quite a bit depending on dialect.
The mispronunciation of one sound can be the difference between the meaning of one word and another. For example, the words ‘big’ and ‘pig’ are only distinguished by one sound difference – the difference of /b/ and /p/.
Note: Sounds as opposed to letters are put in / /.
The pronunciation and listening comprehension of /p/ and /b/ can actually be a difficult task for ESL learners from a language background that does not have both of them, a famous example being Arabic, which only has the sound of /b/ but not /p/.
A group of Arab ESL students was in the USA. When they went to a parking area near a mall, they asked someone if barking was allowed in the area. The gentleman replied to them, “Well, sure. Go ahead. Bark all you want, but please, just don’t bite.”
Accents are cool, they are funny, and you could even get a career as a famous actor or international spy if you get good at them 🙂 . Here is an example – by an actress – demonstrating what you can do once you understand phonology:
- Why is the spelling system of English not great?
- How can learning about English phonology (the study of English sounds) help you?
- In English, the pronunciation of consonants or vowels differs greatly between dialects? What consonant sounds are the exceptions to this general rule?
The IPA Alphabet
The international phonemic alphabet (IPA) is a standardized alphabet that has a direct sound to symbol relationship. English has 24 consonant sounds – remember, sounds NOT letters. The following table includes ALL 24 consonant sounds in English:
Figure 1: The IPA alphabet
Think of a word that matches each of the consonant sounds and underline the sound in the word; the first two have already been done for you – at the bottom of the page are answers BUT don’t scroll down until after you try it yourself!
|p: pig||b: big||t:||d:||ʧ:||ʤ:||k:||g:|
All of the sounds relating to the symbols above should be easy to guess if you are familiar with the English alphabet. However, from the 24 symbols, you probably noticed that seven do not come from the English alphabet:
Note: /ð/ = The, θ = Three, /ʃ/ = Shin, /tʃ/ = Cheese, /dʒ/ = Judge, /ʒ/ = Vision /ŋ/ = Thing
Note: The last /j/ symbol, although found in the English alphabet, is misleading because it does not represent the sound in words such as jeep; rather, it represents the sound in words such as yes. I prefer using the /y/ symbol although many IPAs – such as the Adrian Underhill chart – use the /j/ instead.
The reasoning behind the use of different symbols is that the English alphabet only consists of 21 consonant letters (and there are 24 consonant sounds), and some letters do not make good symbols because they represent different sounds that are represented by other letters, which could make things confusing.
For instance, I gave the earlier examples of how the letter ‘c’ represents different sounds in the following words:
Ocean, Cat, Fence, Chat
In the above ^^^^ words the following sounds are represented by the letter ‘c’:
/ʃ/, /tʃ/, /s/, and /k/
Can you guess in which word is each sound represented? It might take a bit of thinking, but I bet you can…
4. What does a phoneme symbol represent?
5. How many phonemic symbols do not come from the roman alphabet?
6. Using the phonemic chart, guess which symbol represents each of the underlined sounds: a) Ocean b) Cat c) Fence d) Chat
(You can copy and paste the symbols that are not present in the English alphabet from the IPA alphabet chart OR use the IPA Typewriter here)
Voiced vs. Unvoiced
See For Yourself: Cover your ears (or put your hand on your throat) and hold the sound of /s/ and then switch to a /z/, what is the difference between the two?
When you pronounce and hold the /s/ sound, you will notice that there is no vibration, though, when you pronounce the /z/ it should be quite noticeable.
Voice = Vocal Vibration
Unvoiced = NO Vocal Vibration
Vocal vibration is the only difference between the two sounds of /s/ and /z/. If you look at the consonant chart, you will notice that /s/ and /z/ are right next to each other. Likewise, in our earlier example we mentioned how the two sounds of /p/ and /b/ can be used to distinguish the meaning of two words; can you guess what distinguishes the pronunciation of these two sounds from the charts above?
Yes, vibration! Vibration is actually the only difference between the two sounds, although the difference is not as noticeable as the difference between /s/ and /z/ (because the sounds of /p/ and /b/ cannot be held for a long time).
The below chart made by Adrian Underhill (1994) (with minor variation) is organized in a fantastic way.
Chart 1: Underhill Chart
Chart 2: Unvoiced = [ – ] and Voiced = [ + ]
Comparing the two charts, the IPA symbols that correspond with a ‘+’ sign are voiced. The sounds that correspond with a ‘-‘ sign are unvoiced.
NOTE: The ‘sister’ sounds that are distinguished only by voicing (whether there is vibration or not) are right next to each other in the first two rows of the chart:
Write the corresponding voiced sound (the ‘sister’ sound) to each of the following unvoiced sounds below:
/p/ & / / – /t/ & / / – /ʧ/ & / / – /k/ & / / – /f/ & / / – /θ/ & / / – /s/ & / / – /ʃ/ & / /
However, there is another key distinguishing factor between voiced and unvoiced consonants other than just vocal vibration, which is aspiration. Aspiration is basically air.
For example, once again pronounce and hold the sound of /s/. Don’t worry, that’s not the sound of a hissing snake or a gas tank leaking, it’s the sound of aspiration (or air), which comes along with the pronunciation of unvoiced sounds.
Try It Yourself: I want you to hold your hand in front of your mouth and switch between pronouncing /p/ and /b/. Which sound accompanies more air being let out? Which sound is voiced, and which is unvoiced? Well, you probably notice that when pronouncing the /p/ sound you release more air, and therefore it is unvoiced.
For instance, the voiceless sound of /h/ is practically only air being released.
Voice = Vibration and not much air being released
Unvoiced = No vibration and a lot of air being released
Chart Awareness Notes:
- The sound of /h/ is the ONLY voiceless sound listed in the bottom third row.
- The way that the Underhill chart is set up, all voiceless sounds that have especially strong aspiration are in the first row (see Figure 3 below).
Figure 3: Unvoiced Phonemes With Especially Strong Aspiration
Place of Articulation:
The two components used to make consonant sounds are:
1) The place of articulation (the ‘where’ the sounds are made)
2) The articulators (the ‘what’ are used to make the sounds)
The ‘articulators’ are the instruments (e.g. your tongue) used to make a sound. The locations on the mouth, where the articulators are placed, are the ‘places of articulation’.
The two lips (the articulators) meet to form the bilabial sounds of /b/ and /p/ (as in but /bʌt/ and put /pʊt/).
The tip of the tongue – the articulator – meets with the alveolar ridge – the place of articulation (which is right behind the front teeth) – in order to form the alveolar sounds of /d/ and /t/ as in ‘dad’ /dæd/ and ‘tell’ /tel/.
There are seven places of articulation used to distinguish consonant sounds:
Places of Articulation
Bilabial (or ‘two lips’): Produced with the two lips: /b, p, m, w/ (as in ‘buy, pie, my, and wool’).
Labiodental (or ‘lip and teeth’): Produced with the upper teeth and inner lower lip: /f, v/ (as in ‘feel and veal’).
Interdental (or ‘between teeth’): Produced with the tongue tip on or near the inner surface of the upper teeth: /θ/, /ð/ (as in ‘thick and then’).
Alveolar (or ‘behind teeth’): Produced with the tongue tip on or near the tooth ridge: /t, d, s, z, n, l/ (as in ‘to, do, zoo, new, and light’).
Palatal (or ‘top middle of mouth’): Produced by the body of the tongue touching the roof of the mouth (in the palatal area): /ʃ, ʒ, ʧ, ʤ/ (as in ‘shin, genre, chef, judge’).
Velar (or ‘top of throat’): Produced with the tongue body on or near the soft palate: /g, k, ŋ/ (as in ‘go, kite, and bang’).
Glottal (or ‘from the throat’): Produced by air passing from the windpipe through the vocal cords: /h/ (as in ‘hi’).
*Adapted from Celce-Murcia & Brinton & Goodwin (1996)
Chart Awareness: Referring back to the Underhill chart (1996) the consonant sounds have been organized in the first two rows, from left to right, by a progression of moving the place of articulation farther back in the mouth e.g. the first row begins with the bilabial /p/ and ends with the velar /g/.
NOTE: The third row does not follow any particular pattern concerning the place of articulation.
Figure 4: Place of Articulation: First Two Rows
|Movement of Tongue ———————– > ———————– > ———————– > ———————– >|
Figure 5: Place of Articulation: Third Row
7. What is the voiced bilabial sound on the 1st row of the Underhill chart?
8. What is the symbol representing the voiced interdental sound and an example of it?
9. What are the four palatal sound symbols and examples of each of them?
Mode of Articulation:
The mode of articulation refers to how the sound is produced via blocking the airstream. Some consonant sounds involve the total obstruction of the airstream, for example, with the plosive /b/ and /p/ sounds there is a total obstruction of air by the two lips.
However, in other sounds, such as the liquids /l/ and /r/ and the semi-vowel sounds or glides of /w/ and /y/, there is relatively little obstruction of air.
The Modes of Articulation:
/p, b, t, d, k, g/
The airstream is stopped or blocked completely prior to release.
See For Yourself: Go ahead and practice pronouncing these sounds and you can see why they are named as ‘plosives’ (or stops) easily. You should notice a stop and release that is similar to a little ex-‘plosion’.
/f, v, θ, ð, s, z, ʃ, ʒ, h/
Air is forced through a narrow passageway in the mouth or throat creating continuous friction.
See For Yourself: Go ahead and practice pronouncing these sounds and you will notice that you can hold them (contrary to plosives that require a block and release of air to be pronounced).
This one is a mix between a plosive and a fricative sound, hence their symbol representation. E.g. /t/ + /ʃ/ = /tʃ/ (Church) and /d/ + /ʒ/ = /dʒ/ (Judge)
There are only two affricative sounds in English, which are pronounced the same (same place and mode of articulation) except one is voiced /dʒ/ and the other is not /tʃ/.
/m, n, ŋ/
Air is released through the nose.
See For Yourself: These sounds are all voiced so if you put a finger on your nose, you should be able to feel a vibration.
Here’s a proper example of TOO MUCH nasal sound from the actress Fran Drescher meeting, well, Fran Drescher. BUT remember there are only three nasal consonant sounds in English… so, DON’T pronounce other consonant and vowel sounds nasally (especially for all of those Brazilian Portuguese and French speakers!) or you might risk sounding like this:
Basically, these sounds are made when the tongue is in the middle of your mouth so that air can only come out from the sides.
Semi-vowels (or glides):
These sounds are known as semi-vowels or glides because they barely obstruct the airflow in a type of gliiiiiiding motion (don’t you feel smoooooth pronouncing these ones?).
*Adapted from Celce-Murcia & Brinton & Goodwin (1996)
Figure 6: Mode of Articulation:
Chart Awareness: Back to the Underhill (1996) consonant chart, the modes of articulation are organized as follows:
First Column: ALL the plosives are in the first column as well as the two affricative sounds in English.
Second Column: All the fricative sounds (except for /h/ which is in the third column) are in the second column.
Third Column: The third row is a mixed column containing all the nasal, liquid, and semi-vowel sounds plus the fricative /h/, which is made by only exhaling air.
10. An affricative sound is a mix between what two modes of articulation?
11. What is the symbol for the unvoiced affricative sound in English?
12. What is the bilabial nasal sound in English?
- Why is the spelling system of English not great? A: Poor sound to letter correspondence.
- How can learning about English phonology (the study of English sounds) help you? A: Be better prepared to teach the sounds to the students, learn how to spell better, learn different accents, get a job as an actor/actress or as an international spy.
- In English, the pronunciation of consonants or vowels differs greatly between dialects? What consonant sounds are the exceptions to this general rule? A: Vowel sounds; however, the pronunciation of the /r/ and the /t/ sounds do vary between different dialects.
Activity 1 (Suggested Answers):
|p: pig||b: big||t: tough||d: dead||ʧ: chat||ʤ: judge||k: kite||g: game|
|f: fame||v: villain||θ: three||ð: though||s: sick||z: zebra||ʃ: show||ʒ: vision|
|m: mom||n: no||ŋ: thing||h: house||l: love||r: rough||w: wet||j/y: young|
4. What does a phoneme symbol represent? A: A sound.
5. How many phonemic symbols do not come from the roman alphabet? A: Seven.
6. Using the phonemic chart, guess which symbol represents each of the underlined sounds: a) Ocean b) Cat c) Fence d) Chat A: a) /ʃ/; b) k; c) s; d) /tʃ/
/p/ & /b / – /t/ & /d / – /ʧ/ & /ʤ/ – /k/ & /g/ – /f/ & /v/ – /θ/ & /ð/ – /s/ & /z/ – /ʃ/ & /ʒ/
7. What is the voiced bilabial sound on the 1st row of the Underhill chart? A: /b/
8. What is the symbol representing the voiced interdental sound and an example of it? A: /ð/ as in the.
9. What are the four palatal sound symbols and examples of each of them? A: /ʃ/ – as in shoe – /ʒ/ – as in vision – /ʧ/ – as in chat – /ʤ/ as in judge.
Celce-Murcia, M & Brinton, D & Goodwin, J (1996) Teaching Pronunciation: A Reference for Teachers of English to Speakers of Other Languages. Cambridge University Press.
Underhill, A (1994). Sound Foundations. Heinemann
Vaughn, S. Bos, C. Schumm, J. (2014) Teaching Students Who Are Exceptional, Diverse, and at Risk in the General Education Classroom.