Consonants are speech sounds that aren’t vowels. A consonant sound is produced by a complete or partial airstream obstruction, by a constriction of our speech organs.
In the context of writing, a consonant is any letter of the alphabet, with the exceptions of A, E, I, O, U, and sometimes Y. The English language features 24 consonant sounds, with some being voiced (made by vibrating the vocal cords) and some being voiceless (made without vibration).
Let’s take a more in-depth look at English consonant letters and sounds.
Consonants vs. Vowels
When spoken, vowels do not have a mouth obstruction, while consonants do. While vowels are pronounced at the vocal cords using minimal shaping of the breath, consonant sounds are pronounced through obstruction or by channeling the breath through the teeth, lips, tongue, nasal passage, or throat.
Certain consonants, such as B, make use of the vocal cords, while others don’t. Like W or R, some use the flow of breath in a way that makes them quite similar to vowels. When vowels and consonants are combined, they create syllables, which are the basic units for pronunciation.
In turn, syllables are the basis for all words in the English lexicon. However, consonants are much more phonetically variable.
Consonant Digraphs & Blends
When two or more consonants are pronounced subsequently without a vowel between them (‘bursts’ or ‘dream’), the group is known as a consonant cluster or consonant blend. In a blend, one can hear each individual letter’s sound.
In contrast, in the case of a consonant digraph, two subsequent letters represent one sound. G and H are common digraphs, which, when placed together, create the sound of F, like in ‘enough.’ Likewise, the letters P and H, when put together, also mimic F, as in the word ‘phone.’
Consonants may also act as a way to bracket a vowel, stopping their sounds. These are aptly named stop consonants, as the air in the vocal passage is stopped entirely at a point, often at the lips, tongue, or teeth.
To make the sound of the consonant, the air is released suddenly. The letters D, B, and G are some of the most common stops, though K, T, and P may also fulfill the same purpose. Words containing stop consonants include ‘kit’ and ‘pip.’
Stop consonants are also known as plosives because their sounds are created with small air ‘explosions’ in the mouth.
There’s a lot more to consonants in the English language than what we’ve discussed here, but the above are the most basic concepts. We hope that you’ve been able to learn more about English as a language.