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…
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,