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Introduction to week 3: consonants

English has various consonant sounds. Consonants can be described and identified according to three properties. Watch Laura Rupp explain more.
Welcome to Week Three. In this week we will address consonants in English pronunciation and consonant features. While vowels are presented in a vowel diagram, consonants are denoted in a consonant grid. This is the IPA consonant grid with all known consonants of languages in the world. And these are just the consonants of English. We take out the unused rows and columns to keep this compact chart. How are these consonants pronounced? Whenever we articulate a sound, be it a vowel or a consonant, we breathe in through our lungs and let the air escape through our trachea again. The flow of air leaves the vocal tract via our oral or nasal cavity.
Consonants differ from vowels in that we interrupt and modify this outgoing airflow In order to describe this process we look at three parameters in the articulation of consonants. The first is voicing, the second is the manner in which the airstream gets modified, and the third is the particular place in the vocal tract where the airstream gets modified. We begin with voicing. The first speech organ that the airflow meets on its way out is the larynx. Within the larynx, we find our two focal folds, also known as vocal cords. When we breathe normally, or when we pronounced a so-called voiceless sound, we leave the vocal folds spread, in which case the airstream passes through them unimpeded.
However, we can also bring the vocal folds together and make them vibrate. We then pronounce a voiced sound. You will experience a difference clearly when you block your ears and first say “ssss”, which is a voiceless sound, and then “zzzz”, which is a voiced sound. Can you hear your vocal folds vibrate? We can manipulate our vocal folds in many other ways– for example, to produce (WHISPERING) whisper, or a (HOARSE VOICE) hoarse voice, (CREAKY VOICE) or a creaky voice. But we will not consider this here. In a consonant grid, whenever you find two consonants in one cell, the left one is voiceless and the right is voiced. Note also that all vowels are voiced.
The second parameter that we will discuss is the place of articulation. This refers to the particular point in the vocal tract where we can modify the airflow with speech organs other than the larynx. These speech organs are our two lips, our upper and lower teeth, and the alveolar ridge, which is the rigid surface just behind our upper teeth. You can easily feel it with your tongue. Next is the hard palate– the area behind the alveolar ridge. This turns into the soft palate or velum, and finally the uvula, the piece of tissue that you can see in the back of your mouth when you look in the mirror and have your mouth wide open.
The largest and most flexible speech organ is our tongue, which can be divided into four parts– the tip, the front, to back, and the root. The place of articulation of a consonant is, accordingly, indicated by the columns in the consonant grid– bilabial, labiodental, dental, alveolar, post-alveolar, palatal, velar, and glottal. The rows in the consonant grid indicate our third parameter– the manner of articulation. This concerns the degree of constriction that we make when we pronounce a consonant. The different manners of articulation that we will consider in relation to English are– plosives, nasals, fricatives, approximants, and lateral approximants. We begin with the plosives, which are also called stops. We produce plosive consonants by temporarily fully blocking the airflow and then releasing it.
English has two bilabial plosives that we pronounce with our two lips– they are voiceless /p/ as in “pie”, and voiced /b/ as in “buy”. There are also alveolar plosives, /t/ in “tie” and /d/ in “die”. Note that when /t/ occurs intervocalically, between two vowels– as in “better”, “later”, and “waiting”– in American English, the tip of the tongue only briefly touches the alveolar ridge– “beɾer”, “laɾer”, and “waiɾing”. This is called ‘tapping’. In some other accents of English, speakers pronounce a completely different plosive in this position, by closing the gap between the two vocal folds, the glottis. This plosive is called the ‘glottal stop’ and sounds like “beʔ-er” “laʔ-er” and “waiʔ-ing.”
While the glottal stop is a natural pronunciation feature that occurs in many languages, it is not a feature of standard English. The last pair of plosives are the two velar ones– /k/ as in “kite” and /g/ as in “guy”. These were the seven plosives that we find in English. In the case of fricatives, or hissing sounds, there is no complete closure. Rather, we make a narrowing at some place in the vocal tract, and this generates friction– “ffff”, “ssss”, and so on. In voiceless /f/ in “fly” and voiced /v/ in “viva”, we place the upper teeth on the lower lip. Therefore, they are labiodental fricatives.
Voiceless /θ/ as in “thigh” and voiced /ð/ as in “thy” can be pronounced either as dental fricatives– this is what I do, I place the tip of my tongue against the back of my upper teeth– or interdentally, with your tongue between your teeth. These fricatives are notorious. They only occur in very few languages in the world, and many speakers find them difficult to pronounce. If you have difficulty, you could try this. Place the tip of your tongue against the back of your upper teeth and breathe normally– “thigh” and “thy”. /s/, which is voiceless, and /z/,, which is voiced, are alveolar fricatives. The tip of the tongue is brought towards the alveolar ridge.
They are somewhat sharper than in a number of other languages– “sigh” and “zoo”. Voiceless /ʃ/ in “shy” and voiced /ʒ/ in “measure” are also sharp. They are pronounced in the area behind the alveolar ridge– therefore they are post-alveolar. Finally, /h/ as in “high”, which does not have a voiced counterpart in English, is pronounced by narrowing the glottis– /h/, “high”. So these were the effective consonants of English. In addition to plosives and fricatives, English has two affricates. Affricates are like diphthongs that we have seen in the category of vowels. You pronounce two consonants together that acoustically have the length of one consonant. The English affricates begin as a plosive and end in a fricative.
The voiceless affricate begins as /t/ and ends in /ʃ/, /tʃ/ as in “church”. And the voiced affricate begins as /d/ and ends in /ʒ/– /dʒ/, as in “judge”. We now turn to nasal consonants. We produce nasal sounds by releasing air through our nasal cavity. Meanwhile, we close off our oral cavity, either with our two lips– /m/ in “my”, or at the alveolar ridge– /n/ in “nigh”, or at the velum– /ŋ/ in “ring”. All of the nasals are voiced. The last type of consonant in English is the approximant. Approximants are vowel-like in that the airflow is hardly interrupted. Therefore, like vowels, all approximants are voiced. The first here is /l/ as in “lie”.
In the case of /l/, we place the tip of our tongue against the alveolar ride and the air can freely escape sideways, or laterally. “llll”. Another approximant is /j/, as in “yes”. In this case we raise the body of our tongue towards our palate, but not more than to such a degree that the air can escape centrally. For illustration pronounce a long close vowel, /iː/– “eeee”– and attempt to raise your tongue increasingly higher. “Eeeejjj”. You will experience that “eeee” turns into /j/. You see, approximants are only pronounced with a little more constriction than vowels. /j/ plays a central role in another difference between British and American English.
Generally, in English, whenever a consonant is followed by the long GOOSE-vowel “oooo”, the consonant gets a /j/ flavour, as in “few” /fuː/ –> /fjuː/. In the course of history, however, this /j/ flavour has been lost from some consonants– like, for example /s/ at the beginning of a word. We nowadays say ‘suit’, not “syuit”. Since in linguistics the sound a /j/ is known by the name ‘yod’, this loss of the year flavour is called ‘yod-dropping’. Some accents of English have dropped yod on a larger scale than others. For example, compared to British English, American English speakers drop yods with s- more often– like “assume”, not “asyume”, and also after /n/, /t/ and /d/.
American English speakers say “new”, “Tuesday”, “YouTube”, and “duke”. And British English speakers say “nyew”, “Tyuesday”, “YouTyube”, and “dyuke”. The approximant /w/ as in why has a dual articulation– one, the back of the tongue is raised towards the velum, while two, the lips are rounded. Note that saying “oooo”, the rounded back vowel, and then -est– oooo-est– comes very close to saying “west”. The last English consonant that we will discuss here is R There are, in fact, many different ways of pronouncing R. In standard British English, it is an alveolar approximant. We point our tongue towards the alveolar ridge– /r/ as in “rye”.
For other accents of English, in the United States and Ireland, for instance, we need to expand the chart again to include the retroflex column. There, R is more retroflex, meaning that the tongue is drawn back in the oral cavity– /ɻ/. In my native Dutch language. I have a uvular trill– /ʀ/– and the French have a uvular fricative /ʁ/, as in “bonjour”. So what kind of R do you have in your native language? As with vowels, we find variation in the pronunciation of consonants among speakers of English. One of the reasons for the variation is that speakers who do not have a particular English consonant in their inventory will use another consonant from their native language or dialect.
Let’s listen, for example to the range of different ways in which speakers may pronounce the voiceless dental fricative in the word– Faith. Faith. Faith. Faith. Faith. Faith. Faith. Faith. As we said before, this variation is perfectly acceptable, as long as you mind those consonant features that enhance comprehension. Accordingly, we have the following programme this week– you will learn which English consonants are important for intelligibility. You will practise English consonants. And you will reflect on the progress that you’ve made thus far.

English has various consonants. Consonants can be described and identified according to three properties. Watch Laura Rupp explain more. You need to understand the information provided by the video in order to be able to work on your English consonants.

The video will also outline the learning objectives of this week: you will read about the impact of consonants on intelligibility, you will analyse and practise English consonant sounds, and reflect on the progress that you have made.

Note: a list of voiced and voiceless consonants In English can be downloaded below.

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English Pronunciation in a Global World

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