Please describe completely the consonants of English.

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Karen P.L. Hardison | College Teacher | eNotes Employee

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It may be said that English consonants are phonemes that create meaning. Consider, for example, the change in meaning when the phoneme /m/ is switched with the phoneme /c/: {man} becomes {can} and meaning is changed.

It may also be said that English consonants are distinct from English vowels because of several features. The main feature is that usually, though not always, consonants have interrupted airflow instead of prolonged airflow and thus have lesser vibrational quality. To illustrate, it is easy to sing prolonged notes on a vowel like /a/ or /u/, but impossible to sing a prolonged note on /p/ or /t/; some exceptions to interrupted airflow are /m/ and /l/.

There are three main categories of consonants. The categories describe the three dominate traits of consonant articulation. The first is manner, which describes whether and in what manner airflow is affected by articulation, e.g., fricative or nasal. The second is place, which describes where articulation occurs and which articulators are involved, e.g., teeth and lips for labio-dental. The third is voice, which describes whether vocal chord vibrations are continued or curtailed, e.g., /b/ in "bunny".versus /p/ in "puppy."

Each of the three main descriptive categories have subcategories that further describe specific kinds of articulation. For manner, some subcategories are:

Fricative: formed by airflow forced through constrictions in the articulatory anatomy, or vocal tract: e.g., /f/ /h/ /v/.
Nasal: formed with oral cavity closure and airflow forced past an open velum into the nasal cavity: /m/ /n/ and -ng sounds.
Stop: formed by complete blockage of airflow, consequent heightening of air pressure, and release of air pressure (i.e., plosion), e.g., /k/ /t/ /b/ /g/.
Glide: formed by the gliding motion of articulators against each other (less distinct in American English): /w/ /j/

Place of articulation and placement of articulators is more difficult to explain since it requires knowledge of the anatomy of articulation. Some articulatory parts it is necessary to know are the tongue blade, epiglottis, velum, labial,and alveolar ridge. To understand place, it is critical that you commit this anatomy to memory. A good cross-section diagram of the mouth and throat is essential (click the "anatomy" hyperlink to a good diagram).

Voice is somewhat simpler to explain. Sets of consonants come in contrasting pairs of which one part activates vocal chord vibration while the other does not. A standard example of this is the pair /t/ and /d/. Articulate a /t/ and you have no vocal chord vibration; no matter how hard you try, all you get is a plosive aspiration. Articulate a /d/ and you can produce vocal chord vibration that can be sustained for a short time. Some other pairs of voiced-unvoiced consonants are /b/ /p/ and /g/ /k/.


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