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The classification of English consonants

Speech organs can create numerous distinct consonants. The phonological analysis of the English consonantal system helps to establish 24 phonemes. As you know, any phoneme has a complex bundle of features contributing to its special quality. The particular quality of a consonant depends on a lot of factors: the type of obstruction made for the air stream, the articulatory organ which makes an obstruction, the work of the vocal cords at the moment of sound production, the cavity used as a resonator, the force of the articulatory effort and others.

Traditionally, the following three basic criteria are used in the articulatory description of a sound: vocal cords vibration (voicing), the manner of articulation and the place of articulation.

Let us consider the abovementioned criteria for consonants classification in more detail.

1.The particular quality of a consonant phoneme depends onthe work of the vocal cords, the force of articulationandthe degree of noise:

Fig. 4.1 Subdivision of consonants according to the work of the vocal cords, the force of articulation and the degree of noise

When the vocal cords vibrate during the sound production, the voiced sounds are produced. Voiceless sounds are uttered without vocal cords vibration. This is a phonological rather than phonetic distinction.

The phonological relevance of these characteristics can be proved by the following single oppositions: coat – goat, latter – ladder, back – bag.

At the same time the experiments showed that voiceless / voiced opposition is simultaneously based on fortis / lenis distinction. All English voiced consonants are weak (lenis) and all voiceless consonants are strong (fortis). These linguistic terms refer to the opposition of consonants pronounced with more muscular tension and a greater air pressure at the place of articulation vs. consonantspronounced with a comparatively lesser effort and a lower air pressure at the place of articulation. It is not so in the Russian language where this opposition is only based on the presence or absence of voice.



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Now there is a considerable controversy about what phonetic feature is involved here. In the intervocalic position, for example, latter – ladder, voicing is important as it helps to differentiate the meaning. But in word-initial and word-final positions the pronunciation of the “traditionally voiced” consonants may as well be voiceless. In this case it is the energy difference that serves as a distinctive feature. In initial position aspiration would be a more important feature for /p, t, k/, and in the word-final position it is the length of the preceding vowel that would constitute the chief difference. Compare: cap – gap, pit –bit, bead – beet.

If you compare the English /b, d, g/ and the Russian /б, д, г/, you may notice that the former are weakly voiced in the initial position and the latter are fully voiced: book – бук, goose – гусь, dog – дог. In English /p, t, k/ in the initial position are aspirated fortis consonants, in Russian /п, т, к/ are unaspirated.

2. The type of resonatoris one more important factor.It depends on the position of the soft palate and the direction of the air stream.

The outgoing air stream may make the two cavities (oral or nasal) vibrate. This generates an acoustic phenomenon called resonance. If the velum is lowered, the air is allowed to escape through the nasal cavity and nasal sounds are produced. If it is raised and blocks the nasal cavity, the air goes out through the mouth giving rise to oral sounds. There are few consonants in English which require the lowered position of the soft palate. They are the nasal occlusive sonorants [m], [n] and [ŋ].

Fig. 4.2 Subdivision of consonants according to the position of the soft palate and the direction of the air stream

One must know that nasalization is not a phonologically relevant feature of English consonants as there are no two consonants in English which differ in the position of the soft palate.

3.The type of obstructiondeterminesthe manner of the consonant articulation.

Fig. 4.3 Subdivision of consonants according to the manner of articulation

If a sound is produced with a complete closure of the vocal tract followed by a sudden release of the air, the articulation is accompanied by a sort of explosion. Such sounds are consequently called plosives. As the articulation involves a total obstruction (occlusion) of the tract, the alternative name for such consonants is that of stops. It should be mentioned, however, that the two terms are not exactly synonymous, since nasal sounds are stops (the air stream is blocked) but are not plosive sounds as their articulation is not accompanied by an explosive burst. If the stricture or narrowing of the tract does not result in a complete blockage the narrow passage is left for the air to go out with friction. Such sounds are therefore called fricatives. Affricates combine the features of the two previous classes of sounds, since their articulation starts like that of plosives but continues like that of fricatives (that is why such sounds are also called occlusive-constrictive).

The pronunciation of some sounds does not involve a major obstruction in the speech tract and does not produce the auditory effect of friction. Such sounds are commonly called approximants. The glides (semivowels) [w] and [j] and the liquids (lateral [l] and rhotic [r]) are the two major subclasses of approximants. Their high level of sonority places them between vowels and genuine consonants. If in standard English [r] has the features of a glide-like sound, being produced without any kind of friction, in certain dialects of English the tongue for this sound is placed against the alveolar ridge and caused to vibrate, generating an intermittent sound. It is the kind of [r] that appears in the interjection brrrr! that accompanies a shivering sensation. It is called the rolled or trilled [r]. If the tongue rapidly touches with only one movement the post-alveolar region we have a tap or flap type of rhotic. If the tip of the tongue is drawn even further back, such rhotic is called retroflex.

The phonological relevance of the manner of articulation could be exemplified in the following oppositions:

tea – sea (single opposition); pine – fine (double opposition); dare – share (triple opposition)

4. The place of articulationis another characteristic of English consonants which should be considered from the phonological point of view. It is determined by the work of the active organ of speech against the point of articulation.

The articulators relevant for place of articulation are the lips, the tongue tip, the front and the back of the tongue, the pharynx and the glottis. The classification of consonants according to this principle can be illustrated as follows:

Fig. 4.4 Subdivision of consonants according to the place of articulation

The importance of this characteristic as phonologically relevant could be proved by the following examples:

why – lie (single opposition); pick – sick (double opposition); feet – beat (triple opposition)

Summarizing what have been described we can state that most Russian specialists in English phonetics only consider relevant the following articulatory features:

a) the force of articulation;

b) the manner of articulation (determined by the type of obstruction);

c) the place of articulation.

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