An Introduction To Vowels And Consonants English Language Essay

Language is an organization of sounds, of vocal symbols-the sounds produced from the mouth with the help of various organs of speech to convey some meaningful message. Language has a very important social purpose, because it is mainly used for linguistic communication. It is the most powerful, convenient and permanent means and form of communication. A language can be used in two ways for the purposes of communication. It can be spoken or written but the medium of speech is more important than writing. This is because speech comes first in the history of any language community – in fact, it came centuries before writing in the history of any language community. Secondly, speech comes first in the history of any individual. We started speaking long before we started writing. Speech as a medium of communication is used much more than the medium of writing. I n every language, a letter of the alphabet represents a particular sound. Lastly, modern technology has contributed tremendously to the importance of speech- modern inventions like the telephone, the radio, the tape recorder and several such devices have raised problems of communication primarily concerned with speech.

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Linguistics is a systematic study of language. Phonetics is a branch of linguistics and it is the branch dealing with the medium of speech. It deals with the production, transmission and reception of the sounds of human speech. For the production of speech sounds, we need an air-stream mechanism. There are three main air-stream mechanisms, such as, pulmonic, glottalic and velaric air-stream mechanisms. When the air-stream mechanism is used to push out, it is called egressive and when it is used to draw air in, it is called ingressive. Most sounds of most languages in the world are produced with a pulmonic egressive air-stream mechanism. The author described in detail the various organs that are responsible for converting the lung-air into speech sounds before it escapes into the outer atmosphere. For instance, if we say a prolonged ssss, a prolonged zzzz, a prolonged ffff and a prolonged vvvv, we see at once two things. We recognize these as speech sounds because these sounds occur in the various words we use in our English speech. The other thing we notice is that each one of these sounds is different from the others.

Speech sounds are very broadly divided into two categories, namely, Vowels and Consonants. If we say the English word shoe, we realize that this word is made up of two sounds, one represented by the letters sh and the other represented by the letters oe. When we produce the sound represented by the letters sh slowly, we realize that during the production of this sound, the air escapes through the mouth with friction. On the other hand, when we produce the sound represented by the letters oe, the air escapes through the mouth freely and we do not hear any friction. The sound is represented by the letters sh in the word shoe is a consonant and the sound represented by the letters oe in the word shoe is a vowel. All sounds during the production of which we hear friction are consonants, but not all consonants are produced with friction.

If we say the words, she, shoe, shy, show, ship and shout, we will realize that when we produce the sounds represented by the letters e, oe, y, ow, i and ou in these words, the air escapes through the mouth freely without any friction. All these sounds are therefore vowels but each one of them sounds different from the others. These sounds should therefore be sub-classified. Similarly, if we say the words shoe, see, zoo and who, we will hear friction during the production of the sounds represented by the letters sh, s, z and wh. All these sounds are therefore consonants. But once again, we will see that each of them sounds different from the others. The sounds that are called consonants also need to be sub-classified.

Description of Consonants:

The word ‘consonant’ has been derived from the Greek word ‘ consonautem’, which means the sound produced with the help of some other sound (vowel). A consonant is usually described, taking into account whether it is voiceless or voiced, its place of articulation and its manner of articulation. Manner of articulation refers to the stricture involved and plosive, affricate, nasal, fricative, etc; are labels given to consonants according to their manner of articulation. Place of articulation just means the two articulators involved in the production of a consonant. Consonants can be described according to their places of articulation. The label used is normally an adjective derived from the name of the passive articulator. The places of articulation that we frequently come across are bilabial, labio-dental, dental, alveolar, post-alveolar, palato-alveolar, retroflex, palatal, velar, uvular and glottal.

The classification of sounds into vowels and consonants is customary irrespective of phonetic, phonological, or orthographic references. The current classification following Pike divides the sounds into vocoids (vowel sounds), contoids (consonant sounds) and semi-vocoids or semi-contoids (for example; /w/ and /j/ in English). The terms contoids and vocoids refer to phonetic form only, without any reference to phonological function. A vocoid, according to Pike, is a segment formed with an open approximation of the articulators, with or without a velic closure, and with central passage or air-stream. All other segments are contoids.

In English, there can be syllabic vocoids, non-syllabic vocoids, syllabic contoids and non-syllabic contoids. Syllabic vocoids are all vowel sounds; they function as syllable nuclei. Phonetically, the vocoids are vowels and their phonological function is that of a syllabic vocoid. Non-syllabic vocoids are the sounds which are phonetically vocoids but phonologically are contoids. Syllabic contoids are the sounds which are phonetically contoids but their phonological function is that of syllabic nucleus, that is, they represent the V element in the structure of a syllable. Non-syllabic contoids are the sounds that phonetically are contoids and phonologically represent the C element in the structure of a syllable.

A description of consonantal sounds, according to A.C.Gimson, must provide answers to the following questions:-

Is the air-stream set in motion by the lungs or by some other means (pulmonic or non-pulmonic)?

Is the air-stream forced outwards or sucked inwards (egressive or ingressive)?

Do the vocal cords vibrate or not (voiced or voiceless)?

Is the soft palate raised or lowered? Or, does the air pass through the oral cavity (mouth) or the nasal cavity (nose)?

At what point or points and between what organs does the closure or narrowing take place (Place of articulation)?

What is the type of closure or narrowing at the point of articulation (Manner of articulation)?

Thus, the description of a consonant will include five kinds of information:

1.) The nature of air-stream mechanism,

2.) The state of the glottis,

3.) The position of the soft palate,

4.) The articulators involved- the active articulator and the passive articulator and

5.) The nature of stricture involved regarding its production.

The Nature of Air-Stream Mechanism: All English sounds, vowels as well as consonants, are produced with a Pulmonic egressive air-stream mechanism, that is, the lung-air pushed out.

The State of the Glottis: Speech sounds can be classified as voiceless or voiced, depending upon whether the vocal cords are wide apart and the glottis is wide open (voiceless) or the vocal cords are kept loosely together and they vibrate (voiced).

The Position of the Soft Palate: Speech sounds can be classified as oral or nasal, depending upon whether the soft-palate is raised so as to shut off the nasal passage of air (oral) or it is lowered to open the nasal passage of air simultaneously with an oral closure (nasal). Sounds can also be nasalised.

The Articulators Involved-the Active and Passive Articulators: Of the various articulators described in the chapter, at least two are required for the production of any speech sound; some articulators move during the production of speech sounds. These are termed as active articulators. Certain other articulators remain passive and the active articulators move in the direction of these. These are termed as passive articulators.

The Nature of Stricture Involved: The term ‘stricture’ refers to the way in which the passage of air is restricted by the various organs of speech. The stricture may be one of complete closure, that is, the active and passive articulators come into firm contact with each other, thus preventing the lung-air from escaping through the mouth. Simultaneously, there is a velic closure, that is, the soft palate is raised, thereby shutting off the nasal passage of air. Thus, the lung-air is blocked in the mouth. When the oral closure is released, that is, when the active articulator is suddenly removed from the passive articulator, the air escapes with a small explosive noise. Sounds produced with a stricture of complete closure and sudden release are called plosives. If the active articulator is removed slowly from the passive articulator, instead of the explosive noise that is characteristic of plosive consonants, friction will be heard.

Description of Vowels:

Vowels may be defined with an open approximation without any obstruction, partial or complete, in the air passage. They are referred to as vocoids in phonetics. They can be described in terms of three variables:

Height of tongue.

Part of the tongue which is raised or lowered.


So vocoids are normally classified according to these three criteria: tongue-height (high, mid, low, or close, half-close, half-open and open), tongue-advancement (front, central, back) and lip-rounding (rounded and unrounded).

In order to describe the vowels, we usually draw three points in the horizontal axes: front, central and back, referring to the part of the tongue which is the highest.

So, we have :

Front vowels, during the production of which the front of the tongue is raised towards the hard palate. For example; / i, i: , e: , a / in Hindi, and / i, i: , e , æ / in English as in sit, seat, set, and sat respectively.

Back vowels, during the production of which the back of the tongue is raised towards the soft palate. For example; / o: , u , u: ,/ in Hindi, and / a: , É” , É”Ë , u , u: / in English as in cart, cot, caught, book and tool respectively.

Central vowels, during the production of which the central part of the tongue ( the part between the front and the back) is raised. For example; / ə / in Hindi, and / ə , ə: , ʌ / in English as in about, earth and but respectively.

O n the vertical axis, we usually draw four points: close, half-close, half-open, and open. They are also referred to as high, high mid, mid (middle), low mid, and low by some phoneticians, especially the American phoneticians. On the basis of the vertical axes, we have the following types of vowels.

A close vowel is one for which the tongue is as close to the roof of mouth as possible. For example; / i: / in sea and / u: / in zoo.

An open vowel is one which is produced with the tongue as low as possible and the jaws are wide open. For example, / a: / in card and / É” / in hot.

We can describe a vowel by using a three – term label, indicating the height, the direction (advancement) of the tongue, and the position of the lips. For example;

/ a: / in the English word, arm, back, open, unrounded vowel.

/ É” / in the English word, hot, back, open, rounded vowel.

/ i: / in the English word, need, front, close, unrounded vowel.

/ u / in the English word, tooth, back, close, rounded vowel.

To describe the vowel sound, we mention whether it is open or close, half-close or half-open, front or back or central, long or short, whether the tongue is tense or lax while the vowel is being pronounced, and whether lips are spread, neutral, open rounded, or close rounded. All English vowels are voiced. So, for every vowel, we must state that it is voiced.

Hence, to sum up, the main point of a language is to convey information. Nowadays, language can take various forms. It can be spoken or written. Peter Ladefoged also talked in his book that speech is the common way of using language. Another aspect of speech that is not part of language is the way speech conveys information about the speaker’s attitude to life, the subject under discussion and the person spoken to. The final kind of non-linguistic information conveyed by speech is the identity of the speaker.

You can often tell the identity of the person who is speaking without looking at them. But then again, we may be wrong. Whenever we speak, we create a disturbance in the air around us, a sound wave, which is a small but rapid variation in air pressure spreading through the air. Speech sounds such as vowels can differ in pitch, loudness and quality. We can say the vowel a as in father on any pitch within the range of our voice. We can also say it softly or loudly without altering the pitch. And we can say as many different vowels as we can, without altering either the pitch or the loudness.

The pitch of the sound depends on the rate of repetition of the changes in air pressure. The loudness of the sound depends on the size of the variations in air pressure. The third way in which sounds can differ is in quality, sometimes called timbre. The vowel in see differs in quality from the first vowel in father., irrespective of whether it also differs in pitch or loudness.

Thus, Peter Ladefoged in his book has discussed the principal constraints on the evolution of the sounds of the world’s languages, which are ease of articulation, auditory distinctiveness, and gestural economy. He also discussed the differences between speech and language, and has also outlined some of the main acoustic distinctions among sounds; and how one of the acoustic distinctions, that corresponding to pitch, is used in the world’s languages.

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