Phonetics 101 #2


Welcome back to part 2 on this topic. In this second part I’ll discuss the following subjects:

  • Consonants
  • Vowels
  • Acoustic phonetics
  • Pitch, tone, intonation and connected speech

Again I have most of my information from my tutors and the book: The phonetics of English and Dutch by Beverly Collins and Inger M. Mees. Any other sources will be mentioned in the text and if I find a useful website I’ll give the link.


A consonant is a sound that goes together with a vowel or a fricative /s/.
When one wants to describe a consonant there are three parameters involved: place, manner and energy (exclusively in that order).

These are the consonants in the English phonetic alphabet. Here is a link to an interactive website that will show you the position of the tongue etc when the sound is produced. There is however one sound missing in the diagram and that is the w (labial velar approximant).

Consonants are divided into two sorts. There are obstruents and sonorants. With obstruents there is always an obstruction in the vocal cavity and so there is always noise, obstruents are then again divided into plosives, affricates and fricatives. The sonorants are continuous sounds accompanied by extra resonance, sonorants are also divided again into nasals and approximants. Here is a short explanation with the terms:

  • plosive: oral sound, stop. There is a sudden release of air because there was complete closure. Has three stages of production: approach, hold and release stage.
  • affricate: begins as a plosive and ends as a fricative, there is slow air release.
  • fricative: there is an obstacle causing a noise like /s/.
  • nasal: there is complete closure of the oral cavity and so the air can only escape via the nose.
  • approximants: The articulators are so far apart that the airstream can move through the cavity without causing audible friction. (for example /w,l,r,j/

There is also something called a glottal stop and aspiration. These are only used for /p,t,k/ since there is a stop before the sound and a puff of air afterwards.
When describing obstruent consonants there is another option one can use instead of voiced or voiceless. This is fortis or lenis and connects to the energy, fortis being voiceless and lenis being voiced. The sonorants are always voiced but may have an occasional devoiced allophone. (more on fortis and lenis click here).

Sometimes there is something like double or secondary articulation. Double articulation means that both places of articulation are equally important (take /w/ as an example, being a labial velar). Secondary articulation means that one sound has primary articulation and the other sound is not as important. Primary articulation can be recognised by -ar after velar for example. Secondary articulation is recognised by -ised as in labialised.

There are diacritics that will indicate if, for example, a sound is voiceless or aspirated etc.


Vowels cannot be described with the three term label used for consonants. This because all vowels in RP English are voiced, they are all produced in the palatal-velar area and are all approximants. Instead there are six parameters used to describe a vowel: tongue shape, lip shape, position of the soft palate, larynx setting, duration and steadiness.

There are open and close vowels. Close means that the tongue is close to the roof of the mouth (wide oral cavity) , while open means that the tongue is low (narrow oral cavity).
Front and back refers to if they are produced with an advancing/front movement of the tongue or retracting/back movement.

Daniel Jones came up with the vowel area and created the cardinal vowels. These vowels don’t exist but are used to compare existing phonemes/vowels to one another. At first is looked like this:

cardinal vowel chart

Afterwards it was simplified into the cardinal vowel chart.This chart shows the exact places of these primary  cardinal vowels. There are also squares or circles around the vowels, meaning that the lips are square or rounded when the vowel is pronounced.

The cardinal vowel chart is important because it proves a framework for the description of the vowel sounds of any language.
The secondary cardinal vowels are the primary cardinal vowels but pronounced with reversed lip rounding:
secondary cardinal vowels
Now that these primary and secondary vowels have been determined, the English vowels can be put into a chart as well.

This is a complete vowel chart, including the cardinal vowels and English vowels.





However this is not yet the end of this torturous subject. There are two different kinds of vowels: Checked vowels (short vowels, monophthongs), free vowels (long vowels and diphthongs).
Those free vowels can be simply long and steady (monophthong, steady-state vowels) or become a diphthong, meaning that the lip/tongueshape changes and the vowels glides from into another. Diphthongs are also separated into two kinds: Closing (front vowels glide into an I and back vowels into an U) and centring (ends in a schwa)
The six parameters I talked about early all tend to vary according to what vowel is produced. The only thing that will stay the same is that the soft palate is up, all vowels are oral.

Acoustic phonetics

Acoustic phonetics deals with the physical properties of speech sounds like frequency, amplitude etc. Sounds are vibrations that travel as sound waves through air or another medium like water, wood, metal and the like. These waves are caused by molecules that transmit sound waves through vibration. One molecule vibrates, so does the next etc. The molecules vibrate around their rest point and stay in their average position.
Humans are able to pick up sounds because of the eardrum, which picks up the vibrations from the molecules and transmits it to the nerve system. There is a limit to what humans can hear, it cannot be too high or too low.

A sound wave is a series of pressure variations, displacements from normal atmospheric pressure. Here is a diagram of pressure variation plot against time.
Just after the five milliseconds the sound wave is again at its starting point. This is called a cycle. The more cycles within a certain time means the higher the frequency. One cycle per seconds means 1 herz.  These sound waves can be either periodic, constantly the same, or aperiodic where the frequency and amplitude varies. More on periodic and aperiodic sound waves click here.  A peak in a sound wave is simply called a peak while a low point is called a trough.
There is also a difference between a simple and a complex wave. A simple wave is what you can see on the diagram, while this is an example of a complex wave:

The difference between the two sound waves are that the simple wave exists of only one tone while a complex wave carries harmonics or overtones with it. These harmonics are different frequencies that vibrate at the same time with the basic wave (the fundamental frequency F0).

When you put the fundamental frequency in a graph together with the harmonics you will get something like this:
As you can see the fundamental frequency is the loudest, the harmonics afterwards loose power. The higher the frequency the softer the sound. When the frequency is high, the pitch tends to be high as well and vice versa. But it doesn’t matter if the voice is high or low pitched, the words that will be produced are perceived the same way.
An acoustic filter dampens some of the harmonics and amplifies others. Such a filter can be influenced by any kind of things but one has to keep it in mind. When a human speaks the vocal tract is the acoustic filter. The source of a speech sound is the glottal wave (the vibration of the vocal folds). It depends on the shape of the vocal tract which harmonics will be reinforced or dampened.
The vocal tract can be affected by factors that will change the shape of the vocal tract and as a result have a filtering effect on the sounds:

  • changing the relative size of the oral and pharyngeal cavities by altering the shape of the tongue
  • extending the length of the oral cavity by protruding the lips
  • diminishing the size of the entrance to the oral cavity by rounding the lips
  • adding or subtracting the resonance of the nasal cavity by lowering or raising the soft palate

These are the English vowels placed within a table, f1 against f2:

The pharyngeal cavity influences f1 while the oral cavity influences f2. More on formants click here.

For more detail on acoustic phonetics click here, here, here and here.

Pitch, tone, intonation and connected speech

Pitch is subjective. When someone speaks a stressed syllable is, most commonly, louder and longer than the neighbouring syllables, and pronounced with a marked change in pitch. Pitch depends on the age, gender and fundamental frequency of the speaker.

Tone is something else. It’s a  particular pitch pattern on a syllable in languages such as Chinese, that can be used to distinguish different meanings. That means that English is not a tone language since a change of pitch doesn’t change the meaning of a word.

Every sentence has one peak of stress, a stressed syllable which is more prominent than the rest. This prominent stressed syllable is referred to as the nucleus.
Intonations can be produced by stretching or loosening the vocal folds. When one talks in daily life, there are intonations bound to a certain attitude as it were, intonation has functions:

  • Attitudinal function: to express emotions or attitudes.
  • Grammatical function: to identify grammatical structure
  • Focusing function: to show what information in the utterance is new and what is already known
  • Discourse function: to show how clauses and sentences go together in spoken discourse.

More on intonation click here.

With connected speech cases of elision and assimilation can occur. With elision it simply means that there are sounds left out, deletion. For example cracked pots becomes /kræk ‘pots/ (just pretend the o in pots is a lot vowel) when pronounced in connected speech.
Assimilation means that two words  become one. This can be by place, energy or nasality.
Another thing that happens with connected speech is the incertion of an intrusive /r/, linking /r/, /w/ or /j/. For example: Two eggs gets a linking /w/, three eggs a linking /j/ and four eggs a linking /r/.

For more on connected speech click here.


This is the end of this topic and I sincerely hope that it will stay by this for the rest of the year. I hope you found it useful and if you have any questions, feedback or something nice to say simply comment ^_^ (Good luck to all my classmates who are also struggling with this highly enjoyable *barf* subject).


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