Audio blog post by Dr. Isaacs. Click to listen and read along!

The task of covering all of the vowel sounds in English took four blog posts. But we can cover all of the consonant sounds in just one post – and there are roughly four times as many consonants as vowels! Consonants are just more straightforward. (Besides, let’s be honest. You probably already know these.) So let’s begin!

Voiced vs. unvoiced consonants

It may seem appropriate to list the consonants in alphabetical order, just sticking with the alphabet. But what do you do when you come across the letters c and g? Each of these letters can represent two different sounds. Conversely, some sounds need two letters to represent them, like the beginnings of the words thank and show. So we need to think about this another way.

One helpful way to think about consonant sounds is as pairs. One consonant is voiced, and its sibling is unvoiced. What does this mean? Simply put, you say one while using your voice, and you don’t need your voice to say the other. For example, the sound \d\ is a voiced consonant. Put your fingers on the front of your neck, right on your Adam’s apple, and say this sound: \d\. You should be able to feel some vibration as you say it. Now compare it with this sound: \t\. This time, you shouldn’t feel any vibration. Basically, your mouth and tongue are moving exactly the same way. But these two sounds are different, depending on whether you are using your voice or not. Not understanding the difference between a voiced and an unvoiced consonant has often resulted in misspelled words and spellers being eliminated from a bee. Don’t let this be your fate!

Here are the voiced and unvoiced consonant sound pairs in English. Say these sounds (with the given words) with your hand over your throat so you can feel the difference between them.

  • \b\ — \p\ (bat — pat)
  • \d\ — \t\ (duck — tuck)
  • \v\ — \f\ (veal — feel)
  • \g\ — \k\ (got — cot)
  • \j\ — \ch\ (Jerry — cherry)
  • \z\ — \s\ (zag — sag)
  • \zh\ — \sh\ (azure — Asher)
  • \th\ — \th\ (then – thin)

The remaining consonant sounds

The following consonant sounds are not part of a voiced/unvoiced pair, but are simple enough to understand. These are represented by one letter – the letter that you see in the pronunciation backslashes, or virgules. Here they are:

  • \h\ – have
  • \l\ – lime
  • \m\ – mad
  • \n\ – now
  • \r\ – run
  • \w\ – wet

There is a final consonant sound that is not represented by a letter in the alphabet. It looks like the letter n with a tail on the end, as if someone hooked the letter j to it. Here it is:

  • \ŋ\ – ring

That’s it!

Yes…we’ve finished all the consonant sounds in one post! As mentioned in a previous vowel sound post, there are a few sounds that generally do not appear in American English…but for expert spellers, it is a good idea to master these. We’ll address these in our next post.

Photo credit: “galaxy of cherries” by pb.