Consonants its definition and classifications

This section of the English Phonetics Academy designed to provide guidance and practice in English pronunciation through the use of phonetics. The exercises and drills included will aid in reducing accents and improving overall speech sound production. These lessons are particularly beneficial for non-native speakers looking to improve their English-speaking skills.

8. Consonants and syllables

This chapter describes how consonants can be defined and how they fit into the phonemic syllables of GA.

8.1 Defining consonants

The articulation of consonants differs from that of vowels primarily in the escape of the airstream. While for vowels the air is allowed to escape freely, for consonants there is some sort of stricture at some point in the speech tract. If you compare a vowel like [ɑː] with a consonant like [v], you can get some idea of what is meant by a free escape as opposed to a stricture.

Consonants can be divided, first, on the basis of the type of stricture that occurs: there may be a complete obstruction of the airstream as in the case of [p] and [t], a narrowing, as in the case of [v] and [z], or a near-contact, as in the case of [j] and [w]. If two consonants differ in this respect, i.e. in terms of the way in which the airstream is interfered with, they are said to have a different manner of articulation.

Secondly, consonants may differ in the location of the stricture, in which case we say they have a different place of articulation. This is what makes [p] different from [t], [v] from [z], and [j] from [w].

A third source of variation is the state of the glottis during the articulation of a consonant. It accounts for the difference between [f] and [v] as in surface, service, [p] and [b], as in rapid, rabid, or [k] and [g], as in coal, goal.

For every consonant we can capture these three types of variation in a three-term label. The first term specifies the state of the glottis, the second the place of articulation, and the third the manner of articulation. For [f] as in surface this would be: a voiceless labio-dental fricative.

8.2 State of the glottis

Consonants may be voiced or voiceless, depending on whether they are pronounced with simultaneous vocal cord vibration, like all the consonants occurring in GA ago, already, mother, or with an open glottis, like those in GA post, fish, thick. The consonant in GA haw, which is produced with a narrowed glottis, is also classed as voiceless.

Consonants may also be partly devoiced, which means that there is vocal cord vibration during part of their articulation only. Examples would be the initial and final consonants of GA bed, guise, when these words are pronounced in isolation, in which case the voicing of the consonants may be confined to a very brief portion immediately before and alter the vowel.

The glottal stop is a special case: it is pronounced with a closed glottis and is therefore neither voiced nor voiceless.

8.3 Place of articulation

The various places of articulation that are needed for the description of GA and AN consonants are given below, starting from the end of the speech tract (the lips) and going back to its beginning (the vocal cords).

Bilabial The two lips articulate with each other. Pronounce Pa, Ma, bah or bumpy.
Labio-dental The lower lip articulates with the upper teeth. Pronounce GA or AN fee and – unless you have a Southern accent – AN wie, in which [ʊ] occurs.
Labio-velar The lips articulate with each other, while at the same time the back of the tongue articulates with the velum. An example is [w] in GA well, which s pronounced with a bilabial as well as a velar near contact.
Dental The tip of the tongue articulates with the upper teeth, as for [θ] in GA thing and [ð] in GA this, that.
Denti-alveolar The blade of the tongue articulates with the alveolar ridge, while the tip touches the inside of the upper teeth. Examples are [d] and [t] in AN daad, [n] in AN kan, as pronounced by many speakers.
Alveolar The tip and/ or blade articulate with the alveolar ridge. Tip-articulations are characteristic of GA [t,d,n,l] as in ten, dolly, Lenny. Blade-alveolars occur in GA sissy, easy, and AN Suze. Note that although the same label is used for GA and AN /s,z/, the tip is fairly high for GA [s,z], whereas for AN [s,z] it will generally touch the lower teeth.
Post-alveolar The tip articulates with the rear edge of the alveolar ridge. An example is [n] in GA Henry.
Palato-alveolar The blade of the tongue articulates with the alveolar ridge, while at the same time the front of the tongue is raised towards the hard palate, as for [ʃ] in GA shore, [ʒ] GA measure.
(Pre-)palatal The (blade and) front of the tongue articulate with (the forward part of) the hard palate. Pronounce AN Anja and eitje, which contain pre-palatal [ɲ] and [c] respectively. Also, AN [ʃ,ʒ] as in gaasje, etalage are pre-palatal, and do not generally have the tip-raising characteristic of GA [ʃ,ʒ]. There is a gradual distinction between ‘pre-palatal’ and ‘palatal.’ The segments [j], as in GA yes or AN ja, and [ç], as in German nicht are normally just called ‘palatal.’
Velar The back of the tongue articulates with the soft palate. Prnounce GA key or AN kiek for velar [k] and AN eng for [ŋ], which is also velar.
Uvular The uvula articulates with the back of the tongue. Western AN speakers have uvular [χ] (‘harde g’) in words like geel, chaos, dag. In some speakers, χ also occurs for /r/ in the coda, as in bord, kaartje, so in that in their speck the distinction between AN /r/ and /x/ may be neutralized in that position.
Glottal The vocal cords articulate with each other as for [h] in GA how, or for whispered vowels. The glottal stop, [ʔ], may be heard before a vowel as in an emphatic pronunciation of AN Au!, as well as in GA Hawaii [həˈwɑːʔi].

8.4 Manner of articulation

A first subdivision distinguishes obstruents from sonorants. Obstruents are subdivided into stops, fricatives, and affricates. Sonorants fall into two classes: nasals and approximants. These manners of articulation are defined below.

Obstruents are subdivided as follows:

Stops (Du plosieven)

Are formed by creating a complete closure at some point in the speech tract, behind which the air from the lings is compressed until the closure is abruptly released so that the air explodes outward. Since the soft palate is raised, the air cannot escape through the nasal cavity.

Pronounce AN paal, taal, kaal and feel how the closures are made in three different places. Pronounce apen, Abe and note that the medial stops have the same place of articulation, but differ in the state of the glottis. Other examples of stops are [g] in GA again or [k] in GA skin.

Fricatives (Du fricatieven)

Are formed by narrowing the speech tract to such a degree that friction is produced. Pronounce AN vis, oog, chef and feel how the narrowing is made for the consonants.

Pronounce AN Ijssel, ijzel and note that the medial consonants have the same narrowing, but differ in the state of the glottis. Further examples are voiceless [θ] in GA thin, nothing, and voiced [ʒ] in GA vision, decision.

Affricates (Du affrikaten) Begin like stops and end like fricatives. Examples are [ts] in german Zeit and [d͡ʒ] in GA Roger.


Sonorants: Unlike obstruents, but like vowels, sonorants are pronounced with a relatively free escape of the airstream through the oral or nasal cavity: they also sound a lot like vowels. They are normally voiced, and so do not come in pairs.


Nasals (Du nasalen)

Derive their name from the nasal escape of the airstream by which they are characterized; the soft palate is lowered and the oral cavity is blocked completely at some point, so that the air escapes through the nose only.

Pronounce mening and notice how each nasal has a different place of articulation. In addition to [m], [n] and [ŋ] (which occur in both GA and NA) also prepalatal [ɲ] occurs in AN, as in franje.

Approximants (Du approximanten)

Derive their name from the approximation of the articulators which give rise to a light or near-contact, the airstream being so weak that no friction is produced.

Pronounce AN ajuin, Ajax and not that there is no friction for [j]. The same applies to the medial consonant in GA hurry, carry. One of the approximants, [l] as in AN olie, is a lateral (approximant): the airstream is partly blocked by the tongue but allowed to escape freely on one or both sides, i.e. laterally.

There are two further manners of articulation that are relatively frequent. These are:

Roll Formed when a flexible organ such as the uvula or (the tip of) the tongue vibrates against a firmer surface. An example would be the rolled tongue-r which may be heard. The rolled or 'trilled' R and the single r. The rolled R occurs when there are two RRs in a row (arriba – aRRiba) or one R at the beginning of a word (rincón – RRincón)

When only a single tap is made as opposed to a series, the manner of articulation is called ‘tap,’ also known as ‘flap,’ An alveolar flap is sometimes heard intervocalically serie.

In Spanish the word pero (but) has a flap, while perro (dog) has a roll. In GA atom – Adam both medial consonants are normally realized as flaps.

8.5 The consonants of GA and AN

In this section, we present the consonant systems of GA and AN (see Table 1). As in all languages, consonants are firstly divided into obstruents and sonorants. As will be clear, in both languages obstruents divide into homorganic pairs, i.e. pairs whose place of articulation is the same, like /p,b/, /t,d/, /s,z/, etc.

In such pairs consist of a voiceless and voiced member. In GA, by contrast, obstruents like /b,d,z/ are by no means always voiced. These obstruents are fully voiced only between voiced sounds, as in ruby, daisy, lady, etc. In other contexts, GA /b,d,g,v,z,ð,ʒ/ have devoiced or even voiceless allophones.

For example, if we compare GA /s/ in price tag with GA /z/ in prize fighter, we are likely to find that they are both completely voiceless, the difference between price and prize being largely a matter of vowel duration. It is for this reason that the terms fortis and lenis are used to refer to GA /p,t,k,f,θ,s,ʃ,t͡ʃ/ and GA /b,d,g,v,ð,z,ʒ,d͡ʒ/ respectively.

When we compare the consonant systems of the two languages, we see that GA has /θ,ð,t͡ʃ,d͡ʒ/ as in thin, this, chin, gin. Conversely, AN has /x/, as in kachel, lag and lach, which consonant does not occur in GA (except for some speakers as a marginal phoneme in loanwords like Bach and Scottish loch).

The AN system has four symbols in brackets, which indicates that these phonemes do not occur in the systems of all AN speakers. AN /g/ and /ʒ/ occur in loanwords only, as in AN goal, stage. And AN /v/ does not always occur in the system of Western (and Frisian) AN speakers, while AN /ɣ/ is virtually confined to the South.

The consonants of GA and AN:

fortis lenis OBSTRUENTS voiceless voiced
p,t,k b,d,g Stops p,t,k b,d,(g)
f,θ,s,ʃ,h v,ð,z,ʒ Fricatives f,s,ʃ,x (v),z,(ʒ),(ɣ),h
t͡ʃ, tr d͡ʒ,dr Affricates
voiced SONORANTS voiced
m,n,ŋ Nasals m,n,ŋ
l,r,j,w Approximants l,j,ʊ
Roll or Flap r

8.6 The realization of consonant phonemes

The GA consonant phonemes have many different allophones. As you know, allophones of a phoneme are specific to a particular phonological context. A phonological context is given by either or both of the following two types of information:

  1. The phoneme(s) that precede or follow the phoneme in question;
  2. lts position in the syllable.

Information of the first kind is easy enough to state. For example, we can say that when GA /t/ precedes GA /θ,ð/, it will be dental. Information of the second kind can only be given if we agree on what the syllable structure of GA words is.

But while it is intuitively clear how many syllables any given word has, it is not intuitively clear where, in a string of consonants, one syllable ends and another begins. The word extra has two syllables, but are they /ɛ/ and /kstrə/, /ɛk/ and /strə/ or /ɛks/ and /trə/, /ɛkst/ and /rə/, or /ɛkstr/ and /ə/? Since the realizations of GA consonants frequently crucially depend on whether they occur at the beginning or end of a syllable, we need to deal with the question how GA words are syllabified.

8.7 The syllable

Every syllable consists of a peak, which may be followed by a coda and preceded by an onset. The peak is the vowel. The coda contains maximally four consonants, and the onset maximally three. The following table illustrates these constituents for a number of one-syllable words.

pot p ɑː t
spew spj
ill ɪ l
lie l
awe ɑː
twelfths tw ɛ lfθs

The syllabification of GA words is governed by two rules. These are:

  1. The Maximum Onset Principle (MOP)
  2. The Weak Syllable Principle (WSP).

In addition, there is one rule which can build syllables across words. This rule is called Liaison.

8.7.1 MOP (Maximum Onset Principle)

The MOP says simply always make the onset as long as it can be.

When confronted with a string of consonants like /-kstr-/ in extra, the longest possible onset for the second syllable is /str-/. This is because */kstr-/, though longer, is not a possible onset, and both /tr-/ and /r-/, though possible, are shorter than /str-/.

While this principle is very simple indeed, to apply it we need to know what a possible onset is. All GA consonants can be a syllable onset. (Although /ŋ/ and /ʒ/ are not permitted in the onset of the first syllable in a word.) As a result, connect, hammer, pleasure are cut as follows by the MOP:

connect: /(kə)(ˈnɛkt)/

hammer: /(ˈhæ)(mər)/

pleasure /(ˈplɛ)(ʒər)/.

When there is more than one consonant, we can equate ‘possible onset’ with ‘possible beginning of a word’.

Here are a couple of words for practice. Ask yourself where the MOP would make the syllable cuts, and then transcribe the words before you attempt to syllabify them.

bodkin Bedford happy Washington

abstract contrive transpire afflicted

salty Arkansas praying husband

gospel correct poultry gastronomy

after latex Jeffrey belfry

In an artificially careful style of speech, this is the way in which you would pronounce these words. In this style, syllabic consonants are unlikely to occur. So we assume that /ə/ is present in the second syllables of words like uncle, eater, cotton, rhythm when MOP applies (/(ʌŋ)(kəl)/, /(iː)(tər)/, etc.), even though in natural speech the pronunciation /ʌŋkl̩|/ etc. would be used.

8.7.2 WSP (Weak Syllable Principle)

If we apply MOP to the words happy, later, latex, bottle, after, we arrive at the following syllabifications: /(hæ)(pi)/, /(leɪ)(tər)/, /(leɪ)(tɛks)/, /(bɑː)(təl)/, (æf)(tər)/. Observe that the fortis stops /p/ and /t/ are syllable-initial in all four words. In fact, this represents their pronunciation in an artificially careful style of speech. In all styles other than the most careful a further syllabification rule will apply.

This is the Weak Syllable Principle (WSP).

It says: add the first consonant of the onset of a weak syllable to the preceding syllable, if this results in a well-formed coda. The idea is that a consonant that has undergone the Weak Syllable Principle will be both in the coda of one syllable and in the onset of the next.

For example, the /p/ in happy, the /s/ in extra and the /t/ in entry will be ambisyllabic (as opposed to a unisyllabic). In order to indicate its dual membership, we will indicate the syllable structure of words with ambisyllabic consonants as follows: /(hæ(p)i)/, /(ˈɛk(s)trə/, /(ˈɛn(t)ri)/. This notation is intended to mean that happy, for instance, consists of the two syllables /hæp/ and /pi/, and that the /p/ of /hæp/ and the /p/ of /pi/ are one and the same consonant.

Notice that both the MOP and the WSP do not apply if the result is not a possible English onset (MOP) or coda (WSP).

For example, Bedford will be syllabified as /(ˈbɛd)(fərd)/ by the MOP, because */df-/ is not a possible onset. Similarly, the WSP would not apply to this word, because */-df/ is not a possible coda: no English word could begin with /df-/ or end in /-df/.

What is a ‘weak’ syllable? Recall that the syllables of English come in two kinds: strong (or ‘full’ or ‘unreduced’ or ‘stressed’), and weak (or ‘reduced’, or ‘unstressed’). Words that end in GA /i, oʊ, ə/ have weak final syllables, like happy, fellow, villa. (Some words have strong /iː/ and strong /oʊ/ in final position, like teepee (/ˈtiːpiː/) ‘wigwam,’ veto, NATO, which latter two words have aspirated /t/.) Word-internally, GA /ɪ/ may occur as a variant of /ə/, particularly before velars, as in educate /ˈɛd͡ʒɪkeɪt/ (or /ˈɛd͡ʒəkeɪt/).

Note that /ə/ occurs in words like acrobatics /ˈækrəˈbætɪks/, popular /ˈpɑːpjələr/, not /(o)ʊ/. Before vowels, we may have /i,u/ word-internally, as in choreography /ˈkɔriɑːgrəfi/, and influential /ˈɪnfluˈɛnʃəl/.

Although initial syllables are not relevant to the WSP, it is pointed out that word-initial syllables can be weak as well. Examples are before /bəˈfɔr/, unite /jəˈnaɪt/ (or /juˈnaɪt//), and all words with Latinate prefixes, such as ab-, con-, ob-, re-, sub-, etc., as in abstain /əbˈsteɪn/, contain /kənˈteɪn/, obtain /əbˈteɪn/, retain /rəˈteɪn/ sustain /səˈsteɪn/.

Here are some words for practice. Look them up in LPD (unless you are absolutely certain how they are pronounced) and write S(trong) or W(eak) over each syllable, as appropriate.

asparagus leotard profession

benign library promise

Chinese November routine

concerted obtuse taxis (pl noun)

December October vernacular

fitted produce (noun) window

leopard produce (verb) zealot

Now give the syllable divisions. For example, asparagus /(ə)(ˈspɛ(r)ə(g)əs)/, etc.

8.7.3 Liaision

There is a third syllabification rule which, unlike MOP and WSP, applies across word-boundaries. It is LIAISON, which says: add the last consonant of a word to the onset of a vowel-initial syllable. Note that any vowel to which LIAISON applies will invariably be word-initial, since all other vowels will already have been assigned an onset by MOP.

The rule will cause five eggs to have the syllable structure /(ˈfaɪ(v)ɛgz)/, with /v/ ambisyllabic. Notice that the second syllable sounds like /vɛgz/, not like [v…ʔɛgz], as learners often pronounce it. In some other languages, no rule like LIAISON may exists, and vowel-initial words are normally preceded by glottal stops, as in “kitten,” which phonemically is /kɪtn/. Obviously, LIAISON applies in fluent, connected speech only.

Here are some sentences to test your understanding of GA syllable structure. Transcribe them, and indicate the syllabification as given by MOP, WSP, and LIAISON, as has been done for the first sentence.

  1. She felt quite at ease./(ʃi) (fɛlt) (kwaɪ(t)ə(t)iːz)/
  1. Kate ate all eggs.
  2. Mary, my late ex, hated acrobatics.
  3. We later coated all walls with latex.
  4. I live in Oregon.