In articulatory phonetics, a consonant is a speech sound that is articulated with complete or partial closure of the vocal tract. Examples are [p], pronounced with the lips; [t], pronounced with the front of the tongue; [k], pronounced with the back of the tongue; [h], pronounced in the throat; [f] and [s], pronounced by forcing air through a narrow channel (fricatives); and [m] and [n], which have air flowing through the nose (nasals). Contrasting with consonants are vowels.
Since the number of possible sounds in all of the world's languages is much greater than the number of letters in any one alphabet, linguists have devised systems such as the International Phonetic Alphabet (IPA) to assign a unique and unambiguous symbol to each attested consonant. In fact, the English alphabet has fewer consonant letters than English has consonant sounds, so digraphs like "ch", "sh", "th", and "zh" are used to extend the alphabet, and some letters and digraphs represent more than one consonant. For example, the sound spelled "th" in "this" is a different consonant than the "th" sound in "thin". (In the IPA, they are transcribed [ð] and [θ], respectively.)
Dionysius Thrax calls consonants sýmphōna "pronounced with" because they can only be pronounced with a vowel.[a] He divides them into two subcategories: hēmíphōna, semivowels ("half-pronounced"), which correspond to continuants, not semivowels,[b] and áphōna, mute or silent consonants ("unvoiced"), which correspond to stops, not voiceless consonants.[c]
This description does not apply to some human languages, such as the Salishan languages, in which stops sometimes occur without vowels (see Nuxálk), and the modern conception of consonant does not require co-occurrence with vowels.
The word consonant is also used to refer to a letter of an alphabet that denotes a consonant sound. The 21 consonant letters in the English alphabet are B, C, D, F, G, H, J, K, L, M, N, P, Q, R, S, T, V, X, Z, and usually W and Y. The letter Y stands for the consonant /j/ in yoke, the vowel /ɪ/ in myth, the vowel /i/ in funny, and the diphthong /aɪ/ in my. W always represents a consonant except in combination with a vowel letter, as in growth, raw, and how, and in a few loanwords from Welsh, like crwth or cwm.
In some other languages, such as Finnish, y only represents a vowel sound.
Consonants and vowels correspond to distinct parts of a syllable: The most sonorous part of the syllable (that is, the part that's easiest to sing), called the syllabic peak or nucleus, is typically a vowel, while the less sonorous margins (called the onset and coda) are typically consonants. Such syllables may be abbreviated CV, V, and CVC, where C stands for consonant and V stands for vowel. This can be argued to be the only pattern found in most of the world's languages, and perhaps the primary pattern in all of them. However, the distinction between consonant and vowel is not always clear cut: there are syllabic consonants and non-syllabic vowels in many of the world's languages.
One blurry area is in segments variously called semivowels, semiconsonants, or glides. On one side, there are vowel-like segments that are not in themselves syllabic, but form diphthongs as part of the syllable nucleus, as the i in English boil [ˈbɔɪ̯l]. On the other, there are approximants that behave like consonants in forming onsets, but are articulated very much like vowels, as the y in English yes [ˈjɛs]. Some phonologists model these as both being the underlying vowel /i/, so that the English word bit would phonemically be /bit/, beet would be /bii̯t/, and yield would be phonemically /i̯ii̯ld/. Likewise, foot would be /fut/, food would be /fuu̯d/, wood would be /u̯ud/, and wooed would be /u̯uu̯d/. However, there is a (perhaps allophonic) difference in articulation between these segments, with the [j] in [ˈjɛs] yes and [ˈjiʲld] yield and the [w] of [ˈwuʷd] wooed having more constriction and a more definite place of articulation than the [ɪ] in [ˈbɔɪ̯l] boil or [ˈbɪt] bit or the [ʊ] of [ˈfʊt] foot.
The other problematic area is that of syllabic consonants, segments articulated as consonants but occupying the nucleus of a syllable. This may be the case for words such as church in rhotic dialects of English, although phoneticians differ in whether they consider this to be a syllabic consonant, /ˈtʃɹ̩tʃ/, or a rhotic vowel, /ˈtʃɝtʃ/: Some distinguish an approximant /ɹ/ that corresponds to a vowel /ɝ/, for rural as /ˈɹɝl/ or [ˈɹʷɝːl̩]; others see these as a single phoneme, /ˈɹɹ̩l/.
Other languages use fricative and often trilled segments as syllabic nuclei, as in Czech and several languages in Democratic Republic of the Congo, and China, including Mandarin Chinese. In Mandarin, they are historically allophones of /i/, and spelled that way in Pinyin. Ladefoged and Maddieson call these "fricative vowels" and say that "they can usually be thought of as syllabic fricatives that are allophones of vowels". That is, phonetically they are consonants, but phonemically they behave as vowels.
Many Slavic languages allow the trill [r̩] and the lateral [l̩] as syllabic nuclei (see Words without vowels). In languages like Nuxalk, it is difficult to know what the nucleus of a syllable is, or if all syllables even have nuclei. If the concept of 'syllable' applies in Nuxalk, there are syllabic consonants in words like /sx̩s/ (/s̩xs̩/?) 'seal fat'. Miyako in Japan is similar, with /f̩ks̩/ 'to build' and /ps̩ks̩/ 'to pull'.
Each spoken consonant can be distinguished by several phonetic features:
All English consonants can be classified by a combination of these features, such as "voiceless alveolar stop" [t]. In this case, the airstream mechanism is omitted.
Consonants are scheduled by their features in a number of IPA charts:
|IPA: Pulmonic consonants|
|IPA: Non-pulmonic consonants|
|IPA: Co-articulated consonants|
The recently extinct Ubykh language had only 2 or 3 vowels but 84 consonants; the Taa language has 87 consonants under one analysis, 164 under another, plus some 30 vowels and tone. The types of consonants used in various languages are by no means universal. For instance, nearly all Australian languages lack fricatives; a large percentage of the world's languages lack voiced stops as phonemes, such as [b], [d], and [ɡ]. Most languages, however, do include one or more fricatives, with [s] being the most common, and a liquid consonant or two, with [l] the most common. The approximant [w] is also widespread, and virtually all languages have one or more nasals, though a very few, such as the Central dialect of Rotokas, lack even these. This last language has the smallest number of consonants in the world, with just six.
The most common consonants around the world are the three voiceless stops [p], [t], [k], and the two nasals [m], [n]. However, even these common five are not universal. Several languages in the vicinity of the Sahara Desert, including Arabic, lack [p]. Several languages of North America, such as Mohawk, lack both of the labials [p] and [m]. The Wichita language of Oklahoma and some West African languages, such as Ijo, lack the consonant /n/ on a phonemic level, but do use it as an allophone of another consonant (of /l/ in the case of Ijo, and of /ɾ/ in Wichita). A few languages on Bougainville Island and around Puget Sound, such as Makah, lack both of the nasals [m] and [n]. The 'click language' Nǁng lacks [t],[d] and colloquial Samoan lacks both alveolars, [t] and [n].[e] Despite the 80-odd consonants of Ubykh, it lacks the plain velar /k/ in native words, as do the related Adyghe and Kabardian languages. But with a few striking exceptions, such as Xavante and Tahitian—which have no dorsal consonants whatsoever—nearly all other languages have at least one velar consonant: the few languages that do not have a simple [k] usually have a consonant that is very similar.[f] For instance, an areal feature of the Pacific Northwest coast is that historical *[k] has become palatalized in many languages, so that Saanich for example has [tʃ] and [kʷ] but no plain [k]; similarly, historical *[k] in the Northwest Caucasian languages became palatalized to /kʲ/ in Ubykh and /tʃ/ in most Circassian dialects.
The most frequent consonant (that is, the one appearing most often in speech) in many languages is [p].
The following pages include consonant charts with links to audio samples.
Alveolar consonants () are articulated with the tongue against or close to the superior alveolar ridge, which is called that because it contains the alveoli (the sockets) of the superior teeth. Alveolar consonants may be articulated with the tip of the tongue (the apical consonants), as in English, or with the flat of the tongue just above the tip (the "blade" of the tongue; called laminal consonants), as in French and Spanish. The laminal alveolar articulation is often mistakenly called dental, because the tip of the tongue can be seen near to or touching the teeth. However, it is the rearmost point of contact that defines the place of articulation; this is where the oral cavity ends, and it is the resonant space of the oral cavity that gives consonants and vowels their characteristics. The International Phonetic Alphabet (IPA) does not have separate symbols for the alveolar consonants. Rather, the same symbol is used for all coronal places of articulation that are not palatalized like English palato-alveolar sh, or retroflex. To disambiguate, the bridge ([s̪, t̪, n̪, l̪], etc.) may be used for a dental consonant, or the under-bar ([s̠, t̠, n̠, l̠], etc.) may be used for the postalveolars. Note that [s̪] differs from dental [θ] in that the former is a sibilant and the latter is not. [s̠] differs from postalveolar [ʃ] in being unpalatalized. The bare letters [s, t, n, l], etc. cannot be assumed to specifically represent alveolars. The language may not make such distinctions, such that two or more coronal places of articulation are found allophonically, or the transcription may simply be too broad to distinguish dental from alveolar. If it is necessary to specify a consonant as alveolar, a diacritic from the Extended IPA may be used: [s͇, t͇, n͇, l͇], etc., though that could also mean extra-retracted. The letters ⟨s, t, n, l⟩ are frequently called 'alveolar', and the language examples below are all alveolar sounds.
(The Extended IPA diacritic was devised for speech pathology and is frequently used to mean "alveolarized", as in the labioalveolar sounds [p͇, b͇, m͇, f͇, v͇], where the lower lip contacts the alveolar ridge.)Aspirated consonant
In phonetics, aspiration is the strong burst of breath that accompanies either the release or, in the case of preaspiration, the closure of some obstruents. In English, aspirated consonants are allophones in complementary distribution with their unaspirated counterparts, but in some other languages, notably most Indian and East Asian languages, the difference is contrastive, while in Arabic and Persian, all stops are aspirated.To feel or see the difference between aspirated and unaspirated sounds, one can put a hand or a lit candle in front of one's mouth, and say spin [spɪn] and then pin [pʰɪn]. One should either feel a puff of air or see a flicker of the candle flame with pin that one does not get with spin.Bilabial consonant
In phonetics, a bilabial consonant is a labial consonant articulated with both lips.Dental consonant
A dental consonant is a consonant articulated with the tongue against the upper teeth, such as /t/, /d/, /n/, and /l/ in some languages. Dentals are usually distinguished from sounds in which contact is made with the tongue and the gum ridge, as in English (see alveolar consonant) because of the acoustic similarity of the sounds and the fact that in the Roman alphabet, they are generally written using the same symbols (like t, d, n).
In the International Phonetic Alphabet, the diacritic for dental consonant is U+032A ◌̪ COMBINING BRIDGE BELOW.Flap consonant
In phonetics, a flap or tap is a type of consonantal sound, which is produced with a single contraction of the muscles so that one articulator (such as the tongue) is thrown against another.Fricative consonant
Fricatives are consonants produced by forcing air through a narrow channel made by placing two articulators close together. These may be the lower lip against the upper teeth, in the case of [f]; the back of the tongue against the soft palate, in the case of German [x] (the final consonant of Bach); or the side of the tongue against the molars, in the case of Welsh [ɬ] (appearing twice in the name Llanelli). This turbulent airflow is called frication.
A particular subset of fricatives are the sibilants. When forming a sibilant, one still is forcing air through a narrow channel, but in addition, the tongue is curled lengthwise to direct the air over the edge of the teeth. English [s], [z], [ʃ], and [ʒ] are examples of sibilants.
The usage of two other terms is less standardized: "Spirant" is an older term for fricatives used by some American and European phoneticians and phonologists. "Strident" could mean just "sibilant", but some authors include also labiodental and uvular fricatives in the class.Gemination
In phonetics and phonology, gemination (), or consonant lengthening, is an articulation of a consonant for a longer period of time than that of a single instance of the same type of consonant. It is distinct from stress. Gemination literally means "twinning" and comes from the same Latin root as "Gemini".
Consonant length is a distinctive feature in certain languages, such as Arabic, Berber, Maltese, Catalan, Danish, Estonian, Finnish, Classical Hebrew, Hindi, Hungarian, Italian, Japanese, Latin, Malayalam, Marathi, Tamil and Telugu. Other languages, such as the English language, do not have phonemic consonant geminates. Vowel length is distinctive in more languages than consonant length is.Consonant gemination and vowel length are two different phenomena in languages like Arabic, Japanese, Finnish and Estonian; however, in languages like Italian, Norwegian and Swedish, vowel length and consonant length are interdependent.Khmer script
The Khmer script (Khmer: អក្សរខ្មែរ; IPA: [ʔaʔsɑː kʰmaːe]) is an abugida (alphasyllabary) script used to write the Khmer language (the official language of Cambodia). It is also used to write Pali in the Buddhist liturgy of Cambodia and Thailand.
The Khmer script was adapted from the Pallava script, which ultimately descended from the Brahmi script, which was used in southern India and South East Asia during the 5th and 6th centuries AD. The oldest dated inscription in Khmer was found at Angkor Borei District in Takéo Province south of Phnom Penh and dates from 611. The modern Khmer script differs somewhat from precedent forms seen on the inscriptions of the ruins of Angkor. The Thai and Lao scripts are descendants of an older form of the Khmer script.
Khmer is written from left to right. Words within the same sentence or phrase are generally run together with no spaces between them. Consonant clusters within a word are "stacked", with the second (and occasionally third) consonant being written in reduced form under the main consonant. Originally there were 35 consonant characters, but modern Khmer uses only 33. Each character represents a consonant sound together with an inherent vowel, either â or ô; in many cases, in the absence of another vowel mark, the inherent vowel is to be pronounced after the consonant.
There are some independent vowel characters, but vowel sounds are more commonly represented as dependent vowels, additional marks accompanying a consonant character, and indicating what vowel sound is to be pronounced after that consonant (or consonant cluster). Most dependent vowels have two different pronunciations, depending in most cases on the inherent vowel of the consonant to which they are added. There are also a number of diacritics used to indicate further modifications in pronunciation. The script also includes its own numerals and punctuation marks.Labiodental consonant
In phonetics, labiodentals are consonants articulated with the lower lip and the upper teeth.Lateral consonant
A lateral is consonant in which the airstream proceeds along the sides of the tongue, but it is blocked by the tongue from going through the middle of the mouth. An example of a lateral consonant is the English l, as in Larry.
For the most common laterals, the tip of the tongue makes contact with the upper teeth (see dental consonant) or the upper gum (see alveolar consonant), but there are many other possible places for laterals to be made. The most common laterals are approximants and belong to the class of liquids, but lateral fricatives and affricates are also common in some parts of the world. Some languages, such as the Iwaidja and Ilgar languages of Australia, have lateral flaps, and others, such as the Xhosa and Zulu languages of Africa, have lateral clicks.
When pronouncing the labiodental fricatives [f] and [v], the lip blocks the airflow in the centre of the vocal tract, so the airstream proceeds along the sides instead. Nevertheless, they are not considered lateral consonants because the airflow never goes over the tongue. No known language makes a distinction between lateral and non-lateral labiodentals. Plosives are never lateral, but they may have lateral release. Nasals are never lateral either, but some languages have lateral nasal clicks. For consonants articulated in the throat (laryngeals), the lateral distinction is not made by any language, although pharyngeal and epiglottal laterals are reportedly possible.Malayalam script
Malayalam script (Malayāḷalipi; IPA: [mələjɑːɭə lɪpɪ] (listen) / Malayalam: മലയാളലിപി) is a Brahmic script used commonly to write the Malayalam language, which is the principal language of Kerala, India, spoken by 35 million people in the world. Malayalam script is also widely used for writing Sanskrit texts in Kerala. Like many other Indic scripts, it is an alphasyllabary (abugida), a writing system that is partially “alphabetic” and partially syllable-based. The modern Malayalam alphabet has 15 vowel letters, 36 consonant letters, and a few other symbols. The Malayalam script is a Vatteluttu alphabet extended with symbols from the Grantha alphabet to represent Indo-Aryan loanwords.
The script is also used to write several minority languages such as Paniya, Betta Kurumba, and Ravula. The Malayalam language itself was historically written in several different scripts.Nasal consonant
In phonetics, a nasal, also called a nasal occlusive, nasal stop in contrast with a nasal fricative, or nasal continuant, is an occlusive consonant produced with a lowered velum, allowing air to escape freely through the nose. The vast majority of consonants are oral consonants. Examples of nasals in English are [n], [ŋ] and [m], in words such as nose, bring and mouth. Nasal occlusives are nearly universal in human languages. There are also other kinds of nasal consonants in some languages.Palatal consonant
Palatal consonants are consonants articulated with the body of the tongue raised against the hard palate (the middle part of the roof of the mouth). Consonants with the tip of the tongue curled back against the palate are called retroflex.Postalveolar consonant
Postalveolar consonants (sometimes spelled post-alveolar) are consonants articulated with the tongue near or touching the back of the alveolar ridge, farther back in the mouth than the alveolar consonants, which are at the ridge itself but not as far back as the hard palate, the place of articulation for palatal consonants. Examples of postalveolar consonants are the English palato-alveolar consonants [ʃ] [tʃ] [ʒ] [dʒ], as in the words "ship", "'chill", "vision", and "jump", respectively.
There are a large number of types of postalveolar sounds, especially among the sibilants. The three primary types are palato-alveolar (such as [ʃ ʒ], weakly palatalized), alveolo-palatal (such as [ɕ ʑ], strongly palatalized), and retroflex (such as [ʂ ʐ], unpalatalized). The palato-alveolar and alveolo-palatal subtypes are commonly counted as "palatals" in phonology since they rarely contrast with true palatal consonants.Retroflex consonant
A retroflex consonant is a coronal consonant where the tongue has a flat, concave, or even curled shape, and is articulated between the alveolar ridge and the hard palate. They are sometimes referred to as cerebral consonants, especially in Indology. Other terms occasionally encountered are apico-domal and cacuminal.
The Latin-derived word retroflex means "bent back"; some retroflex consonants are pronounced with the tongue fully curled back so that articulation involves the underside of the tongue tip (subapical). These sounds are sometimes described as "true" retroflex consonants. However, retroflexes are commonly taken to include other consonants having a similar place of articulation without such extreme curling of the tongue; these may be articulated with the tongue tip (apical) or the tongue blade (laminal).Stop consonant
In phonetics, a stop, also known as a plosive or oral occlusive, is a consonant in which the vocal tract is blocked so that all airflow ceases.
The occlusion may be made with the tongue blade ([t], [d]) tongue body ([k], [ɡ]), lips ([p], [b]), or glottis ([ʔ]). Stops contrast with nasals, where the vocal tract is blocked but airflow continues through the nose, as in /m/ and /n/, and with fricatives, where partial occlusion impedes but does not block airflow in the vocal tract.Voicelessness
In linguistics, voicelessness is the property of sounds being pronounced without the larynx vibrating. Phonologically, it is a type of phonation, which contrasts with other states of the larynx, but some object that the word phonation implies voicing and that voicelessness is the lack of phonation.
The International Phonetic Alphabet has distinct letters for many voiceless and modally voiced pairs of consonants (the obstruents), such as [p b], [t d], [k ɡ], [q ɢ], [f v], and [s z]. Also, there are diacritics for voicelessness, U+0325 ̥ COMBINING RING BELOW and U+030A ̊ COMBINING RING ABOVE, which is used for letters with a descender. Diacritics are typically used with letters for prototypically voiced sounds, such as vowels and sonorant consonants: [ḁ], [l̥], [ŋ̊].Y
Y (named wye , plural wyes) is the 25th and penultimate letter in the modern English alphabet and the ISO basic Latin alphabet. In the English writing system, it sometimes represents a vowel and sometimes a consonant.