Sibilants are made by obstructing, not stopping, the air by bringing the blade of your tongue close to the roof of the mouth and making a hissing sound. These sounds are called fricatives or affricates. Affricates are a stop followed by a fricative. The following table has pairs, the first in the pair is unvoiced, the second voiced.
Following the table are sections on how the sounds are made with practice sentences and audio.
Beginning of Word
Middle of Word
End of Word
The velum is also called the soft pallet and is at the back of the roof of your mouth. There are two fricatives that are made by restricting air at that place, ‘sh,’ /ʃ/ as in “shake” /ʃeɪk/ and ‘zh’ as “measure” /meIʒɚ/. They are formed in the same place in your mouth but /ʃ/ is unvoiced and /ʒ/ is voiced.
The ‘sh’ /ʃ/ sound is common and can appear in any part of a word. At the beginning: “shake” /ʃeɪk/, at the end: “wish” /wɪʃ/; both beginning and end: “swish” /ʃwɪʃ/, and in the middle: “passion” /pɑʃ̩n̩/. The ‘zh’ sound is less common and doesn’t happen at the beginning fo words it happens in the middle as in “treasure” /tɹeɪʒɚ/, or at the end as in “beige” /beiʒ/.
There are five English consonants that can double as vowels. They are ‘m,’ ‘n,’ ‘ng,’ ‘l,’ and ‘r’ (these are the English letters used to represent them since each letter has more than one sound, we will need to use the IPA for the sounds after this).
They are called either vocalic or syllabic, which are slightly different views of their function. They are vocalic because they have sustained voicing, and they are syllabic because they can form the core of a syllable. This course has an emphasis on syllables, so I will call them syllabic. Later in this section, we will examine each in detail with examples, but I’m going to give you a 10,000-foot view here.
The first three are called nasals because air flows through your nose when you make the sounds. The IPA symbols for the obstruent versions are /m/, /n/, and /ŋ/ (it is called agma or “ing”). They are obstruents in “Nate” /neɪt/, “mate” /meɪt/, and “sing” /sɪŋ/. When the sounds are syllabic, they are represented by a vertical line beneath them right in the center as in /m̩/, /n̩/. There is no syllabic agma /ŋ/, but ‘n’ and ‘m’ act as syllable cores in “button” /bʌɾ’ʔn̩/ and “bottom” /bɑɾ’ʔm̩/.
The other two, ‘r’ and ‘l’ are called liquids, a name that goes back to Ancient Greece. The name came from their ability to add flexibility to poetic meter. The ‘r’ sounds are usually the most difficult for learners of English (there are five of them) but speakers of many East Asian languages have a hard time with the ‘l’ sounds, as well (there are three). In Japanese, for instance, the ‘r’ and ‘l’ sounds are allophones of the same phoneme and are difficult for Japanese that are learning English to distinguish.
Of the five ‘r’ sounds, three are considered to be vowels (which are always a syllable core), but since they are ‘r’ sounds, they overlap with consonants so I am discussing them here. The five are the obstruent as in “red” /ɹɛd/, and the four vowel ‘r’ sounds. These are the ‘r’ sound in “bird” /bɝd/ or “butter” /bʌɾɚ/ , and the r-colored vowels /ər/ as in “bear” /bɛr/, /ɪr/ as in “beer” /bɪr/, /ɔr/ as in “bore” /bɔr/.
The first of the three ‘l’ sounds is the ‘l’ you find at the beginning of syllables. It is sometimes called the light-l. For instance, “let” /lɛt/. The second is the one you often find at the end of syllables, as in “tall” /tɑɫ/. It is called the dark-l. Both of these are obstruents. The third ‘l’ sound is the syllabic ‘l,’ which can be a syllable core as in “bottle” /bɑɾ ‘ʔl̩/.
Each of these sounds is explored in detail in the following sections.
Consonants may be voiced or unvoiced. When a consonant is voiced, your vocal cords are engaged while you are altering the airflow; if it is unvoiced, your voice is not engaged.
When you look at the chart, you will see that there are often voiced/unvoiced pairs at different points of articulation. Three pairs in English that help give an idea are [s] and [z], [t] and [d], and [f] and [v]. Each of the pairs have the same place and manner of articulation, but in each pair, the first sound is voiceless and the second is voiced. The voicing changes the meaning as in the following pairs of words. They are spelled differently, but the pairs sound the same.
On the table, Consonant Chart with English Highlighted, the vertical axis is the manner of articulation and the horizontal axis is the point of articulation.
The manner of articulation is the way that the sounds is made. Going down from the top the first row is stops (or stops).
These are sounds where the air is completely stopped and then released. If you go across the row you will see six symbols that you have long been familiar with and one that you learned about in the section, The /t/ Phoneme and It’s Allophones, above. The English phonemes are in green and are /p/, /b/, /t/, /d/ ; and the one you just learned is the glottal stop /ʔ/.
The column headings are the places of articulation, where the sound is made. The fact that there are different sounds in the same column shows that there are different types of sounds made at the same place in the vocal tract.
IPA Consonant Chart with English Highlighted
Tap or Flap
Looking at the English phonemes in the top row from left to right, the first two are /p/ and /b/ and are called bilabial stops. Stop means that you stop the air and then release it, bilabial means that is made by putting your lips together. “Bi” means “two” and “labial” means “lips” and you can see that in the drawing. The +v and -v column headers stand for +voice and -voice which can “the vocal cords are engaged” and “the vocal cords are not engaged.” This is covered in detail in the section Voiced and Unvoiced Consonants.
In English, there is an ‘r’ consonant [ɹ] and then a number of places where an ‘r’ sound is added to a vowel. It can be written different ways, but I am using the most common which is an upside down ‘r’ [ɹ]. The first two rows indicate the position of the vowel and the hook that is attached to it indicates that you simultaneously make an ‘r’ sound. The two symbols [ɚ] and [ɝ] both indicate the same sound, but [ɚ] is used in unstressed syllables and [ɝ] is used in stressed ones just as [ə] is used in unstressed syllables and [ʌ] is used in stressed one.
The last three rows add an ‘r’ symbol after the vowel to indicate that it is “r colored.”
The symbol [ɔ] stands for a rounded low back vowel that is close to [ɑ]. In some dialects of English the words “cot” and “caught” are pronounced differently, [kɑt] and [kɔt]. In California English, they are pronounced the same.
Though the IPA has the symbol, ‘r,’ it stands for the rolled (or trilled) ‘r’ that is found in Spanish, Finnish, and many Slavic languages and is not the common English ‘r’ consonant. To differentiate the English ‘r’ consonant is represented as an upside down ‘r’ [ɹ].