Monthly Archives: May 2014

What Exactly Are Vowels and Consonants?

Almost every person who has gone through the American public school system knows the words “vowel” and “consonant.” They can recite the vowels —  “a, e, i, o, u and sometimes y” — and they know that everything else is a consonant. But can they tell you what a vowel is? And what about consonants?

In a recent episode of Jimmy Kimmel, people exercising were asked whether they abstained from gluten, to which all those interviewed responded “yes.” They were then asked whether they knew what gluten actually was. Most just listed things they knew contained gluten (bread, beer, etc.), but none of them could actually explain what it was they were actually avoiding. Our K-12 knowledge of consonants and vowels is a little bit like common knowledge of gluten. We have a vague idea what sorts of things fall into those categories,  but we don’t have a clear idea of what the words “vowel” and “consonant” actually mean. Add to that the fact that our spelling system is quite divorced from the realities of our language’s sounds, and it’s no wonder that the concept is confusing. Luckily for you, your friendly neighborhood linguistics blogger is here to clear all that up for you!

What is a consonant?

Consonants are often ignored in our elementary education. Vowels are defined by the letters which (usually) represent them, but consonants are basically left unspoken of, defined only by their existence as not-vowels. Consonants are essentially this: there is constriction in the vocal tract, resulting in the cutting-off or muting of sound. This can be a total cutting off of sound, like the English sounds k as in “key”, or it can be a more subtle constriction, like the “th” in “the.”

What is a vowel?

Whereas consonants have definite constrictions, vowels use the smallest amount of constriction possible. This leaves lots of space in the mouth for vowels to resonate. Say the sound “s” as in “sign” a couple times in a row; then say the sound “z” as in “zebra.” The only difference between the sounds is voicing; put your finger on your larynx (your Adam’s Apple, if you’re a man) and notice that it vibrates for the sound “z” but not for the sound “s.” That vibration is called “voicing.” All vowels are voiced (say “aaaaah” with your fingers on your larynx), but many consonants are not. This also makes vowels much louder than consonants.

To see this in action, take a look at the picture below. It contains what linguists call a “waveform.” The waveform basically shows us how loud each part of a word is. The word represented below is “papi.” Notice the small amplitude at the very beginning (in the first red circle), and how it grows into a much louder part of the waveform (the “a” in “papi”, represented by the green line), followed by a period of total silence, which is the closure of the second “p” (the second red circle), followed by another vowel, “i” (with a blue line). The “i” is smaller than the “a” because the sound “a” is said with the mouth wide open, whereas “i” is said with a narrower mouth opening (remember my post on sound symbolism?).


Via the Aristotle University of Thessaloniki School of English

The in-betweens

Unfortunately, the difference between vowels and consonants isn’t so cut and dry. There are a number of sounds that are a bit fuzzier. Two sounds in English — w and y — are called “glides” or “semi-vowels”, and they have vowel-like qualities while still being consonants. For example, have you ever noticed in words like “being,” we actually pronounce it like “bee-ying”? Glides connect two vowels to each other and act as consonants when we need them to, in words like “yard” and “war.”

So we have consonants that look like vowels, so what about vowels that look like consonants? The following sounds can be what linguists call “syllabic sonorants”: m, n, l, r. These sounds can function as consonants, in words like “mother” and “nose” and “light” and “rare.” However, these sounds can also be vowels, in “syllabic sonorants.” Consider the word “bird.” Try to break it down into the sounds you would expect it to have: “B” + “ih” + “r” + “d”. It’s not quite what you’d expect, right? Sounds like someone saying a weird version of the word “beard,” rather than the way you know “bird” to be pronounced. That’s because the sounds in bird are actually just “b” + “r” + “d.” The “r” is the vowel. This is also the case for the other three sounds. Think of the m in “prism”, the last syllable in “kitten” and “ladle.” All of these sounds are just vowel versions of r, m, n, and l.

It turns out that consonants and vowels are not actually as distinct of categories as we might like to imagine. Speech sounds form more of a spectrum of sounds, with some sounds between our tidy categories of consonants and vowels.

Share Button

Why is English Spelling So Weird?

Why is English spelling so weird?

At the beginning of my freshman  year French class in high school, my teacher passed out a poem called “English is Tough Stuff.” She had each student read several lines aloud. The point was to show us how difficult our own language was, and that we should think twice before complaining about how hard learning French was. Here is an excerpt:

Billet does not rhyme with ballet,

Bouquet, wallet, mallet, chalet.

Blood and flood are not like food,

Nor is mould like should and would.

Viscous, viscount, load and broad,

Toward, to forward, to reward.

And your pronunciation’s OK

When you correctly say croquet,

Rounded, wounded, grieve and sieve,

Friend and fiend, alive and live.

The difficulty of English spelling, while perhaps not at the forefront of one’s mind in a French class, is certainly a well-known concern among all educated English speakers. Some people are talented at English spelling, but our orthography is the bane of many elementary school students in the US and the UK. Why is English spelling so inconsistent and hard to learn? Is this an intellectual exercise made up by malicious English teachers?

The answer lies in the history of our language. English’s history is a winding, complicated one, particularly in its writing. If you want to read a more in-depth history of spelling, you can read this article by David Crystal (who has written a whole book on the topic if you’re really curious). While some languages have a fairly linear history (for example Latin → Italian), the history of English is a bit more complicated. English is technically a West Germanic language, because Old English came to England by way of Anglo-Saxon invaders. However, English has had a huge amount of influence from other languages because of two major invasions in the Middle Ages: first an invasion from the Scandinavian countries whose people spoke North Germanic languages and then from the Norman conquest, which brought in a huge amount of French influence.

The Viking invasion brought a large influx of new words in the 8th and 9th centuries. Many English words beginning with “th” and “sk” can be attributed to this period. The Vikings assimilated into English culture and became a part of the island, and brought now-common English names like Eric and Howard, as well as last names ending in -son, like Anderson.

The Normans, however, did not assimilate into English culture. They took over the ruling positions and almost everyone in the higher classes spoke French rather than English. This is one of the reasons that French words are associated with class in English. An example: in other languages, many of the words for the animal are the same as the words for the meat. In German, pork is schweinefleisch, or “pig flesh.” However, in English we often do not use the same word for the animal and the meat. Pig, pork. Deer, venison. Sheep, mutton. Cow, beef. The reason for this is that the English people who raised the meat were peasants, and as such they continued to use Anglo-Saxon terms for the animals, because they did not speak French. But the French speakers could afford to eat the meat, and so used their own animal terms for the food — in French pig is porc, cow is boeuf, sheep is mouton.

So what does this have to do with spelling? Different languages have different sounds, and different languages sometimes use different spellings for the same sounds. For example, in (many) words of Modern English, the sound “oo” as in “food” is spelled with “oo.” However, the same sound is spelled “ou” in Modern French, or “u” in Modern Spanish. You can imagine, then, that the melding of languages might make things complicated. There is, however, some systematicity in English spelling within the language of origin. In order to be good at English spelling, you have to understand patterns in the language and be able to hold in mind several competing patterns at once. So the sound “s” in “sad” can be spelled like just an “s” or it can be a “c” as in “city,” but there aren’t any other options for that particular sound. A lot of these patterns are based on the language of origin.  For example, the word “crouton” comes from French, so it is spelled like the French way, but the same sound in “food” comes from Old English. This is the reason that kids in spelling bees often ask for a “language of origin” — it gives them a clue to how some of words are spelled. (Spelling bees are a purely English phenomenon, by the way, though other languages do have some interesting linguistic competitions of their own)

In addition, there are sounds that used to exist in English that no longer do. For example, the sound “gh” in words like “night” and “thought” used to be pronounced like the end of Bach or loch, making the sound of the word “night” closer to its German cousin nacht. Vowel sounds have changed dramatically as well. In much of Shakespeare’s work, the words at the end of the lines no longer rhyme; but they did at one point. For example, if one line ended with “love” and the next ended with “Jove,” they were pronounced the same way. Today’s Shakespeare performances sound very different than they did long ago.

Of course, for linguists all of this confusion makes life more exciting, though we certainly do have sympathy for the schoolchildren who struggle. There have been many attempts at spelling reform for centuries. Despite these efforts, however, I think that English spelling is not going to simplify any time soon, and indeed, with the modern status of English as a global language, I think we’re only going to see more of an influence from other languages.

Share Button