Syllabic/Vocalic Consonant Forms

February 8th, 2021 by

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. 



Labio-Dental Fricitives- /f/ and /v/

February 6th, 2021 by

Great stuff coming. 


January 30th, 2021 by


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January 27th, 2021 by

American English Consonant Allophones

January 12th, 2021 by

Voiced and Unvoiced Consonants

January 12th, 2021 by

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.

 Unvoiced Voiced 

Place and Manner of Articulation

January 12th, 2021 by

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 Flapɾɽ
Lateral Fricativeɮ̪ɬ̪ɬɮɭ̊˔ɭ˔ʎ̥˔ʎ˔ʟ̝̊ʟ̝
Lateral Affricateɬ̪d͡ɮcʎ̥˔ɟʎ̝kʟ̝̊ɡʟ̝
Lateral approximantlɭʎ̥ʎLʟ̠

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.

R Colored Vowels

January 7th, 2021 by

1.1.1        R-Colored Vowels




Overwhelm [oʊvɚˈwɛlm̩]

Stir [stɚ]



Early [ɝli]

Bird   [bɝd]

Worm [wɝm]



Art [ɑrt]

Start [stɑrt]

Star [stɑr]



Orb [ɔrb]

Morbid [mɔrbɪd]

Store [stɔr]



Air [ɛr]

Fairly [fɛrli]

Stair [stɛr]


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].

The /t/ Phoneme and its Allophones

January 6th, 2021 by

When we hear /t/, we could be hearing sounds that are quite different. In English, the differences do not change the meaning of the words the way the difference between ‘b’ and ‘p’ would change the meaning of the words. In some languages, the same differences would change the meaning of the words.

This will be a chance to look at one phoneme and its associated allophones carefully and learn a few of the symbols of the IPA.

Consider the following four words:

  1. Ted
  2. Steady
  3. Water
  4. Kitten

Clearly, each of them has the letter ‘t’ and the sound ‘t.’  You can guess, that though they appear to be the same sound, they aren’t. Here’s how they are represented in the IPA.

  1. [tʰɛd]
  2. [stɛdi]
  3. [wɑɾɚ]
  4. [kɪɾʔn̩]

The symbols are mysterious, at this point, but I am going to go over them. 

First off, some of them are ones you know. ‘d,’ ‘s,’ ‘w,’ ‘k,’ and ‘n.’ are pretty much the way expect them to be. Vowels, the subject of the next section, are tricky because there are far more vowels in English than there are letters to represent them.  In these 4 words, there are 5 of them (6, if you count, ‘r’ … I’ll get to that). 

The symbol [ɛ] is the Greek letter Epsilon and is the ‘e’ sound in “bed.”  So, if you forget about the weird ‘h’ superscript, you can see how [tʰɛd] would sound like “ted.”

The lower case ‘I’ is the sound ‘ee’ as in “bee,” so it is easy to see why [stɛdi] would sound like “steady.” Using ‘I’ for an ‘ee’ sound is common in many languages in the world.

The symbol [ɑ], is the Greek letter Alpha, and is the ‘a’ sound in “father.” The symbol at the end of “water” stands for “r.” ‘R’ is a complicated sound and there is a whole subsection on it coming up, but it can act as a vowel, and that’s what it’s doing here. For now, just realize that is the sound like the ‘r’ in “bird” or at the end of “water,” approximately, ‘err.”

The tricky part of the word “water” is the ‘t,’ which is not a ‘t’ sound by a sound called an alveolar-flap.  I will get into this more in the section on consonants, but the sound is made by quickly flapping your tongue to the roof of you mouth just behind your teeth. The symbol for it looks like a lower-case ‘r,’ but it is smooth and does not have a column on the left [ɾ].  The next word, “kitten” uses the same sound. It can sound closer to a ‘d’ than to a ‘t.’

This is the same sound in the Spanish word “pero” (“but”) and the English words, “latter” and “ladder.”

The small capital ‘I’ [ɪ], is the ‘I’ sound in “bit” and “kit.” However, in the word “kitten” there is no [t]. It is [kɪɾ], followed by [ʔn̩]. You have seen the [ɾ], but the [ʔn̩] is mysterious.

[ʔ] is called a “glottal stop.” It a consonant that is made by stopping the air with your throat (see the drawing in the section on Consonants). It is a common sound in English, but it usually does not change the meaning.  Say “kitten” and feel how your throat closes just before the ‘n.’

One more thing about this word is the ‘n.’  Notice that there is a dot underneath it. This is a notation that means “the n is a vowel in this circumstance.” We will look into this in detail in the section on Sonorants coming up, but just be aware that that’s a possibility.

The last thing in this analysis is the ‘h’ superscript that I deferred above.

That refers to what is called aspiration which means that a little puff of air comes out after the consonant.  Whether the puff of air comes out does not change the meaning of the word, that’s why ‘t’ with a puff of air and ‘t’ without a puff of air are both allophones of /t/. They are variations of the same phoneme.

You can test this for yourself by putting your hand right in front of your mouth and saying “ted.” You will feel a puff of air.  Then say “steady” and you will not feel one.  You can make a puff of air when you say “steady” and it will not change the meaning of the word. However in some languages, like Chinese, Thai, Hindi, and many others, aspirated and unaspirated consonants are different phonemes and change the meaning, so, if they had the words [tɛd] and [tʰɛd], they would mean different things. [t] and [tʰ] would not be allophones, but different phonemes.

The next sections expand on the idea of contrasting sounds, go through the categories of sounds, list the allophones of the consonant phonemes, and then explore syllables, stress, words, phrases, sentence, and interactive speech, starting with vowels.