Consonants – how to understand them

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Consonants – definition

consonants The terms vowels and consonants refer to the sounds which make up the spoken language.

redbtn Vowels are open sounds and consonants are relatively closed.

redbtn The idea that English has five vowels – a, e, i, o, and u – is slightly misleading. This statement refers to those letters of the alphabet which can be used to represent some of the many open sounds of the language.


redbtn Here are some examples of words which end with a vowel:

agenda, bar, go, queue, tea, empty

redbtn Here are some examples of words which end with a consonant:

brick, hat, grab, tap, plum, fuss, does, which, belong


redbtn The terms vowel and consonant are fairly loose terms for the vast variety of sounds which make up any language.

redbtn Most people are comfortable with words which are spoken as


redbtn This sequence of sounds is easy to articulate – as in potato.

redbtn Consumer products are given such terms because they are easily repeated and memorised:

redbtn There are approximately forty-two vowel sounds and fifty consonant sounds in English.

redbtn The written code which attempts to represent all known sounds in all known languages is the International Phonetic Alphabet.

redbtn The symbols comprising the code are used in dictionaries to indicate the pronunciation of a word:

hat  =  /hæt/

redbtn The code can be useful to non-native students of any language as a guide to
pronunciation — provided they understand the code.

redbtn If the code has been learned, a speaker can—in theory!— read out a paragraph in any language without understanding its meaning. [Accomplished actors have been known to use this technique.]

redbtn Phonology is a complex and detailed study of language sounds in which the smallest unit of sound is known as a phoneme – one single sound which cannot be split up into anything smaller as part of a particular language.

redbtn English spelling and English pronunciation have an extremely loose connection. This is a product of the history of the language, the wide-ranging mixture of speakers, and the important fact that speech and writing in any language are two separate systems.

redbtn Linguists regard speech as primary and writing as secondary.

redbtn We acquire speech naturally, just as we grow taller or get a second set of teeth. Writing on the other hand has to be learned – in the same way as we learn to drive a car.

Self-assessment quiz follows …

© Roy Johnson 2003

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