Let's look at consonants again in more detail -- this time
covering all the distinctions that can make different
consonants in all languages, not just English.
In order to fully describe a consonant, we need to be able
to answer seven questions about it. Three of these
questions apply to the entire consonant sound; four of them
have to be answered for each constriction (each place where
the vocal tract narrows).
Questions about each constriction:
Questions about the entire sound (these apply to vowels
as well as consonants):
- active articulator: What part of the vocal tract
moves in order to make the constriction?
lips, tongue tip, tongue blade, tongue body, tongue root.)
- passive articulator: What part of the vocal tract
does the active articulator approach or touch?
(Usual answers: lips, upper teeth, alveolar ridge,
postalveolar region, hard palate, soft palate, uvula, back
- degree of constriction: How close do the active
and passive articulators get to each other?
Usual answers: stop, fricative, approximant.
- laterality: Does air flow around the side(s)
of the tongue?
- nasality: Is air coming out through the nose?
- laryngeal state: What are the vocal folds
Usual answers: voiced, voiceless.
- airstream mechanism: How does the air get moving
for the sound?
Does air escape through the nose during the sound?
For nasal sounds, the answer is yes. For oral
sounds, the answer is no.
(Consonants can also be pre-nasalized or
post-nasalized if the nasality changes during the
course of the consonant.)
What are the vocal folds doing during the sound?
The two most common answers to this question are:
There are a number of different ways in which the vocal
folds can vibrate -- and also ways in which they can fail
to vibrate. For example, the vocal folds might be
completely closed and not vibrating (as they are during
a glottal stop), or they might be open, i.e., held apart
and not vibrating, as they are for almost all other
- voiced: The vocal folds are vibrating.
- voiceless: The vocal folds are not vibrating.
Recall that there are a variety of possible timing relationships
between when the main constriction of a consonant happens
and when voicing starts (see the section on
Voice Onset Time).
"Voiced" and "voiceless" are usually just cover terms
for a language's choice of which points along the VOT
continuum to use. (So, the answer to the "laryngeal
state" question is also a convenient place to mention
if the consonant is aspirated.)
Some other possible states for the vocal folds are not
by themselves terribly useful for language:
But breathiness and creakiness can be perfomed at the same
time as ordinary (modal) voicing. These combinations do
have linguistic uses. In many languages, a [ba] pronounced
with breathy voicing can have a different meaning from a [ba]
pronounced with modal voicing. Similarly, a [ba] pronounced
with creaky voicing might mean something different from a [ba]
pronounced with modal voicing.
- breathy: as in whispering. There is a narrow
opening at one end of the vocal folds that can cause the
air passing through to become mildly turbulent.
- creaky: extremely slow vibration.
Any sound of human language involves modifying a stream of
moving air. In almost all sounds of almost all languages,
this moving airstream is creating by pushing air out from
the lungs (technically, the pulmonic egressive
airstream mechanism). All sounds of English (and the other
common European languages) are pulmonic egressive.
But there are other possible ways of getting the air moving.
Symbols for sounds which use one of the other airstream
mechanisms can be found in the "Consonants (non-pulmonic)"
sub-chart of the IPA chart.
Ejectives sounds are made using the ejective airstream
mechanism. For example, an ejective [t'] is made by:
Because the vocal folds are closed throughout, ejectives
are always voiceless. (For similar reasons, ejectives
can never be nasal.)
- making an alveolar closure and closing the vocal folds.
(This traps the air between the two closures.)
- raising the larynx in the throat. (Since the larynx
houses the vocal folds, which are closed throughout the
ejective sound, this causes the trapped air to occupy less
volume and raises its pressure.)
- releasing the alveolar closure. (The pressurized
trapped air rushes out much more forcefully than in a
Implosives are voiced oral stops, but with a different
method of causing the voicing that involves lowering the
larynx in the throat, pulling the vocal folds across the
air, in addition to (or instead of) pushing the air across
the vocal folds.
Clicks are formed by:
The only languages in the world that use clicks as regular
consonants are the languages of the Kalahari Desert in
south-west Africa and the neighbouring Bantu languages,
like Zulu and Xhosa.
- forming a velar closure and a second closure further
forward in the mouth (with the tongue tip/blade or the lips),
trapping air between the two closures;
- enlarging the space between the two closures (by
lowering the centre of the tongue or lowering the jaw).
The trapped air has to spread out over a wider volume,
creating a partial vacuum;
- releasing the forward closure -- air outside will come
rushing in to fill the partial vacuum, creating a sharp,
The active articulator is the part of the vocal tract that
moves in order to form a constriction. The usual active
articulators, together with their Latinate adjectives, are:
|tongue tip ||apical|
|tongue blade ||laminal|
|tongue body ||dorsal|
|tongue blade ||radical|
The passive articulator is the part of the vocal tract that
the active articulator comes closest to in forming the
constriction. (Since most of the active articulators are
parts of the tongue, most of the passive articulators are
parts of the roof of the mouth.)
The following table shows the passive articulators, their
Latinate terms, and the active articulators that they are
normally paired with:
|Passive articulator ||Adjective ||Usual active articulator(s)|
|lip ||labial ||the other lip |
|upper teeth ||dental ||lower lip, tongue blade, tongue tip |
|alveolar ridge ||alveolar ||tongue tip, tongue blade |
|postalveolar region||postalveolar||tongue blade, tongue tip |
|hard palate ||palatal ||tongue body (sometimes tongue tip) |
|soft palate ||velar ||tongue body |
|uvula ||uvular ||tongue body |
|pharyngeal wall ||pharyngeal ||tongue root |
The active and the passive articulator together define the
constriction's place of articulation. It is common to
express the combination by joining the active articulator's
adjective (ending in "-o") with the passive articulator's
adjective. E.g., a "labio-dental" is a sound involving the
(lower) lip as the active articulator and the (upper) teeth
as the passive articulator. A "dorso-velar" is a sound
involving the tongue body as the active articulator and the
soft palate as the passive articulator.
The three most common degrees of constriction are
stop, fricative, and approximant.
In addition, there are some other consonant properties that
can be thought of as complex constriction degrees:
In a lateral constriction, the centre of the active articulator
contacts the passive articulator, but one side of the active
articulator is lowered so that air can flow around the side of it.
Sounds like this are called laterals. All other sounds
(and that's almost all of them) are sometimes called central
-- but don't confuse this with central vowels (that fall between
front and back).
Depending on how big the opening is at the side of the active
articulator, a lateral can be either an approximant or a
fricative. The [l] of English is a lateral approximant.
Reading the IPA consonant chart,
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