3.4.7 consonants

Consonants are sounds, linguists would say phonems, where the flow of air is interrupted by the teeth, the tongue, the uvula. This causes frictions and the frictions cause the sounds. Since the frictions are produced by interrupting the flow of air, consonants don't depend on the vocal chords to be heard. They can be voiced and unvoiced. The different vowels are produced by modifying the resonance body, the flow of air is not interrupted, there are no frictions. In order to be heard they need the vocal chords, in other words, all vowel are voiced. Consonants as well as vowels can use the nose as well as a body of resonance. We will discuss all these issues in the following chapters. We will see what voiced and unvoiced means, what is a oral consonant / vowel, phonem / graphem etc..

Consonants are more easy to describe and since they are produced at a given position of the tongue, teeth, uvula they have in general, if we put aside the r, only few different realisations. The t, d, m, n, k, l etc. sounds equal in any language. The case of vowels is different. The sound of a vowel depends exclusively on the resonance body produced by the mouth or, in the case of a nasal vowel, from the resonance body formed by the mouth and the nose. This resonance body is difficult to describe and furthermore the transition from on vowel to another is fluent. Between the a in cat and the a in America there are a lot of sounds in between. This is no problem if the sounds in between are semantically irrelevant and only the extreme positions make a semantic difference, but becomes a problem in the case that the vowels in between change the meaning of the word. In the case of a consonant there is a clear cut. S and th are two different sounds and there is nothing in between. If you want to know whether the pronunciation of a language is difficult or not, it is enough to know how many vowels there are. If a language has for instance 30 vowels, then you know that it is a real challenge to learn it.

From the very beginning vowels have been considered as something different and treated in a different way. In the Arabic alphabet for instance only some of them are actually written, most of them are presented by diacritical sign, in other words something like accents. The reason for that is perhaps that vowels, since the tongue, the teeth, the uvula are not involved in their production, allows the tongue to get back to a position where the next consonant can be produced. Any number of following vowels can be produced, aoauao can be pronounced without any problem, mktdrs cannot be produced.

Portuguese has 19 consonants, most of all, if we but aside the r, exists as well in English and are not a big problem. However we have to distinguish clearly between phonem and graphem. A phonem, a sound, is not necessarily represented by the same graphem in English and portguese, in other words the spelling can differ. The Portuguese x in baixar corresponds to the English t in motion, the sound is the same, the spelling completely different.

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