Tag Archives: consonants

A Word Taster’s Companion: Wow! Yay! Glides!

Today: the thirteenth installment of my how-to guide for word tasting, A Word Taster’s Companion.

Wow! Yay! Glides!

Glide. Come glide with me. You’ll get the hang of it. In fact, you already have the hang of it. You may never have been on a hang glider, but you have certainly glided smoothly on open air. If you’re flying a hang glider you may say “Wow! Yay!” But any time you say “Wow! Yay!” you’re gliding, no matter where you are and what you’re doing.

A glide is really a high and tight vowel sound serving as a consonant, the open air flowing smoothly but somehow making a consonant. In English, we have two glides: /j/ and /w/, the first sounds in yay and wow. You know (if you’ve been paying attention and have read “The vowel circle”) that the ay in yay and the ow in wow are diphthongs: vowel sounds that involve a movement. These ones in particular move to narrower vowels, [ɪ] and [ʊ]. But you can also hear, especially if you say “wow wow wow wow” and “yay yay yay yay,” or if you hold the opening sound (“wwwwwow” and “yyyyay”) that the opening sounds are pretty much the same as the final sounds of the diphthongs.

Glides illustrate even more clearly than liquids the fact that what is a consonant is often a matter of how it is used and thought of as much as of its characteristics. This is not true of all sounds; /a/ will never be a consonant, and /t/ will never be a vowel. But there is a grey area where consonants and vowels blur together, and the glides are in it (although I think glides sound more blue and yellow than grey).

This is not to say that the glides are absolutely identical with the vowels except for how they’re used. They may or may not be. Say “ye ye ye ye ye woo woo woo woo woo.” Notice how you can tell where the glide stops and the vowel starts. In these words, the glides have to be tighter than the vowels in order to be distinguished from them. Watch how you say ya and you and we and wa. See if they’re as tight.

But now say “ow ow ow ow a wa wa wa wa” and “ay ay ay ay a ya ya ya ya.” Watch how you say them. How closed are the glides? What else are you doing to make the distinction so it doesn’t just sound like “owowowow” and “ayayayayay”?

Glides are voiced. They don’t have to be. But we no longer have phonemic voiceless glides in English. We almost still do: if you want to distinguish which clearly from witch, you may devoice the /w/ – or just say a /h/ before it that spreads the devoicing onto the /w/, which is not quite the same thing. A similar effect can happen in words such as human and humour. Glides are also susceptible to the same devoicing caused by aspiration that affects liquids: try pure twit. Say that slowly, perhaps as if you’re describing someone with great disdain. Listen to the glides: /pjur twɪt/ – the aspiration from the /p/ and /t/ spreads onto the /j/ and /w/ and devoices them.

Glides can also be nasal or non-nasal (oral), just like the vowels they resemble – and, as with those vowels, this variation is allophonic but not phonemic in English. It spreads from a nearby nasal: compare mute (/mjut/) with beauty (/bjuti/). You may find it hard to hear the difference, but it’s there.

What do glides feel like to say? They’re sort of like the yo-yos of the mouth, perhaps in part because yo-yo uses them. The tongue (and, in /w/, the lips) swings in close and then pulls back, like an upside-down bungee jump. These are also things your mouth does while tasting – tasting wine, for instance. A wine taster will have a sip of wine and, holding it in the mouth, inhale on a [w] gesture to aerate it. Then, lips closed, the taster may make a series of [j] gestures ([jajajaja]) with the tongue to swish the taste in the mouth and get it into the nose. When held, glides can have a sense similar to that of nasals: they can express hesitation (“Yyyyyyyeah… wwwwwell…”) or enthusiasm (“Yyyyess! Wwwwwow!”)

Next: Huh. Is that all? Uh-uh.

A Word Taster’s Companion: The nose knows

Today: the ninth installment of my how-to guide for word tasting, A Word Taster’s Companion.

The nose knows

Nasal. In phonetics, nasal is also a manner, not a place. Yes, your nose is a place, but you don’t put your tongue in your nose to say nasal consonants. Nasal consonants are made in the same set of places as stops. The difference is that when you say a nasal, your nose is open – more exactly, the velum is lowered, allowing air to pass through the nose.

Try this: say “nnnnnn.” Now say “nnnnnnd.” What happened at the end there? Your velum raised. All of a sudden air couldn’t get out because the passage through your nose was blocked off. That’s the difference between a nasal consonant, which allows air to bypass the mouth through the nose, and an oral consonant – all consonants involve the mouth, of course, but in phonetics oral means not nasal.

And this is why nasals tend to become voiced stops when you have a congested nose. Say mind your manners with your nose pinched shut and you will sound like bide your badders. And pinching your nose shut produces the same effect as raising your velum. You could do that instead to say stops: say “ann” and pinch your nose at the end and you have “and.” But if you had to pinch your nose every time you said /b/, /d/, or /g/ – or /p/, /t/, or /k/ – it would be a problem.

So say pat, bad, man. Voiceless, voiced, nasal: /p/, /b/, /m/. One place, three manners.

Same with the tongue tip: tat, dad, nan.

Now say cat, gad, ngan.

What was that last one? Well, if you can say the voiceless and voiced stop at the back of the mouth, you can certainly say the nasal there. So /k/, /g/, /ŋ/. (I love that symbol, ŋ – it looks like an elephant, doesn’t it?) And no, there’s no [g] in it. We just write it ng because centuries ago we didn’t have a separate phoneme for that sound, [ŋ]; it was just what we did with [n] before [k] or [g] (it still is that too). And then we dropped the [g] in many places so that ng changed from [ŋg] to just [ŋ]. Yes, that’s right, when you say doing you have already dropped the [g], even if you say it “properly.” If you say it like doin’, you haven’t dropped the [g]; there is no [g] to drop any more. You’ve just moved the velar nasal forward to be an alveolar nasal. (And, by the way, doin’ was considered the correct way to say it for a long time, but it was changed back to “the way it’s spelled” in the 18th and 19th centuries.)

The reason we don’t start words with [ŋ] is that it was originally always before a [g] or [k], and it only came to be independent where we dropped the [g]. Some other languages allow it, but many Anglophones believe they can’t say it at the start of a word, so names like Ngaio (a Maori female name, best known from Ngaio Marsh, an author of detective fiction) and Nguyen (a very common Vietnamese family name) tend to be modified in English pronunciation.

Pity. Get a good handle on this sound. If you want to be a really good word taster, and taste the really good words, you have to be willing to make all the sounds your mouth is capable of making, in all the places your mouth is capable of making them, even in locations in words that you wouldn’t normally have them.

What do nasals feel like to say? Well, they’re singable, and they can have a warm and comforting nature. What do you say when you think of good food, for instance? Mmmmm. But they can also be used for hesitation, because they’re consonants you can hold on for a long time without getting to the point. It’s luck – or is it? – that no starts with a nasal, so we can say nnnnnnnnooo as we cagily consider a questionable option. And the velar [ŋ], held by itself, is as likely to express frustration or resistance, perhaps because it’s well suited to saying with teeth clenched. Say it expressively and observe the wide-mouth grimace you probably make… and you hands clenching into fists.

But hold [ŋ] at the end of a word and it has some of that [g] or [k] grip, but much softer. As with the stops, you’ll typically find [n] to feel the lightest, and [m] to feel the warmest. But as always… it varies.

Next: Sushi thief!

A Word Taster’s Companion: Stop! What are you doing?

Today: the eighth installment of my how-to guide for word tasting, A Word Taster’s Companion.

Stop! What are you doing?

Stop. No, that’s not an order, that’s a manner. If no air can get through the mouth or nose at all until you release the consonant, that consonant is a stop. All the consonants in decapitate are stops, for instance. Our English stops are voiceless /p/, /t/, /k/ and “voiced” /b/, /d/, /g/. Why did I just stick scare quotes on “voiced”? Because you don’t really keep your voice going during the time your mouth is stopped up. Not usually, anyway. Try it with holding a /b/, /d/, or /g/ and trying to make a voiced sound. Sounds like you’re stifling a sneeze – or something worse. No, the usual difference is actually in how close before the stop the voice stops and how soon after releasing the stop the voice starts again. (Linguists call this voice offset time and voice onset time.) We also tell the stops apart by how long the vowel is before them, as I mentioned in “The vowel circle.” The differences are small, but they’re enough to notice.

Now, let’s get some exercise.

Say picket, kaput, tip-top; doggèd, bagged; debit, batted. Pay attention to your tongue as you say them. Emphasize them. Get a feel for the sound.

If you’ve read “Horseshoes, hand grenades… and phonemes,” you know about the aspiration on the first sounds of picket, kaput, and tip-top. (If you haven’t read it, why not? Give yourself one demerit point and go back and read it. Honestly, how do you expect to be an expert if you skip things?) I’m talking about the difference between the /p/ in spit and the /p/ in pit. Also between the voiceless stops in still and skill and the ones in till and kill. Put your hand in front of your mouth while you say them if you want to refresh your memory. Don’t do it in public; people might think you’re checking your breath. Actually, you are, but not that way.

OK, now say a picket, a picket, a picket, a picket, a picket, a picket, a picket… Come on, faster!

Now say gotta be, gotta be, gotta be, gotta be, gotta be, gotta be, gotta be… come on, pick it up!

You may have noticed something in picket a and gotta. Most North American English speakers will, in relaxed speech, turn [t] and [d] between vowels into a tap or flap of the tongue – so the dd in madder and the tt in matter tend to be indistinguishable much of the time (thank goodness for context). The IPA symbol for this sound is [ɾ]. The voice never actually cuts out on a tap, which is why people often think it’s just changing the [t] to a [d] – the tap is more like a [d], but it’s not one; it’s as much like a quick British “r,” which is why the symbol is the shape it is, [ɾ] (and why some North Americans think some Brits say “veddy” for very). But you may nonetheless say madder slightly differently from matter. This will be a subtle difference in the voicing length on the [æ], as I’ve mentioned: a vowel is shorter before a voiceless stop. But the difference can often be too subtle to be reliable.

What do stops feel like to say? They’re percussive, but the exact quality varies according to place and voicing. Listen to them as you say them: [p] is lower in tone than [k], which is lower than [t]. This is because of the size and shape of the resonating cavities when you release the stops. This makes [t] the lightest and most fragile-seeming of the bunch. That’s helped by its being on the tip of the tongue, which feels less substantial than the back of the tongue, which kicks with [k], or the lips, which pop with [p]. But the tip is also the most agile part.

Add voicing now – in other words, reduce the voice onset time after release. They’re [b], [d], [g]. They’re blunter, stickier. But they still have the same kind of differentiations as their voiceless counterparts.

But it’s not as though there’s some absolute intrinsic taste to each of them. It varies from word to word, and from speaker to speaker. Say them all several times and decide for yourself how they seem to you: pat kid bag, tap dig back, top dog buck, put big cod… Yes, part of it is in how they play with other sounds. And the meanings and other associations of the words, of course. Oh, we’ll get to that!

Next: The nose knows

A Word Taster’s Companion: The consonant line

Today: the seventh installment of my how-to guide for word tasting, A Word Taster’s Companion.

The consonant line

If vowels are the blood of words, consonants are the bones. And while vowels are in a circle in the mouth, consonants are in a line, because they’re made by contact – or very close constriction – between the tongue and the palate, or the lips with or without the teeth.

Start by getting just a basic sense of what your tongue is doing. Move the tip of your tongue slowly from “th” (as in “thin”) to “s” to “sh,” then back forward. Now do the same but with voice: “th” as in “this,” “z,” “zh.” And back.

Now let’s go just a little crazier: saying “l” (as in “let”), make the same range of movement with your tongue tip. Does it tickle? Oh good.

What you’re doing when you do that is running your tongue tip between the back of your teeth and the back of your alveolar ridge – alveolar comes from the Greek for “wind.” Behind it is the hard palate. Keep curling your tongue farther back if you can and you’ll get to the soft palate, also known as the velum. This is where, with the back of your tongue, you say the final sounds in long, log, and lock. All the consonants in English are articulated somewhere in the line between there and the teeth and lips. (OK, except for [h]. And also the glottal stop, but that’s not a separate phoneme.) Some other languages go farther back.

Consonants may be linear, but they have several ways they can be made, so there are more of them. Linguists classify them by voice, place, and manner. The manner – the type of movement made – is what really makes them interesting. All good word tasters must mind their manners, and in the next six sections I will tell you the manners to mind.

First: Stop! What are you doing?