What is a consonant? How are consonants produced? How are consonants described?
“Consonant sounds are defined as being produced with some degree of constriction in the vocal tract, which differentiates them from vowel or vocoid sounds” (Campos-Astorkiza, 2018, 165). About 600 consonants exist in worldwide languages, pointed out by (Ladefoged, 2001). They have an essential function in the segregation of vowels. In the English language, for example, there scarcely are words with more than one vowels connected, sans a consonant in between, except diphthongs, which are not counted in this case as they are formed by combining two vowels into one new sound.
The way of producing consonants is closely related to their description and categorisation. The three-part description of consonants is widely recognised amongst linguists. It regards voicing, places of articulation, and manners of articulation.
Yule (2006) points out that when air is pushed out from the lungs, through the trachea, and to the larynx, the vocal cords have two basic positions. They determine the voicing of consonants, which is compartmentalised into voiced and voiceless, depending on the vibration of vocal folds. The vibration of vocal folds can be sensed by putting fingers outside the throat when producing voiced consonants, e.g., [z]. The vibration is created since vocal folds contract, and therefore they are drawn together, and the airstream is forced to flow through the vocal folds. Contrastively, no vibration should be sensed when producing voiceless consonants, e.g., [s]. Airstream passes through the glottis freely because of the relaxation of vocal folds, causing vocal cords to spread apart. No vibration occurs.
At the very beginning of this article, it has been mentioned that a certain degree of constriction in the vocal tract is necessary to produce consonants. Consequently, consonants can be described according to the places where the obstruction of air takes place. The focus here is mainly on those which can be applied in the English language. There are eight technical terms representing “regions of the vocal tract particularly associated with a particular gesture of the tongue or lips” (Ladefoged, 2001, 99), namely bilabial, labiodental, dental, alveolar, postalveolar, palatal, velar, and glottal.
Bilabial consonants are produced with the two lips coming together (Ladefoged, 2001). In the English language, consonants like [m], [b], and [p] are bilabials.
For labiodentals, like [ʋ], the initial sound of the Dutch word ‘wang’, they can be produced by raising the lower lip to the upper teeth (Ladefoged, 1975).
To produce dentals, e.g., [θ], the final sound of the English word, ‘bathe’ (Yule, 2006), the tongue blade is placed behind the upper teeth. Alveolar consonants, e.g., [t], [s], and [n], are formed when the tongue blade touches or near the rough alveolar ridge (Ladefoged, 2001).
Postalveolars, like [ʃ], are produced by “the tongue blade nearing the forward part of the hard palate just behind the alveolar ridge” (Ladefoged, 2001, 99).
Palatals, e.g., [j], is produced when “the front of tongue nears the hard palate” (Ladefoged, 2001, 99). It is interesting to notice that the definition and description of places of articulation are slightly dissimilar amongst linguists. Yule (2006) considers postalveolars like [ʃ] as palatals, whereas Ladefoged (2001) does not. This suggests that descriptions of consonants are not unified and vary from academics.
Velars, e.g., [k], are produced by “the back of [the] tongue touching the soft palate” (Ladefoged, 2001, 99). The last one, glottal, is produced when air passes through the open glottis. The sound [h] is a typical example of this.
Manners of articulation are significant when it comes to differentiating sounds like [t] and [s], which are both voiceless alveolar sounds (Yule, 2006). Their sole difference is the manner of articulation. There are mainly five different manners, namely stop, nasal, fricative, affricate, glide, and liquid.
Stop represents “complete closure of the vocal tract. Air is blocked from going out through the nose and the mouth” (Ladefoged, 2001, 101). Sounds like [p], [b], and [t] are some examples of stops.
Nasal, e.g., [n], indicates that by closing the vocal tract, the air is only allowed to go through the nose. Fricative is a manner of constricting the vocal tract and forming a noisy airstream (Ladefoged, 2001), e.g., [ʃ].
Affricates, like [tʃ], are produced by combining a stop with a friction-causing release (Yule, 2006). The glides, describing sounds [j] and [w], are voiced and “are produced with the tongue ‘gliding’ to or from the position of a vowel” (Yule, 2006, 37).
Liquids includes laterals, e.g., [l], and rhotics, e.g., [r] (Hualde, 2005). The [l] sound is produced by the tongue touching the alveolar ridge and then making the airstream flow around the slides of the tongue, and the [r] sound is formed by raising and curling back the tongue blade near alveolar ridge (Yule, 2006).
By utilising the three-part description, consonants can be precisely described. [g], for example, is a voiced velar stop. It is a comprehensive system which prevents unnecessary confusion.
Hope this short article helps.
Campos-Astorkiza, Rebeka. 2018. Consonants. In Kimberly L. Geeslin, The Cambridge Handbook of Spanish Linguistics, 165–189. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.
Cohen, Antonie. 1965. The Phonemes of English: A Phonemic Study of the Vowels and Consonants of Standard English. The Hague: Martinus Nijhoff.
Collins, Beverley., Mees, Inger M. 2008. Practical Phonetics and Phonology: A Resource Book for Students. London: Routledge.
International Phonetic Association. 1999. Handbook of the International Phonetic Association: A Guide to the Use of the International Phonetic Alphabet. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.
Hualde, José Ignacio. 2005. The Sounds of Spanish. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.
Ladefoged, Peter. 1975. A Course in Phonetics. New York: Harcourt Brace Jovanovich.
Ladefoged, Peter. 2001. Vowels and Consonants: An Introduction to the Sounds of Languages. Massachusetts: Blackwell Publisers.
Yule, George. 2006. The Study of Language. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.