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Fictional Linguistics: Six Million Forms of Communication and Counting...
Lesson I: Sounds, Part A: Consonants

Textbook reading assignment: How to create a language: Sounds

Like any language, TGL will be, at its simplest level, made up of sounds. There are only so many sounds a human mouth can produce, and the study of them is called phonetics. Generally, sounds are either consonants (closed sounds) or vowels (open sounds). We'll start with consonants.


Consonants are classified according to place of articulation and manner of articulation.

Places of Articulation

If you're not sure where any of these places of articulation are exactly, try pronouncing the sounds listed for each of them and see where your tongue is for the sound.

  • Bilabials: p, b, m - Sounds produced by bringing the lips together
  • Labiodentals: f, v - Sounds produced with bottom lip against upper teeth
  • Interdentals: this and thin - Sounds produced with tip of tongue between the upper and lower teeth (also called Dentals)
  • Alveolars: t, d, n, s, z, l, r - Sounds produced with the front part of the tongue against the alveolar ridge - the part of the roof of the mouth that is right behind the teeth
  • Palatals: sh, zh, ch, j - Sounds produced with the front part of the tongue against the hard palate just behind the alveolar ridge
  • Velars: k, g, ng - Sounds produced with the back of the tongue against the soft palate (velum)
  • Uvulars: Arabic q, French r - Sounds produced with the back of the tongue to the uvula. Not found in English.
  • Glottal: h - Sounds produced with the glottis (vocal cords) - the h sound is produced with open glottis; if the glottis is closed to stop the air momentarily, a glottal stop is produced: the sound represented by tt when a Beatle says "bottle", or the sound that starts each syllable if you say "uh-oh". (Corran, I think I learned somewhere also that in German any word starting with a vowel is understood to start with a glottal stop? Correct me if I'm wrong...)

Manners of Articulation

In each of the places of articulation there are a variety of sounds that can be produced. What makes each one different from other sounds at the same place is the way in which it is produced.

  • Voiced and Voiceless Sounds - Pronounce bowl and poll, dad and tad, gate and Kate. What's the difference? Simply voicing - whether or not the vocal cords vibrate when the consonant is pronounced. Say the pairs of words again slowly; this time, touch your throat as you say them and notice when it vibrates - you should feel vibration on all the vowels, and on b, d, and g, the voiced consonants. Other voiced consonants: m, n, ng, v, then, z, measure, j, w, y, l, and r.
  • Nasal and Oral Sounds - Sounds pronounced through the nose are nasal (m, n, and ng); those pronounced through the mouth are oral (all other consonants...)
  • Stops: p, b, m, t, d, n, k, g, ng, ch, j, glottal stop - Sounds in which the airstream is stopped completely in the mouth cavity for a brief period (note that in m, n, and ng, the nasal stops, air is stopped in the mouth even though it flows through the nose)
  • Fricatives: s, z, f, v, th/th, sh, zh - Sounds in which the airstream is not totally stopped but is obstructed to a narrow area, causing friction. Pronounce an s or f and notice the friction in the sound. (There are also velar fricatives such as the German "ch" in "Bach" but these sounds are not found in English.) (There's also a uvular fricative - the French "r" - glottal fricatives in Czech - and even pharyngeal fricatives in Arabic.)
  • Africates: ch, j - combine a stop and a fricative and you get an africate. Basically, to make one of these you pronounce the stop, then the fricative, so ch = t + sh and j = d + zh. Africates are also classified as stops since the airstream is halted briefly.
  • Liquids: l, r - Sounds where the airstream is obstructed, but not so much as to either stop it or create friction. Pronounce all or are very slowly and hear the difference between the vowel and the liquid consonants. Some languages trill r's, of course. In American English the r is considered a retroflex because of how the tongue flexes back toward the alveolar ridge (in most dialects). L is considered a lateral liquid because it is made by putting the tip of the tongue against the alveolar ridge, then letting the airstream flow around the sides of the tongue - laterally. In Welsh there is a really cool sound: an aspirated lateral liquid, basically l pronounced along with an "h" sound of air being blown over the sides of the tongue. (We'll talk more about aspiration, and nasalization and other neat words, later... :-)
  • Glides: y, w - Sounds with little or no obstruction to the airstream in the mouth. Glides and Liquids are the closest things to vowels among the consonants - in fact, in some languages they function almost as vowels; Sanskrit, for example, has syllabic l and r.

American English Consonants

For starters, here's all the consonants found in American English arranged in a chart by Place and Manner of articulation. Note how they form groups or series of similar sounds - each row or column of consonants has something in common. Languages tend to include or exclude consonantal sounds in series, rather than pick-and-choose. In the next part of the lesson we'll add some non-English consonants to the chart (and learn how to write all these sounds: The International Phonetic Alphabet :-)

Bilabial Labiodental Interdental Alveolar Palatal Velar Glottal
Stop (oral) - voiceless pet till kill glottal stop
Stop (oral) - voiced bet dill gill
Nasal (stop) met nil sing
Fricative - voiceless feel thin seal mesher hill
Fricative - voiced veal then zeal measure
Africate - voiceless church
Africate - voiced judge
Glide - voiceless which*
Glide - voiced witch* you
Liquid lead, read
* Some dialects of English do not distinguish the voiceless wh in which from the voiced w in witch

Got all that? OK, now let's learn how to write these sounds so we all know what we're talking about when we discuss it...

Parts of this lesson adapted somewhat from Fromkin and Rodman's An Introduction to Language, Sixth Ed.

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Syllabus Beginning of Lesson 1 Lesson I.A.2 Worksheet: Lesson I.A Textbook reading: How to create a language: Sounds
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