EtymologyThe word ''consonant'' comes from oblique stem , from 'sounding-together', a calque of Greek (plural , ). Dionysius Thrax calls consonants ( 'sounded with') because in Greek they can only be pronounced with a vowel. He divides them into two subcategories: ( 'half-sounded'), which are the continuants, and ( 'unsounded'), which correspond to plosives. This description does not apply to some languages, such as the Salishan languages, in which plosives may occur without vowels (see Nuxalk language, Nuxalk), and the modern concept of 'consonant' does not require co-occurrence with a vowel.
Consonant ''sounds'' and consonant ''letters''The word consonant may be used ambiguously for both speech sounds and the Letter (alphabet), letters of the alphabet used to write them. In English, these letters are B, C, D, F, G, J, K, L, M, N, P, Q, S, T, V, X, Z and often H, R, W, Y. In English orthography, the letters H, R, W, Y and the digraph GH are used for both consonants and vowels. For instance, the letter Y stands for the consonant in ''yoke'', the vowel in ''myth'', the vowel in ''funny'', the diphthong in ''sky'', and forms several digraphs for other diphthongs, such as ''say, boy, key''. Similarly, R commonly indicates a vowel in Rhoticity in English, non-rhotic accents. This article is concerned with consonant sounds, however they are written.
Consonants versus vowelsConsonants and vowels correspond to distinct parts of a syllable: The most sonorous part of the syllable (that is, the part that's easiest to sing), called the ''syllabic peak'' or ''syllable nucleus, nucleus,'' is typically a vowel, while the less sonorous margins (called the ''syllable onset, onset'' and ''syllable coda, coda'') are typically consonants. Such syllables may be abbreviated CV, V, and CVC, where C stands for consonant and V stands for vowel. This can be argued to be the only pattern found in most of the world's languages, and perhaps the primary pattern in all of them. However, the distinction between consonant and vowel is not always clear cut: there are syllabic consonants and non-syllabic vowels in many of the world's languages. One blurry area is in segments variously called ''semivowels'', ''semiconsonants'', or ''glides''. On one side, there are vowel-like segments that are not in themselves syllabic, but form diphthongs as part of the syllable nucleus, as the ''i'' in English ''boil'' . On the other, there are approximants that behave like consonants in forming onsets, but are articulated very much like vowels, as the ''y'' in English ''yes'' . Some phonologists model these as both being the underlying vowel , so that the English word ''bit'' would phoneme, phonemically be , ''beet'' would be , and ''yield'' would be phonemically . Likewise, ''foot'' would be , ''food'' would be , ''wood'' would be , and ''wooed'' would be . However, there is a (perhaps allophonic) difference in articulation between these segments, with the in ''yes'' and ''yield'' and the of ''wooed'' having more constriction and a more definite place of articulation than the in ''boil'' or ''bit'' or the of ''foot''. The other problematic area is that of syllabic consonants, segments articulated as consonants but occupying the nucleus of a syllable. This may be the case for words such as ''church'' in rhotic and non-rhotic accents, rhotic dialects of English, although phoneticians differ in whether they consider this to be a syllabic consonant, , or a rhotic vowel, : Some distinguish an approximant that corresponds to a vowel , for ''rural'' as or ; others see these as a single phoneme, . Other languages use fricative and often trilled segments as syllabic nuclei, as in Czech language, Czech and several languages in Democratic Republic of the Congo, and China, including Mandarin Chinese. In Mandarin, they are historically allophones of , and spelled that way in Pinyin. Ladefoged and Maddieson call these "fricative vowels" and say that "they can usually be thought of as syllabic fricatives that are allophones of vowels". That is, phonetically they are consonants, but phonemically they behave as vowels. Many Slavic languages allow the trill and the lateral as syllabic nuclei (see Words without vowels). In languages like Nuxálk language, Nuxalk, it is difficult to know what the nucleus of a syllable is, or if all syllables even have nuclei. If the concept of 'syllable' applies in Nuxalk, there are syllabic consonants in words like (?) 'seal fat'. Miyako language, Miyako in Japan is similar, with 'to build' and 'to pull'.
FeaturesEach spoken consonant can be distinguished by several phonetic ''Distinctive feature, features'': * The manner of articulation is how air escapes from the vocal tract when the consonant or approximant (vowel-like) sound is made. Manners include stops, fricatives, and nasals. * The place of articulation is where in the vocal tract the obstruction of the consonant occurs, and which speech organs are involved. Places include bilabial consonant, bilabial (both lips), alveolar consonant, alveolar (tongue against the gum ridge), and velar consonant, velar (tongue against soft palate). In addition, there may be a simultaneous narrowing at another place of articulation, such as Palatalization (phonetics), palatalisation or pharyngealisation. Consonants with two simultaneous places of articulation are said to be Co-articulated consonant, coarticulated. * The phonation of a consonant is how the vocal cords vibrate during the articulation. When the vocal cords vibrate fully, the consonant is called voiced; when they do not vibrate at all, it is voiceless. * The voice onset time (VOT) indicates the timing of the phonation. Aspiration (phonetics), Aspiration is a feature of VOT. * The airstream mechanism is how the air moving through the vocal tract is powered. Most languages have exclusively pulmonic egressive consonants, which use the lungs and diaphragm, but ejectives, click consonant, clicks, and implosives use different mechanisms. * The gemination, length is how long the obstruction of a consonant lasts. This feature is borderline distinctive in English, as in "wholly" vs. "holy" , but cases are limited to morpheme boundaries. Unrelated roots are differentiated in various languages such as Italian, Japanese, and Finnish, with two length levels, "single" and "geminate". Estonian language, Estonian and some Sami languages have three phonemic lengths: short, geminate, and long geminate, although the distinction between the geminate and overlong geminate includes suprasegmental features. * The articulatory force is how much muscular energy is involved. This has been proposed many times, but no distinction relying exclusively on force has ever been demonstrated. All English consonants can be classified by a combination of these features, such as "voiceless alveolar stop" . In this case, the airstream mechanism is omitted. Some pairs of consonants like ''p::b'', ''t::d'' are sometimes called fortis and lenis, but this is a phonology, phonological rather than phonetic distinction. Consonants are scheduled by their features in a number of IPA charts:
ExamplesThe recently extinct Ubykh language had only 2 or 3 vowels but 84 consonants; the Taa language has 87 consonants under consonant cluster, one analysis, 164 under linguo-pulmonic, another, plus some 30 vowels and tone. The types of consonants used in various languages are by no means universal. For instance, nearly all Australian languages lack fricatives; a large percentage of the world's languages lack voiced stops such as , , as phonemes, though they may appear phonetically. Most languages, however, do include one or more fricatives, with being the most common, and a liquid consonant or two, with the most common. The approximant is also widespread, and virtually all languages have one or more nasal consonant, nasals, though a very few, such as the Central dialect of Rotokas language, Rotokas, lack even these. This last language has the smallest number of consonants in the world, with just six.
Most commonThe most frequent consonants in rhotic American English (that is, the ones appearing most frequently during speech) are . ( is less common in non-rhotic accents.) The most frequent consonant in many other languages is . The most universal consonants around the world (that is, the ones appearing in nearly all languages) are the three voiceless stops , , , and the two nasals , . However, even these common five are not completely universal. Several languages in the vicinity of the Sahara Desert, including Arabic language, Arabic, lack . Several languages of North America, such as Mohawk language, Mohawk, lack both of the labials and . The Wichita language of Oklahoma and some West African languages, such as Ijo languages, Ijo, lack the consonant on a phonemic level, but do use it phonetically, as an allophone of another consonant (of in the case of Ijo, and of in Wichita). A few languages on Bougainville Island and around Puget Sound, such as Makah language, Makah, lack both of the nasals and altogether, except in special speech registers such as baby-talk. The 'click language' Nǁng language, Nǁng lacks , and colloquial Samoan language, Samoan lacks both alveolars, and . Despite the 80-odd consonants of Ubykh language, Ubykh, it lacks the plain velar in native words, as do the related Adyghe language, Adyghe and Kabardian language, Kabardian languages. But with a few striking exceptions, such as Xavante language, Xavante and Tahitian language, Tahitian—which have no dorsal consonants whatsoever—nearly all other languages have at least one velar consonant: most of the few languages that do not have a simple (that is, a sound that is generally pronounced ) have a consonant that is very similar. For instance, an areal feature of the Pacific Northwest coast is that historical *k has become palatalized in many languages, so that Saanich language, Saanich for example has and but no plain ; similarly, historical *k in the Northwest Caucasian languages became palatalized to in extinct Ubykh language, Ubykh and to in most Circassian languages, Circassian dialects.Viacheslav A. Chirikba, 1996, ''Common West Caucasian: the reconstruction of its phonological system and parts of its lexicon and morphology'', p. 192. Research School CNWS: Leiden.
Audio samplesThe following pages include consonant charts with links to audio samples. * IPA pulmonic consonant chart with audio * Ejective consonant * Click consonant * Implosive consonant
See also*Articulatory phonetics *List of consonants *List of phonetics topics *Words without vowels
References;Sources *Ian Maddieson, ''Patterns of Sounds'', Cambridge University Press, 1984.