Another way to classify English consonants

I have discussed before how many consonants there are in English. In this post, I consider whether it is possible to classify English consonants in a more economical way.

Previous post

In an earlier post, I discussed how many consonants there are in English. The variety of English I looked at was standard southern British English, generally known as Received Pronunciation. Received Pronunciation contains 24 consonant phonemes. Some other varieties of English may have slightly more or slightly fewer and there might be some variations in how particular phonemes are best described in other varieties. https://languagemiscellany.com/2021/10/how-many-sounds-are-there-in-english/

I presented there a table summarising the 24 consonant phonemes of Received Pronunciation, reproduced below as Table 1. It classifies the consonants by manner of articulation (5 rows) and by place of articulation (7 columns). The symbols used are from the International Phonetic Alphabet (IPA) and the earlier post explains them.

Table 1. English consonants by manner and place of articulation

Table 1 contains 35 cells (5 rows x 7 columns). Only 15 of them are occupied, leaving 20 cells unoccupied. This suggests that there may be a more economical way to classify the consonants than by the 13 features needed for Table 1 (5 manners of articulation, 7 places of articulation and 1 distinction between voiced and unvoiced).

A more economical classification

In this post, I summarise a more economical analysis from Giegerich (1992), using only 7 features: anterior; continuant; coronal; sonorant; strident; round; and voiced.

Table 2 (based on Giegerich’s Table 5.2) shows in each cell which consonants have the first 4 of those features. Most cells contain exactly one consonant, but:

  • 6 of the cells contain both voiced (eg /p/) and unvoiced sonorant consonants (eg /b/).
  • 1 cell contains both strident consonants (/s/ and its voiced counterpart /z/) and non-strident consonants (/θ/ and its voiced counterpart/ ð/)
  • 1 cell contains both a round consonant (/w/) and a non-round consonant (j).
  • only 3 cells are empty.
Table 2. Features to classify English consonants.
Based on Gieigerich (1992)

Giegerich stresses that other sets of features might be needed for other languages.

Definitions of the features

Here are the definitions of Giegerich’s features:

  • anterior consonants are ones with an obstruction further forward than the palatal-alveolar section of the mouth. Thus, the feature [+anterior] captures the English labial, labiodental, dental and alveolar sounds (but see below for classification of /w/ and /r/).
    Palatal, velar and glottal consonants are all [-anterior].
  • continuant sounds are produced without blocking the air stream in the oral cavity. The feature [+continuant] captures the fricatives, liquids and approximants.
    Stops and nasals are [-continuant].
  • coronal consonants are produced with the blade of the tongue raised above the neutral position. Thus, the feature [+coronal] captures the English dental and alveolar sounds, and 2 of the 3 palatal sounds (/ʃ/ and /ʒ / but not /j/).
    Labial, labiodental, velar and glottal are [-coronal].
  • sonorant consonants are sounds whose phonetic content is predominantly made up up by the sound waves associated with voicing. So, the feature [+sonorant] captures the English nasals, liquids and approximants.
    Stops and fricatives are [-sonorant].
  • strident consonants are noticeably noisier than their non-strident counterparts. In Giegerich’s analysis, the feature [strident] is needed only to distinguish (/θ/ (and its voiced counterpart ð/) from /s/ (and its voiced counterpart /z/).
  • round consonants are produced with rounded lips. The only round consonant is /w/. In Giegerich’s model, the feature [round] is the only feature distinguishing /w/ from /j/.
  • voiced consonants are produced with vibrating vocal chords. The English voiced consonants are /b v ð d z ʒ dʒ g]. Their unvoiced counterparts are /p f θ t s ʃ tʃ k/.    

Affricates

Table 1 includes 2 affricates (/tʃ / and /dʒ/): blended and overlapping sequences of a stop and a fricative. The International Phonetic Alphabet (IPA) represents them by a sequence of symbols.

Giegerich does not include the 2 affricates in his table 5.2. Because including them in Table 2 would add nothing to the discussion in this post, I have not included them there.

Discrepancies between Tables 1 and 2  

Table 1 classifies both English /l/ and /r/ as alveolar, which would justify using the feature [+anterior]. Table 2 follows Giegerich’s Table 5.1, which use the feature [+anterior] for /l/ but the feature for [-anterior] for /r/.  This difference in treatment may reflect both some variation in how people pronounce /r/ in different varieties of English and differences in analysis.

The phoneme /w/ is produced by rounding the lips and raising the tongue towards the back of the mouth. Thus:

  • some researchers classify /w/ as labial, as in Table 1. That classification would justify using the feature [+anterior].
  • other researchers classify /w/ as either velar or labio-velar. Classification as velar would justify using the feature [-anterior]. That is the approach in Giegerich’s Table 5.2 and in Table 2 of this post.

The phonemes /j/ and /w/ are sometimes called semi-vowels. Some researchers analyse them as versions of the vowels /i/ and /u/ respectively, not as separate consonantal phonemes.

Strident

Because Giegerich uses the feature strident only to distinguish /θ/ from /s/, he places the boundary between strident and non-strident consonants so that /s/ is strident and /θ/ is non-strident.

As he acknowledges, although this boundary is convenient for his analysis of English, it is arbitrary. Different boundaries (or even different features) might prove more convenient in analysing other languages.

Giegerich says the strident consonants in English are /s ʃ ʒ z v/. All other consonants—including all other fricatives /θ ð h/— are non-strident.

Redundant features

Giegerich discusses 5 other features that are not needed to distinguish different English consonants, but that can still prove useful in writing phonetic or phonological rules for some of those consonants.

Those redundant features are nasal and lateral, and 3 features relating to the position of the tongue (high, low and back). I discuss nasal and lateral below.

Nasal

Giegerich defines nasal sounds as ‘sounds produced with a lowered velum [soft palate], which allows the air stream to escape through the nose’.

It follows from the definitions of the features that all nasal sounds are also [+sonorant] and [-continuant].

English has 3 nasal consonant phonemes: /m n ŋ/. They all have the features [+sonorant] and [-continuant], and are the only English consonant phonemes with both those features. Also, each of them has a different combination of other features, as Table 3 shows. Thus, there is no need to use nasal as a feature to distinguish any English consonants.

PhonemeAnteriorCoronal
/m/+
/n/++
/ŋ/
Table 3. Features of English nasal consonants.

It can sometimes be useful to introduce the feature [nasal] in writing phonetic or phonological rules, rather than using the feature bundle [ +sonorant -continuant]. That can be done by a ‘redundancy rule’ such as:

[+sonorant –continuant] → [nasal]

It is called a redundancy rule because the feature [nasal] is redundant in distinguishing English consonants. Although the feature [nasal] is redundant in English, it may not be redundant in other languages.

Lateral

Giegerich defines lateral sounds as ‘sounds produced by lowering the mid section of the tongue at one or both sides, thereby allowing the air to flow out of the mouth in the vicinity of the molar teeth’.

In English, the only lateral consonant phoneme is /l/, which has the features [+sonorant +continuant +anterior +coronal]. Also, no other English consonant has all of those same features. Therefore, there is no need to use the feature [lateral] in distinguishing English consonants.

If the feature [lateral] is needed in writing phonetic or phonological rules, that feature can be introduced by using the following redundancy rule, which is specific to English:

[+sonorant +continuant +anterior +coronal] → [lateral]

Conclusion

Gigiegerich’s selection and use of features provides a concise and elegant way of distinguishing all English consonants.

To analyse other languages (or even some varieties of English) different features might be needed.

I haven’t discussed in this post whether Giegerich’s features result in the most insightful analysis of the English sound system.

Reference

English phonology, Heinz J Giegerich (1992)

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