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Concourse 2

Consonants

consonants

If anything in the first part of this guide is unfamiliar to you, you should probably take a little time to refresh your memory concerning the essential concepts in phonology.  You can open that guide in a new tab or window by clicking here.

Two questions:

  1. Can you define 'consonant'?
  2. What are the consonant sounds of English?

Click here when you have an answer.

Only 7 of the 24 sounds need a special symbol to represent them.  It is quite a simple matter to learn how to read and write the phonemic script for consonant sounds.  The only ones which differ from the letters of the Latin alphabet are:

  • /ʃ/ which is represented by the letters sh in, e.g., show (/ʃəʊ/)
  • /ʃ/ also appears in the transcription of the letters ch in, e.g., chuck (/tʃʌk/), i.e. /t/ combined with /ʃ/
  • /ʒ/ which is represented by the letter s in, e.g., measure (/ˈme.ʒə/)
  • /ʒ/ also appears in the transcription of the letters dg in, e.g., badger (/ˈbæ.dʒə/), i.e. /d/ combined with /ʒ/
  • /θ/ which is represented by the letters th in, e.g., thank (/θæŋk/)
  • /ð/ which is represented by the letters th in, e.g., this (/ðɪs/)
  • /ŋ/ which is represented by the letters ng in, e.g., sang (/sæŋ/)

You will need to learn these seven easily to understand what follows.

There are some other things to note:

  • Both the sounds represented by 'th' are considered full phonemes in English.  However, it is rare to find a loss of meaning if /θ/ is replaced with /ð/ and vice versa (although it can happen: consider the noun teeth and the verb to teeth).  These sounds do, however, appear in minimal pairs with other sounds in the list, notably /s/, /z/ and /f/ for many learners.  Because the sounds are not common across languages, learners will often simply substitute them for more familiar sounds, pronouncing, for example:
        think as fink, sink or zinc (i.e., substituting /fɪŋk/, /sɪŋk/ or /zɪŋk/ for /θɪŋk/).
  • Two letters (not phonemes) act as both consonants and vowels:
    W is a consonant in will but a vowel in how.  (The transcription is /wɪl̩/ vs /haʊ/.)  The sound some speakers produce for the 'wh' in which, for example, sounding the /h/, is sometimes transcribed as /wh/, /w/ or /ʍ/ (/wɪtʃ/, /whɪtʃ/ or /ʍɪtʃ/).
    Y is a consonant at the beginning of yesterday, transcribed as /j/ but a vowel at the end in /ˈjest.əd.i./ or /ˈjest.ədeɪ/.  It is also a vowel at the end of potty, transcribed as /i/ in /ˈpɒ.ti/.
  • There are some important allophones of some of the sounds.
    • /p/ is aspirated to /ph/ and /t/ produced as /th/ in some circumstances: compare the sounds in top, pat, spin and pin.  If you hold a thin piece of paper in front of your mouth when saying the words, it will move only (or more) on the aspirated sounds.  The same considerations apply to /k/ and /kh/ (say cake, pack, luck, cackle, bicker).
    • /l/ also appears as /ɫ/ (the so-called 'dark l').  Compare the pronunciations in lull (dark for the second).  Feel what the tip of the tongue is doing.
  • What are phonemes in English are, if they exist at all, often allophones in other languages and vice versa.  Turkish, for example, has dark and light /l/ sounds as full phonemes, Mandarin does the same with /t/ and /th/ and Arabic considers /p/ and /b/ to be the same phoneme.
  • Hearing and correctly identifying consonants is very important.  You can remove vowels (e.g., in a txt msg) but taking out the consonants produces nonsense.  You can try it for yourself:
    Can you understand /tr t f jslf/ with the vowels removed?
    Can you understand /aɪ ɪ ə ɔː e/ with the consonants removed?

Now we can go on to /'klæ.sɪ.faɪ.ɪŋ 'kɒn.sə.nənts/


files

Classifying consonants

There are three areas to consider when classifying consonant sounds:

  1. Voice
  2. Place of articulation
  3. Manner of articulation

shout

Voicing

Voicing describes how phonemes may be different depending on whether the vocal cords vibrate or not at the time of pronunciation.  For example, the /k/ sound is made without voicing but the /ɡ/ sound is made with the mouth parts in the same place but with voice added.  If you put your hand on your throat and say the words sue and zoo, you will see what is meant and feel a slight vibration on the second word (/s/ is unvoiced but /z/ is voiced).
The same phenomenon is noticeable when saying log vs. lock (although the voicing of the /ɡ/ in the first is less obvious).

Sixteen of the consonant phonemes form voiced / unvoiced pairings:

Unvoiced Voiced
/p/ /b/
/tʃ/ /dʒ/
/f/ /v/
/s/ /z/
/k/ /ɡ/
/t/ /d/
/θ/ /ð/
/ʃ/ /ʒ/

Voicing is not a digital, on-off phenomenon; it exists on a cline from fully voiced to fully unvoiced.  In some circumstances, the consonants normally considered voiced are only partially voiced and, more rarely and in very rapid speech, not voiced at all.
In initial and final positions, as in words like had, sob, dig, do, be and go, the consonants /d/, /b/ and /ɡ/ are only partially voiced but in the mid-position, as in words like ladder, rubber and bigger, voicing is more pronounced.
This variation in the level of voicing has led some to use two different terms for the phenomenon:

  1. fortis (meaning strong) which alludes to the fact that unvoiced consonants are, allegedly, pronounced with more energy.  The consonants /p/, /t/ and /k/ are described as fortis consonants.
  2. lenis (meaning weak) alludes to the opposite phenomenon of the consonants /b/, /d/ and /ɡ/ which are variable in the amount of voicing they take and often produced with little force.

There are two other things to know about any consonant:

  1. Where is it pronounced?  This is called place of articulation
  2. How is it pronounced?  This is called manner of articulation

roar

Place of articulation

To figure this out, we need to do a bit of physiology to get the terms right.  As you read the following guide, move your tongue around to identify the parts we are talking about.  Technically, the various parts you identify are called articulators.

  1. Start at the front of your mouth, where it meets the outside world and you have found your lips.  Sounds which require the use of your lips are called labial.  Sounds which require both lips are called bilabial.  An example is the /m/ sound in member.
  2. Behind your lips are your teeth and sounds produced here are, unsurprisingly, called dental.  An example is the th (/ð/) sound in that.
  3. Behind your top front teeth, there is a bony ridge called the alveolar ridge and sounds produced here are called alveolar.  An example is the /t/ sound in teeth.
  4. Behind that, the roof of the mouth has two sections:
    1. the hard palate (where palatal sounds are made) to the front.  An example is the sh (/ʃ/) sound in ship.
    2. the soft palate or vellum to the rear (where we make velar sounds).  An example is the /k/ sound in cake.
  5. Your tongue can reach no further but pause to note that the tongue has three areas: the tip, the front and the back.
  6. Right at the back of the mouth is the glottis where we make glottal sounds.  The only true glottal in English is the /h/ in, for example, horse.  I rapid speech and some varieties of English, there is also the glottal stop (/ʔ/), however, that appears when a consonant is dropped as in, e.g., the Scots and Southern British pronunciation of better as be'er (/ˈbe.ʔə/ rather than /ˈbe.tə/.
  7. The nasal cavity which is connected to the mouth and involved in nasal sounds.  An example is the sound on ng (/ŋ/)in swing.

Here's a picture:

mouth parts

Now pronounce some consonants and see if you can identify which parts of the mouth are involved in making the sounds.  Can you put the following sounds in the table?
/s/ as in seem
/t/ as in tent
/f/ as in fine
/ɡ/ as in gone
/θ/ as in think
/ŋ/ as in sing
/w/ as in went
/h/ happy
/p/ as in pin
/ʃ/ as in shine
In the third column, put in your best guess at the adjective for the type of sound.
You can download a printable version of this and the next activity here.

Click on the table to get the right answer.

place of articulation table

So now we can describe where the sounds are pronounced but we still need a way to distinguish between them.  /s/ and /t/ are both alveolar sounds but they are very different so we need to understand how they are pronounced, the manner of articulation.


dolphin

Manner of articulation

There is, unfortunately, no universally recognised system to describe how sounds are produced.  However, English sounds are all produced pulmonically (i.e., by expelling air) and by restricting its flow in some way.

Stops or plosives
These sounds are produced by completely blocking the air flow and then releasing the blockage.  For example, to produce a /p/ sound, we close both lips, let a little breath build up and then release it by opening the lips.  These sounds can't be made continuously.
There are four phases to their production:
  1. the articulators are closed (e.g., the lips are pressed together for /p/)
  2. the air behind the articulators is compressed
  3. the articulators are moved apart to allow the air to be released
  4. the air, once released, often makes an audible sound or aspiration.  That is the difference between the sound of the 't' and 'p' in top [/tʰɒp/] and pat [/pʰæt/].
English has seven plosive consonants: /p/, /b/, /t/, /d/, /k/, /ɡ/ and /ʔ/.  The last of these is called the glottal plosive and is often an alternative to /p/, /t/ and /k/.
/p/ and /b/ are bilabial, formed by both lips, and the second is voiced.
/t/ and /d/ are alveolar, formed by the tongue pressing against the alveolar ridge (not the teeth), and the second is voiced.
/k/ and /ɡ/ are velar, formed by the back of the tongue pressing against the juncture of the hard and soft palate, and the second is voiced.
The glottal plosive (/ʔ/) is also known as a glottal stop (because the airflow is entirely blocked) and is voiceless.  It has to be voiceless because it is formed by compressing the vocal tract entirely and holding the vocal folds rigid.  It occurs in many words, often replacing a plosive as in the London and Scots pronunciation of butter which may be transcribed as /ˈbʌʔ.ə/ with the /t/ plosive replaced by the glottal.
It is not always a signal of non-standard speech patterns as, in rapid speech, the stop is commonly used.
Nasals
To make these sounds, we close off the airflow (as we do for plosives) but allow the air to enter and flow out through the nasal cavity.  Try saying /ŋ/ and feeling how the soft palate is lowered to allow air to flow upwards.
There are three nasal consonants in English, two of which, /m/ and /n/, cause few problems because they are common to many languages.
The third, /ŋ/, does cause difficulties because it is quite unusual.
It never occurs initially in English.
It occurs frequently in mid-position but is only pronounced as /ŋ/ when the morphology of the word allows it.  It is pronounced /ŋ/ in bringer [/brɪŋ.ə/] because the word is formed from bring + er but it is not pronounced that way in finger [/ˈfɪn.ɡə/] because the word is morphologically different, and not formed from fing + er.
In other words, when it occurs at the end of a morpheme 'ng' is pronounced as /ŋ/ but in other circumstances, 'ng' is pronounced /nɡ/.
Fricatives
To make these sounds, the air flow is not completely cut but is restricted with air flowing continuously and turbulently between two mouth parts.  There are two sorts:
Sibilants: sounds such as /s/ are produced by allowing the air to flow across the tip of the tongue between it and the alveolar ridge.
Lateral fricatives: sounds such as the 'll' sound in Welsh and the 'ch' sound in the word loch where the air flows down both sides of the tongue.
The fricatives in English are:
  • /f/ and /v/ formed by the lips and top teeth (i.e., labiodental sounds).  The second is voiced.  Compare fine and vine.
  • /θ/ and /ð/ formed by the tongue touching the teeth (i.e., dental sounds).  The second is voiced.  Compare breath and breathe.
  • /s/ and /z/ formed as sibilants with the air compressed between between the tongue and the alveolar ridge (i.e., alveolar sounds).  The second is voiced.  Compare bus and buzz.
  • /ʃ/ and /ʒ/ formed by the tongue compressing the air slightly further back (i.e., either palatal or, sometimes, post-alveolar).  The second is voiced.  Compare mesh and measure.
  • /h/ formed by air compressed in the glottis (i.e., glottal).  It is not voiced in English but a voiced equivalent exists in some languages, including Basque, Chinese, Czech, Finish, Korean, Polish, Portuguese, Romanian, Slovak and Slovene.  The sound is usually transcribed as [ɦ] and occurs, incidentally, in some South African speakers' production.  Speakers of those languages may be tempted to insert it into English and, although this rarely causes comprehension issues, it contributes to a foreign accent.
Affricatives
These are formed as a combination of a plosive and a fricative.  First there is closure of the airflow but release is allowed in a restricted way, extending the sounds.  For example, the /dʒ/ sound in bridge is formed in this way.
There are only two affricatives in English:
/tʃ/ and /dʒ/ which have the /t/ the /d/ sounds produced a little further back than in /t/ and /d/ (so the phonemes are called palatal or post-alveolar).  The second is voiced.  Compare chump and jump.
Approximants
These sounds are all voiced and are produced by small obstructions of the airflow.  There are two types of these:
Glides or semi-vowels: for example /w/ is  produced by slightly restricting the airflow by moving the tongue upwards.  It occurs at the beginning of the word would.
Lateral approximants: for example, the /l/ sound in English is formed by using the tongue to stop air moving directly forward and out and forcing it to run along the side of the tongue.  It occurs in the word lullaby in both its allophones.

There are some other ways to make sounds and languages are quite inventive.  These include trills (the Spanish rolled /r/) in which the tongue vibrates and flaps (for example, the 'dd' sound in madder in US English) when the airflow is momentarily interrupted.

Retroflex sounds

Retroflex sounds are formed in many languages with the tongue concave and/or curled back on itself to block the air flow, like this:
retroflex
(Image adapted from Wikipedia)

For example:
    Russian and Polish have a retroflex /z/, transcribed as [ʐ].
    Hindi and other Indian languages have a retroflex /t/ transcribed as [ʈ].
    Swedish has both a retroflex /ŋ/ transcribed as [ɳ] and a retroflex /d/ transcribed as [ɖ].
    Chinese languages have a retroflex /s/ transcribed as [ʂ].
If speakers of these languages import the retroflex sounds into English it contributes greatly to a foreign accent.
It is usually helpful to make learners aware of the differences.


mark

Markedness and phonemic substitution

Markedness in this sense refers to how widely consonants are represented in the world's languages.  That, it is sometimes averred, is a measure of how hard they are to acquire.  The common sounds will give few problems but consonants which are not represented in the learners' first language(s) will, understandably, cause significant problems.

There is evidence to suggest that the unvoiced consonant sounds, especially, /t/, /s/, /p/, and /k/ are common to nearly all languages and are, therefore, considered unmarked.  They should cause few learners any trouble at all except in terms of their allophonic varieties (with and without aspiration).
The consonant /n/ is also an unmarked form which appears in many languages.
On the other hand, the equivalent voiced sounds, /d/, /z/, /b/ and /ɡ/ are marked in that they do not universally occur with anything like the same frequency so they require more attention as does the nasalised /ŋ/ which is also less common and causes some learners a good deal of difficulty.

Where a sound may occur also plays a role.  Final voiced consonants are rare in many languages, including German and Dutch, for example and this may tempt learners of those backgrounds to pronounce dog as dock, cab as cap, cadge as catch and so on.

There is a guide on this site to teaching troublesome sounds which considers many of the more marked, i.e., less common, vowel sounds.


test

A summary and test

Now we have all three ways to classify the consonants and can describe them properly.  These three ways are:

  1. Voicing
  2. Place of articulation
  3. Manner of articulation

Can you complete this chart?  If you have your downloaded and printed activity sheet to hand, do it there.  If you would like to download that now, click here.  When you have filled in all the consonant sounds, click on the chart to reveal the answer.

consonant grid

The voiced consonants are in bold.
Notice, too, that /t/ and /d/ are alveolar stops in English, not dental sounds as they are in a range of other languages.  Making them dental sounds contributes to a foreign accent in English.

If you would like to hear these sounds, the ideal place to go has been kindly provided by the British Council.

Of course there's a test (two, to be honest on what has been covered up to now).


writing

Spelling consonant sounds

What follows is a guide to how the consonant sounds of English are realised in its orthography.  If you have followed the general guide to spelling in English, you will be aware that English is often described, sometimes despairingly, as a wholly inconsistently spelled language with no discernible connections between sound and spelling.  You will also be aware that that is only very partially true.
In the case of consonant sounds, there are clear consistencies and these are teachable.

The following takes each consonant in turn and suggests the commonest way that the sounds are realised in the morphology as well as noting some rarities, often loan words from other languages, which have to be learned individually.
A silent final 'e' has been ignored in this list and the ordering is as for the list of consonants in the table above.

Sound Common spellings Rarities and varieties Sound Common spellings Rarities and varieties
/p/ p or pp:
pepper
pill
people
gh:
hiccough
(unique)
/z/ z, zz, or s:
zoology
puzzle
please
grabs
cz:
czarina
(also tsarina)
x:
xylem
/d/ d, dd or ed:
did
peddle
framed
dh:
dharma
AmE: tt:
matter
/h/ h or wh:
he
whom
j:
fajita
ch:
chutzpah
x:
Quixote
/tʃ/ ch, tch or t:
chum
match
nature
righteous

tch is never initial
c:
cello
cz:
Czech
tsch:
putsch
/ŋ/ ng, n or ngue:
sang
think
tongue
nd:
handkerchief
/v/ v, vv or f:
volume
navvy
of
ph:
Stephen
w:
weltanschauung
/j/ y or i:
young
bunion
j:
hallelujah
r:
February
/s/ s, ss or c:
sad
less
since
cc:
flaccid
ps:
psalter
/t/ t, tt, bt, ght or ed:
tense
debt
butt
fight
pressed
cht:
yacht
pt:
pterosaur
th:
thyme
/ʒ/ g, j or s:
genre
bijou
leisure
si:
division
ti:
equation
z:
seizure
/ɡ/ g, gue or gh:
gone
dialogue
(BrE)
ghost
gg:
egg
ckg:
blackguard
/n/ n, nn or kn:
noise
inner
knock
kn is only initial
nn is only medial
dn:
Wednesday
gn:
gnome
mn:
mnemonic
nd:
handsome
/f/ f, ff, gh or ph:
find
ruffle
rough
phantom
pph:
sapphire
u:
lieutenant (BrE)
/r/ r, rr or wr:
rise
furrow
wrong
l:
colonel
rh:
rhythm
/ð/ th:
that
-
/b/ b or bb:
bar
oblong
obey
abbot
gobble
bh:
bhang
pb:
cupboard
/ʃ/ sh, s, ss, c, ce, ch or ti:
shave
sugar
mission
special
ocean
machine
mention
chsi:
fuchsia
sc:
crescendo
sch:
schlepp
/k/ c, k, kk or cc:
cab
kick
trekked
accountant
ck is never initial
ch:
chord
q:
liquor
/m/ m, mm or mb:
money
hammer
comb
mn:
autumn
/dʒ/ g, j, dg or dj:
magic
judge
graduate
adjourn
ch:
sandwich
gg:
veggie
/l/ l or ll:
limb
fellow
sl:
aisle
/θ/ th:
think
tth:
Matthew
/w/ w, wh or u:
wall
when
persuasion
o:
choir



Go to the index for the pronunciation section of the in-service guides