What is a consonant sound?

[ssba] It often helps to go back to basics when teaching new skills. What question could be more straightforward in teaching pronunciation than ‘What is a consonant sound?’. Often when this question is posed in class, everyone feels they know the answer, but cannot define it.

Put simply, a consonant sound is a block of air made as it leaves the body.

In order to say a consonant sound we need three pieces of information:

  • The Place where the block of air occurs (lips, teeth, alveolar ridge, palate etc).
  • The Type of block that occurs (plosive, fricative, nasal, approximant etc).
  • The Voicing – whether we are using our voice or not (voiced/voiceless).

So, to illustrate this point, let’s consider the following sound:

  • Place: bi-labial (both lips)
  • Type: plosive (complete stop followed by release)
  • Voiceless (no use of the voice box, just air)

This would produce a /p/ sound.

Pulmonic Consonant Chart

These three pieces of information are clearly displayed on the International Phonetic Association’s consonant chart. Place is displayed along the top, type is displayed down the side, and voicing is shown by the sound appearing in the left or right side of the box. The full chart looks like this:


If you would like to hear all the sounds on the full consonant chart, visit York university’s flash player. Fortunately, English does not contain all of these consonant sounds! The English chart is below:


Notice the focus on sounds made on and near the alveolar ridge.

Diacritics can change the basic sound slightly, so whilst most languages have a type of bilabial plosive /p/ sound, the English one is slightly different as it is often aspirated, so could be written as [pʰ] to show this in phonetics.

Notice that English has the following redundant consonant letters: x, c, j, q. They do not relate to any particular sound, but instead represent a combination of other sounds.

Consonant charts are covered on Level 2 Pronunciation.[thrive_leads id=’7075′] [ssba]