Vowels & Consonants

A vowel is a speech sound made with the mouth fairly open, the nucleus of a spoken syllable.

A consonant is a sound made with the mouth fairly closed.

Consonants that are like vowels – approximants

The four consonant sounds like – “y”, “w”, “r”and “l” – are produced with less mouth constriction than other consonants, and in linguistics are called “approximants”.

Approximants occupy a kind of linguistic grey area between vowels and consonants, in fact “w” and “y” are also known as semivowels.

There’s very little difference between the consonant sound “y” and the vowel sound “ee” as in “see/sea/me”, and between the consonant sound “w” and the vowel sound “ooh” as in “moon/rule/grew”.

These sounds are classified as consonants because they generally behave like consonants, that is, they’re (in) syllable onsets not syllable nuclei.

Syllabic consonants

In many English dialects, the sound “l” can be a syllable all by itself in words like “bottle” and “middle”. This is also true of the sound “n” in words like “button” and “hidden”.

In these words, the tongue has just said “t” or “d”, so it’s already in the right place to go straight into the sound “l” or “n”, without saying a vowel first. However, we still write a “vowel letter” in this syllable (le, on, en) and we say a vowel sound in other words with similar final spellings, like “giggle” and “dabble”, “ribbon” and “beckon”, “happen” and “embiggen”.

The sound “m” can also act as a syllable in words like “rhythm” and “algorithm”, again because the sounds “th” and “m” are physically very close together. In this case we don’t write a “vowel letter” in the last syllable, but we do say a vowel sound in the last syllable of most words spelt like this, like “autism” and “criticism” (click here for more, see right column).

Tell language mavens who insist a consonant is never a syllable to stick that up their jumpers.

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