English Consonants

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  • Topic: Phonology, Phoneme, Consonant
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RESEARCH PAPERS | 23
How Many Consonant Sounds Are There in English?

How Many Consonant Sounds Are There in English?
by David Deterding, National Institute of Education, Singapore

....................................................................................................................................................................................................... Most analyses agree that there are 24 consonant sounds in English. However, it is valuable to consider in some detail a few issues that affect the status of these consonants. First, we can think about why the affricates /tʃ/ and /d / are treated as single consonants rather than sequences of two consonants. Second, one might discuss why it is that /w/ and /j/ are classified as consonants rather than vowels. Third, there is the possibility of a voiceless counterpart of /w/ that, for some speakers, differentiates which from witch. And finally, there is the question of whether the velar nasal /ŋ/ is actually an allophone of /n/. After considering these issues, most people will still conclude that there are 24 consonants in English. However, the discussion can help us gain a deeper understanding of English phonology.

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s Introduction
How many consonant sounds do you think there are in English? Of course, most of us know that there are 20 consonant letters in our alphabet (or 21 if you include ‘y’), but here we are talking about sounds, not letters. And there is a mismatch between sounds and letters: sometimes two letters combine to represent one sound, so that ‘s’ + ‘h’ combine to represent the sound /ʃ/ and ‘t’ + ‘h’ combine for /θ/, and sometimes one letter is pronounced as a sequence of two sounds, as ‘x’ is usually /ks/. So the number of consonant letters in our alphabet is irrelevant when considering the number of consonant sounds (phonemes) in English. The basic answer to the original question is that there are 24 consonant sounds in English: q 6 plosives : /p b t d k / q 9 fricatives : /f v θ ð s z ʃ h/ q 2 affricates : /tʃ d / q 3 nasals : /m n ŋ/ q 1 lateral-approximant : /l/ q 3 approximants : /w j r/ However, things are never quite as simple as that in the study of languages, and there are a number of issues that we might consider in more depth: q Why are /tʃ/ and /d / regarded as single phonemes and not as sequences of two phonemes? q Why are /w/ and /j/ regarded as consonants and not vowels? q Do those people who distinguish which from witch have one extra phoneme, / /, a voiceless equivalent of /w/? q Should /ŋ/ really be regarded as a separate phoneme? Or can it be analysed as an allophone of /n/?

s The status of /tʃ/ and /d /
The two affricates are each written as a sequence of two symbols, so why do we regard them as single consonants? Why do we not, for example, analyse cheese /tʃi z/ as having two consonants at the start, /t/ followed by /ʃ/? The answer is that /tʃ/ behaves phonologically as a single sound, even if phonetically it is rather similar to a plosive followed by a fricative. In analysing its behaviour, we need to think about the patterns of distribution of /t/ and /ʃ/ (Laver, 1994:365), so we should consider what sequences of sounds can occur together, particularly at the start of a syllable. English allows quite complex syllable onsets, such as /str/ in string and /spl/ in splash, but it does not generally permit a plosive followed by a fricative, so */pf k/, */tsɒ / and */kʃp/ are not possible words of English. (In the few cases where the spelling does suggest a plosive followed by a fricative at the start of the word, such as psychology, the plosive is actually silent.) But note that chip /tʃp/ and check /tʃek/ are perfectly good words of English. So if we treated /tʃ/ as a sequence of two phonemes, we would...
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