Phonetics lesson number four: Types of sounds (consonants and vowels)

There are two types of sounds: CONSONANTS and VOWELS.

CONSONANTS are sounds like /p/, /g/, /s/, /l/, /m/ and /w/.  They are produced by making an obstruction in the air passage, either closing the air passage then releasing the breath suddenly, or narrowing the air passage so that air passes with difficulty.  In contrast, VOWELS are sounds like /İ:/, /u/,/ə/ and /3:/.  They are made by passing voiced air through an open air passage, shaped by passing through different mouth shapes caused by different tongue positions and lip shapes.  We will start by studying

consonants, and then move on to vowels.

Different consonants can be distinguished from one another by describing their place of articulation (that is, where two organs of speech come close to each other), the manner of articulation (i.e. the way these organs control the air passage), and voicing (that is, the vibration of the vocal cords).


Consonant sounds depend on which two organs of speech take part in producing each of them. Based on the place of articulation for each, Englishconsonants can be classified into at least eight types.


(the lips come together as in /p/, /b/, /m/)


(the lower lip and the upper teeth come together e.g. /f/, /v/)


(the tip of tongue and the upper teeth come together e.g. /θ/ and /ð/)


(the tip of the tongue and touches alveolar ridge e.g. /t/, /d/, /s/, /z/, /n/, /l/, /r/)


(the tip of the tongue and the alveolar ridge e.g. /ʃ/, /ʒ/, /tʃ/, /dʒ/)


 (the front of the tongue and the hard palate e.g. /j/)


 (the back of the tongue and the soft palate or velum e.g. /k/, /g/, /Ŋ/, /w/)


(between the vocal cords opening, such as /h/)


a) PLOSIVES are sounds produced with a complete closure, forming pressure; then the air is released suddenly with a plosion, e.g. /p/, /b/, /t/, /d/, /k/, /g/.

b) FRICATIVES are produced by an incomplete closure; the air passage is narrowed producing an audible friction, e.g. /f/, /v/, /s/, /z/.

c) AFFRICATES start as plosives with a complete closure, but are followed by slow release with friction through a narrow passage e.g. /tʃ/ and /dʒ/ as in “church” and “judge”.

d) FRICTIONLESS CONTINUANTS are sounds produced through a closure with less pressure such as /r/ in English (unlike the Arabic trill).

e) LATERALS are produced through a partial closure, where the air passage is blocked by the tip of tongue but is allowed to escape around the sides of the tongue, such as /l/ in “light” and “full”).

f) NASALS are formed through a complete closure of the mouth, as the uvula is lowered allowing air to pass through the nose, e.g. /m/, /n/, /Ŋ/

g) GLIDING CONSONANTS are formed without a closure, e.g. /j/ and /w/)


As mentioned above, the vocal cords can assume different positions, modifying the sound produced. When opening slightly, they vibrate producing “voiced” sounds such as /b/, /d/, /g/, /v/, /z/, / ð / , /ʒ/, /Ŋ/,  and all English vowels. On the other hand, when producing other sounds, the vocal cords open widely without any vibration, thus producing “voiceless” sounds, e.g. /s/, /f/.

The Phonetic Chart of English

The following chart highlights the symbols used for the different sounds of english :

Download WORD file

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