English Consonant Sounds

In the last article on Teaching Pronunciation, we looked at how individual sounds are made, and in particular talked about the way consonant sounds can be classified as voiced or unvoiced, by place of articulation and by manner of articulation. If you haven’t read the article, or don’t remember what the terms mean, it would be useful to have a look at it now, before going on.

There wasn’t time, however, to discuss all of the consonant sounds in that article. So here is a full rundown. I suggest you try making the sounds as you read, so that you get a feel for where and how they are made. We’ll start this time with place of articulation.

The diagram shows the names of the various parts of the mouth involved in the production of English consonants :

A = nasal cavity
B = alveolar ridge
C = hard palate
D = soft palate or velum
E = lips and teeth
F = tongue 1 – tip 2 – blade 3 – body
G = uvula
H = larynx and vocal cords

For each consonant, two parts of the mouth are involved, and the name given to it reflects this. Starting from the front, some consonants are made using both lips – try saying /p/ /b/ /w/ and /m/ - and these are called bilabial consonants (bilabial = two lips)

Now try /f/ and /v/. This time it’s the bottom lip and top teeth which are involved. These are labiodental consonants (labio = lip, dental = teeth).

For nearly all the other consonants, the tongue will interact with another part of the mouth. The name of the consonant doesn’t include a reference to the tongue however, just the point of the mouth which it meets. So for instance, sounds made by an interaction between the tongue and the teeth are just called dental sounds. These are /t/, /d/ and the voiced and unvoiced “th” sounds: / ð/ as in this and /θ/ as in thick .

If you run your tongue back behind your teeth, you come to a bony ridge called the alveolar ridge. Several sounds are made on or just behind the ridge - /s/ /z/ /t/ /d/ /n/ /r/ and /l/

Moving back from the alveolar ridge you come to a similarly hard but smoother zone – the hard palate. /j/ as in yellow is a palatal sound, are as the highlighted consonants in the words sheep, measure, cheap and jeep. There is also a palatal version of the /r/ consonant. If you found it strange that it was classed before as alveolar, you may have been saying the palatal version.

Notice that there is now a difference in the way the tongue is used. For the dental and alveolar sounds, it was the tip of the tongue which was involved. For palatal sounds, however, it’s the blade of the tongue, and as we move further back to the velum (the soft part of the palate, closest to the throat) it’s the back, or body, of the tongue. The velar sounds are /g/ and /k/ and the final consonants in sing and in bottle – often called the “dark” l.

This leaves only the consonant /h/ which is produced by air passing from the windpipe through the vocal cords, or glottis. It's therefore a glottal sound.

Place of Articulation tells us where the consonants are produced, but we also need to consider Manner of Articulation – how they are produced. The most important categories are :

Plosives : Plosive sounds (also called stop sounds) are formed by the air being completely blocked in the mouth and then suddenly released. For example, /k/ and /g/ are formed when the back of the tongue rises to the velum and momentarily blocks the air. These are therefore velar plosives. The other plosive consonants of English are the bilabial plosives /p/ and /b/ and the alveolar plosives /t/ and /d/. Some varieties of English – London English for example – also include a glottal stop which substitutes for the /t/ consonant between vowels. Imagine a London pronunciation of butter, for example.

Fricatives : Fricatives are formed when the two parts of the mouth approach each other closely, not completely blocking the passage of the air, but forcing it through a confined space. The air molecules start to bump against each other causing audible friction. Try the palatal fricative – the sh sound. You can feel your tongue up close to the alveolar ridge and the air passing through the small space left. The full list of English fricatives is : labiodental fricatives - /f/ and /v/; dental fricatives – the two "th" sounds; alveolar fricatives – /s/ and /z/; palatal fricatives - /ʃ/ as in in sheep and /ʒ/ as in measure; and the glottal fricative /h/.

Affricates : Affricates are really a plosive and a fricative combined. The air is initially blocked, and then released through a narrow passageway like a fricative. English has two affricates, the initial sounds in cheap and jeep - / ʧ / and /ʤ/. These are usually classed as palato-alveolar affricates, as they’re made in a position half way between the alveolar ridge and the hard palate.

Nasals : when a nasal sound is produced, the air is prevented from going out through the mouth and is instead released through the nose. There are three English nasals – the bilabial nasal /m/, the alveolar nasal /n/ and the velar nasal /ŋ/ – the final consonant in sing.

Approximant : Approximants are a bit of a hotch-potch category, and contain some of the most problematic sounds in English. We’ll look at them in detail another time, but for now will classify them together as sounds produced when the airstream moves around the , tongue and out of the mouth with almost no obstruction. The English approximants are the bilabial approximant /w/, the alveolar approximants /l/ and /r/, the palatal approximant /j/, as in yes, and the dark l – the velar approximant - as in bottle. Keep in mind, however, that this is a simplification.

This leaves the third distinguishing category which we discussed in the last article – voicing. If the vocal cords are vibrated when the sound is made, the sound is voiced. If the are not, it is unvoiced. Several of the English consonants come in pairs. They have the same place and manner of articulation and are distinguished only by voicing (1). For example /t/ and /d/ are both alveolar plosives, but /t/ is unvoiced while /d/ is voiced. In the summarising chart below, where pairs occur the unvoiced sound is always given first.

If you know where and how the sounds are made, you are in a better position to help your students (2). In the next article in this series we'll look at some teaching techniques to improve students' command of these sounds.


1. This is another simplification, and again something we’ll look at in detail another time.

2. For diagrams of the exact tongue position for each sound see this chapter from Philip Carr, English Phonetics and Phonology, Blackwell Publishing.

Further Reading

Teaching Pronunciation (M. Celce-Murcia et al, CUP) is one of the most useful books I've come across on teaching pronunciation. It manages to combine a thorough analysis of the phonology of English with a wealth of practical activities for use in the classroom. It focuses on the analysis of North American English, so teachers with a British accent need to be on the lookout for differences. But it's a book I wouldn't want to be without for its clarity and practical usefulness.

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