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.