Category Archives: Phonetics (The IPA)

Speech Class: Vowels and Consonants

I’m not going to try to hide it from you. Today’s post isn’t light reading. It’s equivalent to an hour’s worth of private coaching, or a session in an acting conservatory classroom. The upside is that this post is free which will save you anywhere from $75 -$200 in coaching fees, or even more when compared to the cost of prestigious private acting conservatories. (Cha-ching!)

If you are fairly new to learning authentic, actable dialects, it can be very helpful to know a few terms before you head off to hire a dialect coach. Familiarity with common linguistics terms will make communicating with your coach easy, and it can help you to quickly get your bearings if you find yourself in the unhappy situation of having no access to a coach and thus being limited to working with commercial dialect acquisition CD’s.

To get the most out of today’s lesson on vowels and consonants, you may find it valuable to glance back at this post explaining the difference between written and spoken language, and this post that elucidates the difference between voiced and unvoiced sounds of speech, and this post which will give you a good understanding of the body parts responsible for speech sounds.

Today I want to share with you a few things about vowels and consonants—exactly what they are, how you can tell if a sound you’ve never heard before is a vowel or a consonant, and I’ll even a throw in a bit of acting theory related to these two groups of sounds.

First, a basic definition: In the arena of spoken language, linguists consider a speech sound to be a vowel  if it is comprised of an uninterrupted, unimpeded voiced stream of air.  On the other hand, a speech sound is considered to be a consonant  when that sound is a voiced or voiceless stream of air that is stopped, impeded, or interrupted in some way by the articulators.

If you are not keen on wordy definitions, here are some more ways to think about these two groupings:

Vowel= unimpeded or uninterrupted voiced stream of air.

Consonant = voiced (or unvoiced!) stream of air that is somehow interrupted, impeded or stopped.

We could even go out on a limb and say that vowels are more static in nature, and consonants are more dynamic…

Here’s why:

When you happen to speak a sound that has been classified as a vowel, you’ll find that you can do so without moving any of your articulators during the creation of the sound, and you’ll also notice that your articulators aren’t constricting your breath channel enough to cause audible friction.

I want you to try a little experiment, but you’ll need to learn a tiny bit of the IPA (The International Phonetic Alphabet) to do so, so here is the International Phonetic Association‘s Vowel chart which shows all of the vowels  that are used in the many languages on Earth.

If you are curious about exactly what sounds each of these symbols represent, you can go here and listen to dialect coach Paul Meier pronounce them for you using a nifty interactive version of this chart that he and coach Eric Armstrong co-created. There are also other interactive versions available on line. If you listen to several, you’ll begin to notice where the IPA chart leaves off and the human element comes in…

For now, merely notice the very first symbol in the upper left-hand corner. It looks like this —>[i].  If you happen to speak in a General or Standard American accent, this symbol represents the sound you’d use in words such as ‘flea, me, sweep, greedy, and easy.’ (If you don’t happen to speak in a General or Standard American accent, now might be a good time to check out Mr. Meier’s/Mr. Armstrong’s interactive vowel chart and listen to this sound.)

Now for the experiment: I want you take a few moments to speak the sound [i] in a sustained way…sort of like a monk chanting…any note you want to use is fine…just speak [i] in a sustained way for as long as your breath allows. Then do it again and as you do, allow your mind’s eye to focus on your articulators (your jaw, your tongue, your teeth, your soft and hard palate, your gum ridge etc.). Notice how they don’t have to change position at all while you are making this [i] sound? That’s one of the hallmarks of a vowel sound. You can take up the position of a vowel sound and then remain in that position as you send a voiced stream of air through the shape you’ve created with your articulators. No moving necessary speech-wise. (You will of course have movement within your body in order to exhale the air you need to vocalize, and so that you can engage your vocal folds, but we can safely categorize these as movement needed for vocal production rather than movement required for speech.)

See? Vowels have a sort of static quality to them.

Consonants on the other hand will involve some combination of articulators to be moving, or to be placed in such close proximity as to cause audible friction.

Here comes another chart from the International Phonetic Association…This one is dedicated to consonants (not all of them, though). I’m sharing it with you not to overwhelm you, but in an attempt to be as precise about our discussion as possible. (This blog has readers from around the globe, so it would be folly to assume that everyone’s idea of how to pronounce a particular written word will be similar…Please don’t get scared off by this chart!)

Again, let’s start by looking at the upper left hand corner. See that lower-case P sort of symbol —>[p]? If you happen to speak General or Standard American English this is the unvoiced sound you’d speak in words like ‘promise, pepper, apt, sleepy and deep.’ If you’d like to hear this sound pronounced, Paul Meier can help you out here.

Experiment time again: I’d like you to try pronouncing this sound and sustaining it like you did earlier with [i]… Go ahead… Give it a whirl… Try to chant like a monk using a [p] sound…Can’t do it, can you? Me neither. It’s just not possible. The speech sound [p] can’t be sustained because it is a sound that is ‘stopped’ ‘impeded’ or ‘interrupted.’ Say [p] a few more times. (You might find that you end up adding  a voiced ‘uh’ kind of sound right after it out of habit. Don’t worry too much about that right now.) Instead, send your mind’s eye to what’s happening with your lips… Say [p]… Can you say it without moving your lips? Nope.  [p] is a consonant alright. A voiceless, stopped consonant that ends in a little mini-explosion of air. Pretty dynamic!

Take a look back at the IPA consonant chart. Near the center of the chart you will find something that looks like a lower case ‘S’—> [s]. If you happen to speak General or Standard American English, this symbol represents the voiceless sound you’d use in words such as ‘sea, storm, essay, east, and less.’ (Check with Mr. Meier here if you’d like to hear this sound.)

One more experiment: Try to speak a sustained [s] sound. How long can you sustain it? As long as you have breath exhaling from your lungs, right? Try another sustained [s] sound and as you do, send your mind’s eye to your articulators… Notice how they don’t have to move once they are in position for the [s]? [s] happens to be an example of a voiceless,  impeded (but not stopped!) consonant. As you say [s] two of your articulators (your tongue and your gum ridge) are in such close proximity  that audible friction occurs. We can consider that friction to be dynamic.

Okay, enough tech talk! If you’re still here, I commend you! (If we were in a room together right now, I’d be passing out celebratory cookies, so consider yourself virtually cookied!)

At the beginning of this post I promised you a little vowel and consonant theory, so here it is…

Many people assert that at the core of the matter, the informational content of a person’s spoken message is contained in the consonant sounds, while the emotional content of the message rides out on the vowel sounds.

(Yeah, go ahead. Read it again. Let it sink in.)

Information loves a consonant, Emotion seeks a vowel…

I’ll leave you now, but with some questions to ponder and then talk about over tea. (And if you’d rather wax poetic in my comments section, have at it!)

Knowing what you know now about vowels and consonants, why do you think that that many people have come to the conclusion above?

Do you agree with this conclusion, and if so, how might you take advantage of this idea in your craft?

Joy to you,


Details: Voiced vs. Voiceless

Here’s a tech tool to put in your dialect skills box.

Voiced vs.Voiceless (aka Unvoiced) sounds.

Plain Fact: Some sounds of human speech involve the vocal folds while others do not. Being able to recognize which sounds involve the vocal folds and which sounds don’t can (with a bit of practice) provide you with effective ways of enhancing the characters you play.

Try this:

Look into a mirror, relax your face, and slide the tip of your tongue out so that it rests between your upper and lower teeth. You should be able to see the tip peeking out at you in the mirror. Let your face and tongue remain in this position throughout the rest of this experiment. (Keep your attention on the mirror to monitor this.)

Now (remaining in position) exhale some air through your mouth. You will hear a sound somewhat like a leaky tire… Try this a few times (always watching in the mirror).

Now (remaining in position and still watching in the mirror) gently bring the palm of one of your hands to rest on the front of your neck (lightly wrap your fingers around the contour of your neck for a nice fit), and exhale a few more times. (Did you remain in position? If not, try again!)

Watching in the mirror with your hand still resting on the front of your neck, and your face, jaw and tongue remaining in position, exhale again, only this time activate your vocal folds (Any single note will do. You can think of this as touching sound, humming with your tongue, singing, speaking, voicing— whatever term will get your vocal folds to start vibrating for you…).


The sound changes from a leaky tire to a droning air conditioning unit!

Try voicing this physical position (tongue tip resting between your upper and lower teeth) a few more times. Remember to remain in position, or you won’t end up creating the sound I’m describing here. Notice that with your hand you can feel vibrations in your neck as you voice this sound.

Now (remaining in position, still observing in the mirror) experiment back and forth between not activating the vocal folds and activating the vocal folds.

Leaky tire. Air conditioner. Leaky tire. Air conditioner. (Repeat to your satisfaction)

OK, so now you can say that today you have successfully transformed from a leaky tire to an air conditioner and back again…

….Or if you can read written English and happen to speak with a General American accent, you might say that you isolated and observed yourself changing from a voiceless ‘TH’ sound to a voiced ‘TH’ sound…

…Or if you can read the IPA (International Phonetic Alphabet) you might say you examined and practiced the difference between uttering the sound [ θ ] and the sound [ ð ].

…No matter what, you can clearly feel with your hand that the second sound involves your vocal folds vibrating, and you can clearly hear (and see in the mirror) that you were able to make two distinctly different sounds using only one physical position (your tongue tip resting between your upper and lower teeth), merely by alternating between activating your vocal folds and not activating your vocal folds. One position. Two sounds. (Call the two sounds ‘cognates’ if you want to be fancy.)

Wrapping up– Voiced vs. Unvoiced Sounds

***When your vocal folds are vibrating as you articulate a single sound, you can refer to that sound as a ‘voiced’ sound.***

***When your vocal folds are at rest as you articulate a single sound, that sound is either referred to as a ‘voiceless’ or an ‘unvoiced’ sound.***

If you ever have a question about whether a particular (single) sound is voiced or unvoiced, just run that (single) sound through the exercise above. If you can feel vibrations in your neck through the palm of your hand, you can say with confidence that the sound is voiced.

Post Script

So, why as an actor is it useful to really know (at a personal, physical level) the difference between a voiced sound and an unvoiced sound? And why all the mirror work?

One reason is that the more familiar you are with these terms and the more adept you are at being able to isolate sounds, the quicker you will be able to learn any new accent. My favorite reason though, is this –Within an accent group (let’s say ‘General American’) there are accepted variances that while still recognized as the dialect in question, actually transmit additional information about a person’s status and authority. You can learn to make very subtle changes in your speech (such as voicing and un-voicing certain sounds) that will dramatically improve your ability to embody the character you are playing. Your character won’t be perceived as ‘having an accent’ but your performance will be kicked up a notch. It’s pretty remarkable stuff.

As always, please send me your comments, questions and suggestions.

If you’d rather not post a question publicly, feel free to write to me directly at dialect411(at)gmail(dot)com.

I’m here to help.


Written vs. Spoken Language (Tech Talk)

Ask most English speakers for a list of vowels and they will offer up “A-E-I-O-U and sometimes Y.” And they’re right. In a way. They do know what they’re talking about, it’s just that they’re not really giving you the complete picture… The letters A-E-I-O-U and sometimes Y are known as vowels, but more specifically they are six written symbols that attempt to represent many more spoken sounds of speech.

Take for instance the dialect known as Standard American English (the dialect you may have learned in your acting conservatory–the dialect popularized in the mid-twentieth century by Edith Skinner).  In the ‘Standard American’ dialect as taught by Edith Skinner there are fifteen pure vowel sounds a.k.a  monophthongs (MAH-nuff-thongz), and seven blended vowel sounds, the latter being referred to as diphthongs (DIFF-thongz) or triphthongs (TRIFF-thongz) depending on the number of pure vowels that make them up.

Six written letters.

Twenty-two spoken sounds.

And if you examine the consonants, the pattern is similar. There are 21 written consonants in the alphabet (I’m including ‘Y’ in the count.), yet in Skinner’s ‘Standard American’ dialect there are 26 spoken consonant sounds.

By now you may be starting to get the idea that Spoken English and Written English (while related) might just be two very different entities.

If you would like further evidence, try cold-reading aloud this poem written by Lord Cromer published in ‘The Spectator’ in 1902.

Our Strange Lingo
When the English tongue we speak.
Why is break not rhymed with freak?
Will you tell me why it’s true
We say sew but likewise few?
And the maker of the verse,
Cannot rhyme his horse with worse?
Beard is not the same as heard
Cord is different from word.
Cow is cow but low is low
Shoe is never rhymed with foe.
Think of hose, dose,and lose
And think of goose and yet of choose
Think of comb, tomb and bomb,
Doll and roll or home and some.
Since pay is rhymed with say
Why not paid with said I pray?
Think of blood, food and good.
Mould is not pronounced like could.
Wherefore done, but gone and lone –
Is there any reason known?
To sum up all, it seems to me
Sound and letters don’t agree.

Ummmmm….see what I mean?

Written English is not very successful at accurately representing how a word is intended (by its writer) to be spoken.

Oddly enough, there are very few writing systems in the entire world that accurately reflect how the writer is intending one to pronounce the words s/he has written.

(Does that surprise you, or is it just me?)

One written system that does aim to accurately reflect spoken language (all languages, all dialects, all accents) is The International Phonetic Alphabet, a.k.a. the IPA.

Many actors learn to use this writing system in order to accurately be able to mark dialect changes in their scripts, and to years later be able to pick up their dialect notes and still know exactly what they mean.

A firm grasp on the IPA is an incredible tool to have as an actor. It can save you valuable time, allow you to become accurate with a dialect more quickly, and help you discuss your work with your dialect coach.

I will tell you honestly that the IPA looks daunting at first. I will tell you also that some of the people who will offer to teach you about this system are firmly rooted in a normative mindset, and so may try to convince you  that certain ways of speaking are superior to others. (You’ll have to kindly remind them that you are an actor and that for your career flexibility is the best option.) Please don’t let either of these little challenges inhibit you from learning how to use the IPA. If you put in some research time, you will soon find there are many dialect coaches out there who are competent teachers of the IPA that also have a keen understanding of the demands of acting. Besides, what  is more refreshing for the mind and soul than a good challenge?

So—-would you like to see a little of the IPA?

If you’ve never had exposure to it before, or have unpleasant memories about it from some former training program, you might wish to start with the University of Iowa’s Phonetic Flash Animation Project This project does not show you all of the IPA symbols in chart form. Instead, you  select a language (American English, German, Spanish–language, not dialect) and can then choose vowel or consonant symbols that you would like to see demonstrated on video. My personal opinion is that this project needs a few tweaks and video re-do’s here and there, but for the most part this is a solid introduction to the IPA.

If you are already familiar with some of the IPA and would like to see the complete IPA chart including all of it’s modifiers (and promise not to let it intimidate you!) then go to my ‘Further Resources‘ page and scroll to the third section which is marked: ‘Regarding Phonetics and Phonetic Description.’ The first entry there contains a link to the International Phonetics Association’s PDF of the complete chart.

Immediately following is a link to dialect coach Paul Meier’s pronunciation of the symbols of the IPA chart. You simply click on an area of the main chart, and then select which individual sound you would like to hear. (This project is the joint effort of dialect coaches Paul Meier and Eric Armstrong. Paul voiced the piece, and Eric provided the flash animation.)

Hey, can you tell that I’m nervous I might scare you off if I show you the whole chart before you’re ready? I’m so nervous that I’m not even providing you a direct link to the chart here. I’m asking you to take an extra step just to see it! I really hope that seeing this chart won’t dissuade you from learning dialects. Knowledge of the IPA is wonderful and can put you ahead in the game, but a good dialect coach can help you achieve your dialect goals even if you have no IPA experience. (Just be prepared to invest more time and money to the project.)

Whether or not you decide to visit these IPA links, simply knowing that ‘written English’ and ‘spoken English’ are two different things might save you some confusion when learning dialects.

As always, send me your questions! I’m here to help!