Spoken consonantsIn PHONETICS, consonants are discussed in terms of three anatomical and physiological factors: the state of the glottis (whether or not there is VOICE or vibration in the larynx), the place of articulation (that part of the vocal apparatus with which the sound is most closely associated), and the manner of articulation (how the sound is produced). Following this order, the sound /k/ can be described as a ‘voiceless velar plosive’, where voiceless refers to the state of the glottis, velar to the velum as the place of articulation, and plosive to the manner of articulation (the release of a blocked stream of air). The consonant system of English is conventionally presented on a grid with manner of articulation shown horizontally and place of articulation vertically. Voiced and voiceless pairs are in the same cells of the grid, with the voiceless member of each pair to the left (see table).
Written and printed consonantsIn the Roman alphabet as adapted for English, 21 letters are commonly described as consonants: that is, all save a, e, i, o, u. Positionally, they precede and/or follow the vowel in most SYLLABLES: to, ox, cup, fen, him, jab, keep, queer, wig, veil, yes. Most may be doubled (ebb, add, cuff; dabbed, runner, selling), but doubling of k, v is rare (trekked, revved), of h, j, q, x is abnormal (Ahh, she sighed), and none is doubled initially in native English words (but note Lloyd from Welsh, llama from Spanish). Many doubled consonants arise at the boundaries of affixes and roots, as with abbreviation, accommodation, addition, affirmation, aggregation, or before inflections, as in fitted/fitting, redder/reddest. Consonants regularly occur in strings or clusters without intervening vowels: initially, as in stain and strip, finally, as in fetch and twelfth, medially, as in dodging. Many clusters are digraphs, such as the ch in chin, sh as in she, th as in both this and thin, and ng as in sing. In addition, English uses numerous other consonant digraphs that do not represent a sound in any straightforward way; some, like ph in photograph, are borrowed from other languages, while others, like gh in though, trough are native to English but have lost their original sound value.
The distinction between vowel and consonant sounds and symbols is by no means always straightforward, as can be seen from looking at aspects of the letters j, v, w, y. Until at least the 18c, j and v (now established as consonants) were widely regarded as variants of the vowels i and u. In the 17c, the English alphabet was considered to have 24 letters, not 26: j and v were sometimes referred to as tayl'd i and pointed u. The consonants w and y have some of the characteristics of vowels: for example, compare suite/sweet, laniard/lanyard. Phonetic analysis may class such letters as either semiconsonants or semi-vowels. Many uses of y parallel those of i: gypsy/gipsy, happy/Hopi. The consonants l, m, n, r also often have some of the qualities of vowels when used syllabically: l in apple, m in spasm, n in isn't, r in centre. In such positions, they are often pronounced with a schwa preceding their consonant value. Most consonant letters are sometimes ‘silent’: that is, used with no sound value (some having lost it, others inserted but never pronounced); b in numb, c in scythe; comparably with handsome, foreign, honest, knee, talk, mnemonic, damn, psychology, island, hutch, wrong, prix, key, laissez-faire. In general, consonant letters in English have an uncertain relationship with speech sounds.
See AFFRICATE, AITCH, APPROXIMANT, CONSONANT CLUSTER, DIGRAPH, GLIDE, LIQUID, L-SOUNDS, R-SOUNDS, SIBILANT, SILENT LETTER, SPELLING, and letter entries for consonants.
con·so·nant / ˈkänsənənt/ • n. a basic speech sound in which the breath is at least partly obstructed and which can be combined with a vowel to form a syllable. Contrasted with vowel. ∎ a letter representing such a sound. • adj. 1. denoting or relating to such a sound or letter: a consonant phoneme. 2. (consonant with) in agreement or harmony with: the findings are consonant with other research. ∎ Mus. making a harmonious interval or chord: the bass is consonant with all the upper notes. DERIVATIVES: con·so·nan·tal / ˌkänsəˈnantl/ adj. con·so·nant·ly adv.