E-nglish Consonants

by Hugh M. Lewis

 

English consonants present special challenges for the non-English speaker, and the irregularities of spelling often entail that the sounds heard are not the same as the letters that are written. This presents a special problem for those students who have few good natural speech models and are learning English primarily from printed textbooks.

Consonants sometimes come in complex consonantal clusters, in blends, pairs and even more complex combinations that produce unusual sounds that are especially difficult for foreign speakers to master. Other times, consonants are seen in spelling but are not heard in pronunciation.

In general, consonants may have a voiced or unvoiced quality, and they may be either hard or soft. Consonantal sounds are distinguished based on the position they occur in a word, whether in initial or front, mid, or medial, and ultimate or final positions.

Single Consonant Sounds

Consonant Blends

Beginning Consonantal Blends

Initial Consonantal Digraphs

Hard & Soft Initial Consonants

Silent Initial Consonants

Voiced and Unvoiced initial "th"

Complex Initial Consonantal Clusters

Ending Consonantal Blends

Final Consonantal Digraphs

Complex Ending Consonantal Clusters

Special English Consonantal Pairs

 The Irregular "t"-Sound


Single Consonant Sounds

b be, big, number, probably, tub, adverb

c can, call because, second back, electric

c (s-sound) cent, circus process, Pacific .

d do, different study, Indiana good, around

f for, few after, before himself, leaf

g go, garden again, figure, dog, flog

g (j-sound) gem, general danger, original change, huge, fudge

h he, happy behind, ahoy .

j just, jump adjective, majesty .

k kind, kiss market, monkey bank, book

l little, laugh only, children little, girl, vowel

m mind, memory number, sample from, reform

n not, next answer, centennial oven, own

p point, possible open, example map, sleep

q quarter, quintessential sequence, equipment .

r run, round large, storage hour, flair

s sometimes, sentential answer, question perhaps, across

s (z sound) no initial sound music, busy is, does

t too, take city, sentence put, doubt

v very, vowel ever, several stove, dive

w work, will sandwich, Halloween .

x no initial sound mixture, maximum complex, sex

x (z-sound) xylophone, Xanadu no middle sound no final sound

y yes, your beyond, canyon .

z zoo, zipper crazy, magazine fuzz, jazz

 

Note that some single consonants (s-sound c, h, j, q, w and y) have no final sounds.

The z-sound "s" and the regular "x" have no initial sounds.

The z-sound "x" is the most rare sound and only occurs in initial position in a few words.

The "q" always occurs with a "u" and is heard as "kw."

The "v" in final position is always spelled with an ultimate "e."

A useful exercise is to have students working in groups find as many words as they can for each of the sounds, and to have each of the groups present their words to the rest of the class.


Consonant Blends

Consonant blends are pairs or larger clusters of consonants that produce new sounds. These new sounds are often difficult to produce orally, and can be confusing in word recognition.

Three sets of vowel blends that are quite common include an initial consonant with the letters "r" or "l" following; as in the following examples:

blend climb flip plump

brand cream crimp print

and the letter "s" as in "swing," "spring," "sloop", "stoop"

These are referred to as the r-family, l-family and s-family pairs. There are other families as well--try the t-family and the p-family.


Beginning Consonantal Blends

The consonants below that occur in initial position are always followed by a vowel:

H, J, L, M, N, Q, R, V, X, Y, Z

The letter "q" is unusual because it is always followed by a "u"

What follows are the consonant blends possible for each initial consonant

 B bl br blubber, branch

C cr cl, crunch, clown

D dr dw draw, dwindle

F fl fr flew, fry

G gl gr, glance, great

K kr krill

P pl pr, plural, preen

R rh rhomboid

S sl st sw, slip, string, swallow

T tr tw, trestle, twirl

W wr, wring


Initial Consonantal Digraphs

Digraphs are two letters that create a new sound:

ch--character, chore

ph--phonograph

gh---ghost

sh--shove, shoulder

th--though, them

wh--whether, whimsical


Hard & Soft Initial Consonants

The "c" and "g" sounds occurring in initial position sometimes carry a hard sound and sometimes a soft sound.

 

A hard "c" sounds like "k" as in car, cut, clear, character, cancer

Compare this to the hard guttural "g" as in gar, gut, glare, going, gamble

A soft "c" sounds like the sibilant "s" as in Caesar, certificate, Cincinnati

 

Compare this to the soft "g" sound that sounds like a "j" as in "gypsy," "gypsum," "gem" "gymnasium," "gist" or "general"

 

In general, if the vowel or vowel pair following the initial c or c-blend or an initial g or g-blend, is an "a, o, u" then the c sound is "hard," but if the following vowel or vowel blend has a sound that is "i" or "e" then it is soft.

 

Please note that there are definite exceptions to this rule governing the g sounds. For instance, say the following words:

gaol

gimpy

gimmick

 


Silent Initial Consonants

Sound out each of the following words, and pick out the silent initial consonant.

gnome

gnash

gnat

knuckle

knife

knit

pneumonia

psychology

wring

 

A good exercise is to give students a surprise spelling test with these words, and to see by tally how many students got spelled the words correctly based on their sound only.


Voiced and Unvoiced initial "th"

A voiced sound is one that employs the vocal chords in its production. Have students hold their throats to feel the vibration of their chords when the say the following voiced "th" words. See if they can feel their chords when the say the unvoiced words.

Basic determining articles and pronouns in English share with many other words a voiced or unvoiced "th" sound that is frequently difficult for foreign speakers to clearly pronounce or distinguish.

Voiced "th" words Unvoiced "th" words

these thought

this think

those thank

that thorough

them throw

the thorn

 


Complex Initial Consonantal Clusters

Initial consonantal clusters that are complex sets of three consonants include the following:

phl phlegm phlogiston

sch school, schooner

scr scream scrunch

shr shrill shriek shrove

spl splash splinter

spr spring sprinkle

str string strangle struggle

thr three throw

 


Ending Consonantal Blends

Consonantal blends that occur in the end of words include the following pairs:

lb bulb

ld build, guild, field

lm film, realm, helm

lt built, quilt, kilt

mb dumb, crumb

nd bend, fend

ng ring, bring

nk prank, swank

nt rent, bent, sent

ph graph, staph

rt smart, part, dart

rn born, sworn

rd rend, mend, fend, trend

rl twirl, sworl, marl

st tryst, gist, mist, fist, twist

th with, teeth

xt betwixt


Final Consonantal Digraphs

Digraphs are two letters that create a different single sound:

ch sandwich

ck--back, duck

dge--fudge

gh---though, high

ng--ring, thing

ph--digraph

sh wish, fish

tch--switch


Complex Ending Consonantal Clusters

There are a few common complex consonantal clusters that frequently occur at the end of words, these include the following:

 

ght ought, thought, bought

nch bench, wrench, cinch

tch witch, stitch, glitch

nch inch, cinch, bench

lph Ralph, Alphabet

lth stealth, wealth

thm rhythm


Special English Consonantal Pairs

 

The consonantal pair "ph" usually has an "f" sound:

elephant

phonograph

The consonantal pair "gh" sometimes has an "f" sound:

tough

rough

But sometimes it is silent, as:

though

slough

 

The "ch" sound in English sometimes has a sound as in

chair, chairman, chancellor, sandwich,

Sometimes it has a hard "k" sound as in:

chemist, chiropractor

And sometimes it has a "sh" sound as in:

chef, chevron

Note, that the "tch" cluster always has the "ch" sound as in

witch, stitch, itch, batch, match, catch

 

English also sometimes has a special class of complex clusters that have an "le" sound at the end, consider the following:

thistle

muscle

trestle

idle

treadle

meddle

turtle

subtle

 

These are in fact two syllable words in which the consonantal cluster joins the last syllable. Consider the following words:

trickster

huckster

These are in fact two separate consonantal clusters that join together between syllables.

Finally, the same consonant sometimes occurs reduplicated in pairs, in which case the first consonant is heard, and the second is either a glide or not heard at all. Consider the following:

 

Halloween

balloon

muddle

puddle

whittle

bubble

tussle

 occurrence

 


 The Irregular "t"-Sound

Note that sometimes "t" has an irregular "sh" sound, as for instance the following:

tion--nation, attention

tian--Titian

tious--fictitious, rambunctious

 

 


Blanket Copyright, Hugh M. Lewis, 2005. Use of this text governed by fair use policy--permission to make copies of this text is granted for purposes of research and non-profit instruction only.

Last Updated: 03/14/05