The Sounds of Language
Consonants, as we saw earlier, are produced with some obstruction to the airflow through the vocal tracts. This obstruction is created by brings a variety of articulators together which are called places of articulation. There can also be variation in how the airflow is controlled when travelling through the vocal tract and this is known as manner of articulation. For example, when we say [p], [t] or [k], the flow of air is stopped for a moment before being released. On the other hand, the flow of air is released with some stricture when we produce [s], [f] or [ʃ] (the sound we write in English as ‘sh’). We call sounds that stop the flow of air for a moment stops or plosives. Sounds that are produced with some kind of frictions, such as [s] and [f], are called fricatives. When we also let the flow of air to travel through the nasal cavity, we produce nasal sounds such as [m] and [n]. Try holding your nostrils closed with your fingers while saying ‘ma’. You will find it difficult to do so as the flow of air needs to travel through your nasal passage to produce it. There are other sounds we produce which bring the articulators together with some degree of approximation. These sounds are called approximants and include [l] and [w]. When two consonants are produced in close association as if they were one sound, we call them affricates. English has two affricates which written in English as ‘ch’ and ‘j’. However, the International Phonetic Alphabet or IPA transcribes them as [tʃ] and [dʒ]. This shows that the ‘ch’ sound of ‘chair’ is produced by the combination of [t] and [ʃ]. Similarly, IPA uses [j] to refer to the sound written in English with ‘y’. The sound used to represent the ‘j’ sound of ‘juice’ is [dʒ]. This shows that this affricate is produced with both [d] and [ʒ]. Another difference between consonants is whether the vocal cords vibrate or not when they are produced. This called voicing and is seen in the difference between the unvoiced [p] and the voiced [b].
Figure 2.3 English Consonants
Figure 2.3 shows the full range of consonants found in English. The symbols used are from the IPA allowing us to describe and discuss these phonemes across different languages without confusion. Most of the symbols used will be familiar to those who write using the English alphabet though some will be different. Let’s explore this chart and see how we can describe these phonemes. Using the table given in Figure 2.3 can classify [m] as a bilabial nasal meaning that it is produced with the two lips coming into contact and the airflow directed through both the mouth and the nasal passage. [p] is an unvoiced bilabial stop. This means that it is produced with the two lips coming into contact with the airflow stopped briefly before release. When the airflow is released, the vocal cords do not vibrate (unvoiced). [b] on the other hand is produced with similar place and manner of articulation but with the vocal cords vibrating; so, it is called a voiced bilabial stop.
Figure 2.4 shows you examples of English words for each consonant. You can see the need for IPA symbols as the English alphabet doesn’t have separate graphemes for such phonemes. For example, ‘thin’ and ‘this’ both begin with a grapheme ‘th’ but are produced differently. The ‘th’ in ‘thin’ is an unvoiced dental fricative while the ‘th’ in ‘this’ is a voiced dental fricative. Similarly, we don’t have a grapheme to represent the voiced post-alveolar fricative seen in the ‘s’ of ‘pleasure’ and ‘measure.’ The velar nasal is written with two letters ‘ng’ found in ‘sing’, ‘ring’ and ‘walking.’ Some dialects may pronounce the ‘g’ while others may not.
Figure 2.4 English Consonants with Examples
We can compare English phonology to Figure 2.5 where we see the arrangement of French consonants. We see a lot of similarities with some variations. For example, French has a palatal nasal consonant which may be familiar to you as the ñ in Spanish señor. The velar nasal is not native to French but seen in loan words such as ‘camping.’
Figure 2.5 French Consonants
Figure 2.6 and Figure 2.8 show the phonology of languages found in other parts of Canada. Secwepemc (also known as Shuswap) is a language spoken in the Canadian province of British Columbia. It is the northernmost of the Interior Salish languages and is spoken by over 1600 people. We can see in Figure 2.6 a number of new sounds. In particular, we see glottalized phonemes (with a superscript symbol like a questions mark) as well as rounded phonemes (with a superscript w). The glottal sounds are produced with stricture of the glottis. Some dialects of British English produce this sound in the pronunciation of the ‘t’ in ‘bottle.’
Figure 2.6 Secwepemc Consonants
Figure 2.7 shows the consonants of the Inuit languages. These languages are spoken by indigenous communities in the northernmost parts of north America and parts of Greenland. We will talk more about these languages in later discussions about their writing systems. As you can see these languages have quite a lot of familiar consonants. We also see the uvular rhotic that is found in French along with a uvular stop produced at the very back of the mouth. The consonants in parentheses are language specific within the language family. The retroflex /ʂ/ and /ʐ/ appear only in Inupiatun. Retroflex consonants are produced with the tongue rolled back to touch the hard palate. You will be familiar with these consonants from their appearance in Indian languages. The unvoiced palatal fricative /ɟ/ appears only in Natsilingmiutut having merged with /j/ in other languages. One other aspect of these languages is the lack of minimal pairs for voicingfor most consonants. They only have unvoiced [p], [t] and [s] with no contrast with voiced [b], [d] or [z]. There is a contrast between velar stops for unvoiced [k] and voiced [ɡ].
Figure 2.7 Inuit Consonants
The examples from these four languages shows us the diversity of consonants that is available in human languages. Not all languages need to have all these phonemes. As languages evolve and change, there is a constant pull in two directions: economy of production (not wanting to take too much effort in producing a sound) versus distinctiveness (having enough distinct sounds to produce all the differences necessary for distinguishing words or minimal pairs). This competition exists in all languages from generation to generation and has resulted in the diversity we see in modern languages.