What is a Consonant?

L. S. Wynn
L. S. Wynn

A consonant is a sound in spoken language that is characterized by a constriction or closure at one or more points along the vocal tract, such as the lips, tongue and teeth. The word "consonant" also refers to each letter that denotes this type of sound. This term comes from a Latin word and means "sounding together" or "sounding with" — the idea being that consonants generally don't sound on their own but occur only with a nearby vowel. For instance, consonants typically cannot form words by themselves, although some might act as vowels in certain words. The Latin meaning of this term, however, does not reflect a modern linguistic understanding, which defines them in terms of vocal tract constrictions.

Consonants usually depend on a nearby vowel.
Consonants usually depend on a nearby vowel.

Letters

In the English alphabet, the 21 letters that typically denote consonant sounds are B, C, D, F, G, H, J, K, L, M, N, P, Q, R, S, T, V, W, X, Y and Z. The letter Y also can act as a vowel in words such as "myth" and "try." In two English words, the letter W also acts as a vowel: "cwm" and "crwth," with the sound being a long "u" sound. When a consonant letter acts as both a vowel and consonant in a word and is its own syllable, such as in the word "prism," it is called a sonorant. Some words that represent sounds also can consist entirely of consonants, such as "shh" and "brr."

Sounds

Written English has fewer consonant letters than spoken English has consonant sounds — there are 24 common consonant sounds in English — so some letters represent more than one consonant sound. Letter pairs such as "sh," "th" and "ng" are used to represent some sounds. Some letters and letter combinations have different pronunciations in different words, such as the heavier "th" sound in "this," compared with the softer "th" sound in "thing." Since the number of consonant sounds in all the languages in the world is greater than the number of consonant letters in the various alphabets, linguists have created systems such as the International Phonetic Alphabet (IPA) to assign a unique symbol to each possible consonant sound.

Categories

Consonants can be categorized by the parts of the vocal tract that are used to make the proper sound. For example, labial consonants are those that use the lips to make the correct sound. Coronal and dorsal consonants use the front and middle parts of the tongue, respectively. Other types of consonants use parts such as the base of the tongue, the teeth and the vocal cords. There also are subcategories that are more specific, and some sounds use a combination of these parts.

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Discussion Comments

anon331765

The real difference between a vowel and a consonant can be explained accurately by saying a vowel consists of an audio sound which repeats itself over and over. The sound of the consonant comes in a short burst and it doesn't repeat itself over and over like the vowel sounds.

anon331761

Can you tell me how I could possibly separate out the consonant sounds from the vowel sounds?

anon276428

Please tell me how to categorize the English alphabet? Please answer as soon as possible.

anon139852

who ca help me with my reading like vowels and consonants, like how to split vccv and stuff like that?

anon101544

thanks a lot for this valuable information.

anon84677

Please, who can help me? I'm having problems with the English language.

amypollick

@anon75761: A silent consonant is a consonant that is not pronounced, usually at the beginning of a word. A good example is "pseudo." You don't say "p-sudo." You say "Su-do." Hope that helps.

anon75761

that was a good effort, but could you guys be more clear because you know i needed to know what a silent consonant is and i did not really get my answer. i think if i asked my teacher anything she would say it very understandable and clear. well thanks for your help anyway!

anon72576

Great definition, It was very easy to understand. It's awesome!

anon71288

thank you very much. I am in year six and have tons of homework with this sort of stuff! I can get help on this site for all sorts of subjects!

anon69535

I thank you for the definition. I haven't been understanding my spelling in a while now! :)

anon67990

Nice and clear definition of consonants. Other sites were confusing

anon66289

Thank you so much. This was a really big help for my homework. Thanks again.

anon62403

thanks for helping me.

anon58590

thank you. it has been a while since school.

anon54987

This was a great help for me. Really, thank you very much.

anon51886

thanks a lot.

anon50214

thanks.

anon35177

I had been looking for a good and simple definition of consonant, and this I think is a very good explanation. Thanks

platonic4xt

when is a consonant or vowel used in English? use of a/an?

anon1625

I would like to know which are two major groups of classifications of consonants?

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