Quick Summary:

Consonants are speech sounds that are made by obstructing the flow of air through the vocal tract in one way or another. But there are a lot of different places that we can influence the airstream from our lungs and out of our mouths and noses, and there are a lot of different ways to do it. We've got a very strong ability to differentiate between different sounds, and the way that we've organized the International Phonetic Alphabet (IPA) chart helps us tell at a glance where a sound is pronounced, and how free the flow is. For reference, here's the consonant chart:

The columns in the chart represent place of articulation, or where the air flow is blocked in the mouth in order to create any given consonant. The further to the right you go on the chart, the further back in the vocal tract that the sounds are pronounced. So at the far left, we have bilabial sounds, which are made by having the lips themselves stop the flow. There's no more vocal tract after the lips, so this is as far forward as we can go. Then, as the chart progresses to the right, we find sounds made with the tip or blade of the tongue, then the tongue body, and then the tongue root, all by moving the tongue up towards various places in the vocal tract to influence air flow. The final place, at the far right, are the glottal sounds, pronounced in the larynx itself, the vocal folds at which we produces our vocal vibrations. The larynx is at the very beginning of our vocal tract! So from beginning to end, we've cut up the inside of our mouth into a large number of areas where we can perceive changes in where the air flow is being restricted.

On the other hand, for the rows, we keep track of manner of articulation, or the way in which we restrict the airflow. These rows also have a progression: the higher up in the chart is, the less air is allowed to escape from the mouth or the rest of the vocal tract. So at the top, we have plosives, or stops, where no air at all is allowed to escape from the vocal tract. Next, we have nasal stops, where air can't escape the mouth, but can escape through the nose; trills and taps, where air is stopped for only a very brief period; fricatives, where the air is allowed through only narrow, turbulent, noisy channels; and approximants, where air flow is fairly free, but not as free as with vowels. We also have two rows for lateral fricatives and approximants, where air is blocked through the center of the mouth, but instead escapes by lowering the sides of the tongue and flowing by that way.

Finally, we have pairs of sounds in various boxes, to denote voicing: whether the sound in question is pronounced while the vocal folds are vibrating, or not. When a symbol is to the left side of the box it's in, that means it's voiceless, and no vibration occurs while the sound is being produced; when a symbol is to the right side, that means it's voiced, with good vibrations occurring while the sound is pronounced.

Between all the places and all the manners, and the pair of voiced and voiceless, we can represent quite a lot of speech sounds! And when you know how they're organized, the IPA chart is actually quite helpful for working out what kind of sound you're looking at.

 

Extra Materials:

As many consonant sounds are represented in the IPA chart itself, there are still a lot more ways of pronouncing things that languages use that don't have their own letters. But of course, we're interested in all the variation in sounds that languages use to encode different meanings. So how do we capture that extra information, beyond the symbols in the chart themselves?

By using diacritics, like these:

Diacritics-th.gif

Diacritics are little extra symbols that are placed somewhere around the letter to signify more information about exactly how the sound is pronounced. This chart includes symbols that are primarily for vowels, like breathy or creaky voice, and we'll leave those to talk about when we return to talk about vowels later. But the majority of these are for consonants, and they can really let us get down to the nitty-gritty of how we pronounce things.

Many of these diacritics are of use for English, when we really want to keep track of exactly how everything is being said, and transcribe as closely to what we hear as possible. We don't generally need to record them when all we care about is phonemes in English, because the variation shown by diacritics doesn't generally cause a change in meaning. So we don't bother putting them into less exact transcriptions, as we talked about back in Topic 5.  However, if we want all that detail, then the diacritics start showing up for English. This finer transcription is known as narrow transcription.

Let's look at a few examples. Try to feel what your lips are doing when you say a word like queen, as compared to a word like keep. You probably feel that they're more rounded in the former word than the latter, right? So if we want to signal that, that'd be done with the labialized diacritic, ʷ, since you're adding an articulation with the lips to a sound that doesn't normally have one. That's why you have [kʷwin]. for queen.

Except, maybe you noticed something else going on with that /k/ sound that starts off queen. It's not just that you've rounded your lips when you've made it. You've also probably released it with an extra puff of air that you don't get when that /k/ sound isn't at the start of a stressed syllable, like in something like squeal. The /k/ in squeal doesn't have that puff, even though you still round your lips there. So squeal would be [skʷwil], but we need another diacritic for the one in queen. That's the aspirated symbol, ʰ. So let's update our transcription, and make it [kʷʰwin].

We express some of the variation that we see for place of articulation in English using diacritics, as well. Let's look at something like nine. If you pay attention to your tongue, you'll notice both of those [n] sounds are nice and normal, pronounced against the alveolar ridge, like [najn]. But now, let's move to a related word, ninth. Where does your tongue go for the second [n]? It's probably down against the back of your teeth now. We mark that by sticking the dental diacritic  ̪  underneath the [n], as in [najθ]. (Note that it should go directly underneath the [n]; the dental diacritic has an unfortunate tendency to slide around on the internet.)

So you may be thinking by this point that the use of diacritics is limited to just these smaller sound variations. It's good to know, but does it help us much? Well, for English, it may be the case that diacritic use is limited like this, but it's certainly not the case cross-linguistically. Take a look at these examples:

  1. [tɔp]          "to support"              [tʰɔp]        "to be suffocated"           (Khmer)
  2. [am]          "your"                        [amʷ]        "our (excluding you)       (Marshallese)
  3. [t̪al]           "beat"                         [ʈal]           "postpone"                      (Hindi)
  4. [t̪ʰal]          "plate"                        [ʈʰal]          "workshop"                     (Hindi)

In each of these cases, we see differences in meaning driven by a change in sound that's marked by a diacritic. All of these are minimal pairs: words that differ in meaning that only differ by one sound. For a language like Khmer, which is spoken in Cambodia, aspiration is crucial: it's the difference between support and suffocation, in that pair. Or look at Marshallese, a Polynesian language spoken in the Marshall Islands. Whether it's your thing, or whether it belongs to the group and not to you at all, depends on that labialization on the [m]. You better have that sorted out before you start taking food or clothes or stuff.

The examples in (3) and (4) are interesting from Hindi, in that we can see both that dental articulation and aspiration make meaningful, contrastive differences in the language. You move from dental to retroflex, or you move from non-aspirated to aspirated, and suddenly you're postponing when you just wanted to know about the workshop.

So diacritics and the sound differences they signify really play a big role, not just in the variation we see in English, but big, meaningful changes in a lot of other languages. Even if they're not their own letters, little symbols like these can go a long way.

 

Discussion:

So how about it? What do you all think? Let us know below, and we’ll be happy to talk with you about where and how we pronounce our consonants, and the great variety we see between languages. There’s a lot of interesting stuff to say, and we want to hear what interests you!

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