Consonants – how to understand them
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Consonants – definition
The terms vowels and consonants refer to the sounds which make up the spoken language.
Vowels are open sounds and consonants are relatively closed.
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.
Here are some examples of words which end with a vowel:
agenda, bar, go, queue, tea, empty
Here are some examples of words which end with a consonant:
brick, hat, grab, tap, plum, fuss, does, which, belong
The terms vowel and consonant are fairly loose terms for the vast variety of sounds which make up any language.
Most people are comfortable with words which are spoken as
This sequence of sounds is easy to articulate – as in potato.
Consumer products are given such terms because they are easily repeated and memorised:
There are approximately forty-two vowel sounds and fifty consonant sounds in English.
The written code which attempts to represent all known sounds in all known languages is the International Phonetic Alphabet.
The symbols comprising the code are used in dictionaries to indicate the pronunciation of a word:
hat = /hæt/
The code can be useful to non-native students of any language as a guide to
pronunciation — provided they understand the code.
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.]
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.
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.
Linguists regard speech as primary and writing as secondary.
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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