consonant (sounds and letters)

Glossary of Grammatical and Rhetorical Terms

Consonants

Definition

A consonant is a speech sound that's not a vowel. The sound of a consonant is produced by a partial or complete obstruction of the air stream by a constriction of the speech organs.

In writing, a consonant is any letter of the alphabet except a, e, i, o, u, and sometimes y.

When two or more consonant sounds are pronounced in succession without an intervening vowel (as in the words dream and bursts), the group is called a consonant blend or consonant cluster.

In a consonant blend, the sound of each individual letter can be heard. By contrast, in a consonant digraph (as in the word phone), two successive letters represent a single sound.

In a number of cases in English, consonant letters can be silent, such as the letter b following m (as in the word dumb), the letter k before n (know), and the letters b and p before t (debt and receipt). When a double consonant appears in a word, usually only one of the two consonants is sounded (as in ball, summer, and puppy).

See Examples and Observations below. Also see:

Etymology
From the Latin, "agree" and "sound"
 

Examples and Observations

  • "There are 21 consonant letters in the written alphabet (B, C, D, F, G, H, J, K, L, M, N, P, Q, R, S, T, V, W, X, Y, Z), and there are 24 consonant sounds in most English accents. . . . [B]ecause of the erratic history of English spelling, there is no neat one-to-one correlation between letters and sounds. In several cases, one consonant sound is spelled by more than one letter (e.g. th in this) or one consonant letter symbolizes more than one sound (e.g.  x in fox/fɒks/)."
    (David Crystal, The Cambridge Encyclopedia of the English Language. Cambridge University Press, 2003)
     
  • Consonant Sounds
    - "Our B represents probably the same sound carried by the analogous letter in Near Eastern alphabets of 30 or 40 centuries ago.

    "It is a consonant sound. Therefore, B is a consonant letter, the first in alphabetical sequence of our 21. If asked at a dinner party to define the word 'consonant,' someone might venture, 'Well, I know it's not a vowel . . .' and that actually is the best starting point. Whereas vowels are pronounced from the vocal cords with minimal shaping of expelled breath, consonant sounds are created through obstruction or channeling of the breath by the lips, teeth, tongue, throat, or nasal passage, variously combined. Some consonants, like B, involve the vocal cords; others don't. Some, like R or W, flow the breath in a way that steers them relatively close to being vowels."
    (David Sacks, Letter Perfect. Broadway Books, 2003)

    - "Consonants differ from vowels in the following three ways:
    1. Physiologically, [consonants] are made with complete or partial occlusion of the vowel tract.
    2. Acoustically, they show significant variation in intensity from sound to sound.
    3. They exhibit significant variation in duration and frequency characteristics."
    (Dennis M. Ruscello, Treating Articulation and Phonological Disorders in Children. Mosby, 2008)

     
  • Consonant Sounds, Symbols, and Spelling
    - "A written sentence like  'Black cats bring good luck' becomes, in a phonetic transcription, blæk kæts brɪŋ ɡud lʌk. Even if you don't remember the phonetic symbols for the vowels, you can still see the relationship between the letters and the phonetic symbols. . . . 

    "Consonants are fairly easy to deal with. Each letter often corresponds to a phonetic symbol, as in the sentence 'Black cats bring good luck.' In this sentence, the only consonants that have to be changed from two letters into one symbol are the 'ck' at the end of 'black' and 'luck' and the 'ng' at the end of 'bring.'"
    (Peter Ladefoged, "Making Computers Talk." Practical Phonetics and Phonology, 3rd ed., edited by Beverley Collins and Inger M. Mees. Routledge, 2013) 


    - "The 24 usual consonants occur in the following words, at the beginning unless otherwise specified: pale, tale, kale, bale, dale, gale, chain, Jane, fail, thin, sale, shale, hale, vale, this, zoo; (in the middle of) measure, mail, nail; (at the end of) sing, lay, rail, wail, Yale. Not one of these consonants is spelled in a completely consistent way in English, and some of them are spelled very oddly and inconsistently indeed. Note that our alphabet has no single letters for spelling the consonants in chain, thin, shale, this, measure, and sing. Those letters that are commonly used for spelling consonants may be called consonant letters, but calling them consonants is loose and misleading."
    (R.L. Trask, Mind the Gaffe! Harper, 2006)

     
  • Stop Consonants (/b d g/ /p t k/)
    "Many consonants are just ways of beginning or ending vowels. This is particularly true of consonants such as b, d, ɡ, each of which has a rapid movement of the lips or tongue before or after another sound such as a vowel. They are called stop consonants because the air in the vocal tract is completely stopped at some point. When forming a b in a word such as bib, the lips are firmly closed at the beginning and end of the word. In the case of d as in did it is the tip of the tongue that blocks the vocal tract by forming a closure just behind the upper front teeth. For g as in gag, the back of the tongue is raised to make a closure against the roof of the mouth. . . .

    "English has another set of stop consonants, the sounds of p, t, k, as in the words pip, tit, kick." 
    (Peter Ladefoged and Sandra Ferrari Disner, Vowels and Consonants, 3rd ed. Wiley-Blackwell, 2012)

     
  • The Lighter Side of Consonants
    "Lost Consonants is a text and image word play series which illustrates a sentence from which a vital letter has been removed, altering its meaning. Welcome to a world where children have leaning difficulties and youth can become addicted to rugs; where firemen wear fame-resistant clothing, and footballers get camp in their legs; where dogs start baking and horses start catering, and where, after several days without water, everyone is really thirty."
    (Graham Rawle, "Lost Consonants")

Pronunciation: KON-suh-nent