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Fictional Linguistics: Six Million Forms of Communication and Counting...
Multidimensional Consonants (LESSON 1.A.4)

As you learned in the textbook assignment for Lesson 1, sounds vary along dimensions. Now that we've learned symbols for the consonants of English, we're going to take a closer look at the dimensions by which these consonants are defined.

Degree of closure

  • Stops, also called Plosives, where air is totally stopped momentarily
  • Fricatives, where air is not stopped totally but obstructed so as to cause friction
  • Approximants, where the airflow is only slightly affected, including the Glides and Laterals - Consonants that border on being vowels

Place of Articulation

  • Labial - lips
  • Labio-dental - lips and teeth
  • Dental - teeth and tongue
  • Alveolar - right behind the teeth
  • Palato-alveolar - further back from the teeth
  • Palatal - top of the palate
  • Velar - back of the mouth
  • Uvular - further back than velar
  • Glottal - back in the throat (glottis


Do the vocal cords vibrate when the sound is produced? For voiced sounds, they do; for voiceless sounds they do not. (You can tell by feeling your throat for the vibration.)


Does the air flow out through the nose when the sound is produced? English has three nasal stops, where airflow is stopped in the mouth but not the nose: /m/, /n/, /N/.


Is the sound pronounced with an accompanying puff of air? Place your hand in front of your mouth. (Pretend you're hiding a yawn.) Say "pit". Say "bit". See the difference? If you're a native speaker of English you sure will, because in English, the voiceless stops (of which /p/ is one) are always aspirated when they're the initial consonant. Say "pit" again, then say "spit". See the difference? You're more likely to spit on your listeners when saying pit than spit, because the s before p in spit makes the p unaspirated. Why don't we aspirate the /b/ in bit? Mainly because it's a voiced consonant, meaning the vocal cords vibrate, and to do so they must close - which means they can't let through that puff of air that follows the /p/! It's not impossible to aspirate a voiced consonant, though. Sanskrit (and proto-Indo-European) had aspirated voiced stops: bh, dh, etc., as in "Mahabharata" (great book, by the way...).


Is the mid part of the tongue raised to the palate when the sound is pronounced? As your textbook explains, palatalized consonants sound something like the original consonant plus a /j/ sound (remember that /j/ is the symbol for what English speakers usually spell with a y, as in "you"...). Russian has a series of palatalized consonants, Spanish has two, French has one, etc., as shown in your textbook.


Does the glottis (throat) close when the sound is pronounced? To produce a glottalized consonant you have to pronounce the consonant plus a glottal stop at the same time, then release them together. I'm still trying to figure out how that should sound...

Some linguistic terms we need to know:


The possible sounds in a language


Sounds a language can distinguish between; for example, aspirated and unaspirated /p/ are the same phoneme in English, because we don't distinguish between them to show different meanings. In other words, we have /phIt/ (the h means the /p/ is aspirated, and /I/ is the symbol for the i sound in pit), but if someone pronounced it /pIt/ without the aspiration, we wouldn't recognize that as a different word with a different meaning. If however they said /bIt/, voicing the first consonant, we would recognize it as a different word, because we have a voiced/unvoiced contrast in English but not an aspirated/unaspirated contrast. Some languages do not have the voiced/unvoiced contrast so /pIt/ and /bIt/ would be the same word to them because /p/ and /b/ are the same phoneme. And that brings us to...


When two phones represent the same phoneme in a language, we call those phones allophones. In English /p/ and /ph/ are allophones. In a language that doesn't have voiced/unvoiced contrasts, /p/ and /b/ would be allophones.

Now, the reason why we're learned about all these dimensions - you may have guessed from the previous few paragraphs. Each language has its own set of possible sounds - phones - and its own system of phonemes and the possible allophones for those phonemes. Languages are all limited, however - some have more sounds than others, but not all the possible sounds. Languages also tend to use sounds according to their series, as you see them in the IPA chart. That is to say, if you find one uvular sound in a language, chances are you'll find another. If there's one nasal sound in a language, there's probably a series of them. Not necessarily the whole series of possible nasals - there are seven, after all, and as we know, English has only three. But more than one - sounds are not hermits. If you find a certain contrast in the language, it will probably apply througout series: for example, if you have a nasalized/unnasalized contrast for your stops, the contrast will apply to all the stops (in English, this means that since we have the stops /p/ and /b/, /t/ and /d/, and /k/ and /g/, we have the nasal stops /m/, /n/, and /N/. If we had palatal or uvular stops in English, we'd probably have palatal and uvular nasal stops too. Another example is voicing - since English contrasts between voiced and unvoiced consonants, you find both a voiced and an unvoiced consonant wherever both are possible throughout the chart of English consonants.

What we will need to do for TGL is to define the phones and phonemes of the language, which means deciding which series are represented (do TGL speakers use africates or not? do they have velar sounds?) and which contrasts are present (do we contrast on voicing? on nasalization? on palatalization?) We'll vote on all that stuff later; for now I'll let all this sink in while I get a practice exercise ready.

Syllabus Previous Lesson Beginning of Lesson Next Lesson Assignments Textbook Readings
Syllabus Lesson 1.A.3 Beginning of Lesson 1 Lesson 1.B: Vowels Worksheet: Lesson I.A Textbook readings: How to Create a Language: Sounds
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