Tuesday, August 23, 2016

Building a Fantasy Language 2C: Consonants

In my earlier blogs, I talked about stress and syllables.  Now I’m going to talk about the sounds that make up those syllables, and how they fit into a given language’s sound system.

Just to be clear, the study of the physical reality of the sounds and how they are made is known as phonetics.  The study of the mental reality of the sounds and the classes into which they are organized is known as phonology.  I’m not going to be making much of a distinction between phonetics and phonology here, as that would introduce too much technical vocabulary and wouldn’t help too much in the construction of your fantasy language.  If you have a specific question about this, leave a comment below!

A Scrap of History, Much Simplified
The growth of international contacts in the nineteenth and twentieth centuries meant that people who wrote in many different alphabets were trying to communicate with each other.  It also meant that the linguists who were trying to write down previously oral languages were trying to decide how this should be done.  

For a while, every linguist was coming up with his own system of how to write down the language that he was studying.  Unfortunately, this meant that no one else could understand the linguist’s notes!  A symbol that meant one sound for one linguist (or group of linguists) might mean a completely different sound for another linguist (or group of linguists).  The letter <c> is a good example.  One group of linguists used it for the [ts] sound, while others used it for a sound between [t] and [k], and others used it for a special type of <s>!

Eventually, a large group of linguists got together and defined something known as the International Phonetic Alphabet (IPA).  They hoped that all linguists would start using the IPA, so that all of them could understand each other’s work.  In order for the IPA to be usable, its alphabet needed to have a one-to-one sound-and-symbol relationship.  Each symbol must have one sound, each sound must be represented by one symbol.  And every significant sound (“phoneme”) used in language must have a symbol.  Since linguists are learning about new languages all the time, the IPA is periodically updated with new symbols or categories.  
I will use the IPA in my discussion below; when I am using an IPA symbol, it will appear between slashes: /a/ /v/ /q/

The Organization of the Consonants
The IPA classifies consonants in three major ways:
1. whether the sound is voiced or unvoiced,
2. where sounds are made in the mouth,
3. and how the sounds are made.

Voiced or unvoiced? That is the question
Voiced or unvoiced is the easiest question to answer for any sound.  Put two fingers on your voice box.  Make the sound /p/.  P-p-p!  Your voice box isn’t vibrating—the sound is unvoiced.
Now make the sound /b/.  B-b-b!  Your voice box is vibrating—the sound is voiced.
Common unvoiced sounds in English include /p/, /t/, /k/, /f/, /θ/ as in thermometer, /s/, and /h/.  Common voiced sounds in English include all the vowels, plus /b/, /d/, /g/, /m/, /n/, /ŋ/ as in sing, /r/, /v/, /ð/ as in that, /l/, /y/, and /w/.

Where are consonants made in the mouth?

Let’s take this rather unfortunate-looking cross-section of a human head and focus in on the mouth area.  (Sorry for the picture quality… I’m no artist.)


In the diagram above, pay special attention to the three features of the mouth that are labeled below the jaw.  The alveolar ridge is the hard bump that you can feel behind your upper teeth.  The hard palate is the hard roof of your mouth.  The soft palate, or velum, is the softer area at the back of your mouth between the hard palate and the uvula.  The uvula is the dangly thing at the back of your mouth.

Sounds are made in a number of different places.  Some sounds are made by two lips (/m/, /p/, /b/).  Some sounds are made by the upper lip and lower teeth (/f/, /v/).  Some sounds are made by the teeth only (/θ/ as in thermometer, /ð/ as in that).  Some sounds are made by the tongue and the alveolar ridge (/t/, /d/, /s/, /z/, /n/, /ɹ/, /l/).  Some alveolar sounds are made with the tongue tip curled backward.  Some sounds are made by the tongue and the hard palate (/y/).  Some sounds are made by the tongue and the soft palate (/k/, /g/, /ŋ/ as in sing). Some sounds are made by the uvula, some by the pharynx, some by the epiglottis (the lid on the top of the voice box).  Some sounds are made by the voice box alone (/h/). 
Languages often DO NOT USE one or more of these places.  English doesn’t use the uvula or pharynx, for example.  When you create your fantasy language, decide which areas of the mouth your speakers should use to make sounds.

How are the consonants made?

Linguists also organize sounds into categories based on how the sounds are made.  For example, English has three nasal sounds, sounds that resonate in the nose: /m/, /n/, and /ŋ/ as in sing.  Most sounds only resonate in the mouth (oral cavity).  Some languages can nasalize additional consonants.  African languages use this to good effect: /mb/, /nd/.

English also has six or seven stops (or plosives).  These consonants are called “stops” because when you make these sounds you briefly stop the flow of air out of your mouth.  The English stops are /p/ /b/ /t/ /d/ /k/ /g/ and /Ɂ/ (glottal stop).  The stops are the most common consonants in the world’s languages, although not all languages have all stops.  Stops are also the sounds most commonly stuttered.
Some languages have a contrast between aspirated and unaspirated versions of these stops (between unaspirated /p/ and aspirated /pʰ/, for example).  To understand the difference between aspirated and unaspirated stops, put your hand in front of your mouth.  Now say pot.  Do you feel the puff of air?  That’s an aspirated /pʰ/.  Now say spot.  No puff of air!  The /p/ in spot is not aspirated.  Sounds other than stops can be aspirated, but stops are aspirated more often. 
A few stop consonants also have ejective or emphatic versions, which have an even bigger air-puff than the aspirated versions: /p’/ /t’/ /k’/.  (There is also an /s’/ ejective, but it is not a stop.)

English has many fricative consonants.  When we make fricatives, we limit the flow of air out through our mouths but never completely stop it.  We can hold fricative consonants for a long time: sssssss!  The English fricatives are /f/, /v/, /θ/, /ð/, /s/, /z/, /ʃ/ as in shin, /ʒ/ as in Jean-Luc Picard, and /h/.  Many other fricatives are used in the world’s languages.

English has two glides (or approximants).  These sounds are very vowel-like and may even be used as vowels in some languages.  In these sounds, parts of the mouth glide past each other without ever having to touch: /y/ and /w/.

English also has two liquids.  /l/ is technically a lateral or lateral approximant because when you make the sound the air must pass along the sides of your tongue (laterally).  The English /ɹ/ is a rhotic or rhotic approximant, and is quite different from the /r/ trill used by most other languages.

Several important sound categories do not appear in English.  Trills are always voiced and are produced by rapid vibration of the lips, tongue, or uvula.  The Scottish /r/ is a good example.  The lateral fricatives are only used accidentally by English speakers (quite commonly by small children), and have a slushy quality.  Clicks are unvoiced pops made in different parts of the mouth.  Implosives are voiced sounds made while the speaker is breathing in.

Most languages use only a handful of these ways of making consonants (manners of articulation).  When you are building your own language, decide which you are going to use.

The IPA Consonant Chart

In the following chart, note that while many of the sounds do not appear in English, each of them is used in at least one of the world’s languages.  Note that voiced consonants are bold in the chart.


Just to orient you… the voiced soft palate fricative /Ɣ/ is the ‘ayin used in Arabic and Archaic Hebrew.  The unvoiced soft palate fricative /x/ is also used in Arabic and Hebrew, as well as German (Bach).

There is one last category of consonants to think about… the affricates.  These are common combinations of a stop and a fricative.  In English we use <ch> a lot; in the IPA, it is written /tʃ/.  The English sound <j> is also an affricate, written /dʒ/. /ts/ is an important affricate in Hebrew and Japanese.  /dz/ and /kp/ are also important in some languages.  The /ɧ/ sound is technically not an affricate, as it is not a stop plus a fricative but rather two fricatives pronounced in the mouth at the same time (/ʃ/ and /x/).  /Ƕ/ is also not technically an affricate, as it is a fricative /h/ plus a glide /W/.

How Can You Use This Information to Build Your Own Fantasy Language?

The first thing that you want to do when you are creating a language is to decide what sounds you want to work with.  Choosing your consonants wisely can give your language a unique look and sound.

Keep in mind that sounds tend to “travel” in classes.  Languages generally do not have only one stop or only one fricative.  They have a selection of each.  Languages do not have only one alveolar or one soft palate sound—they have several.  Languages don’t have just one voiceless sound or one voiced sound—they have a selection.  So choose your consonants logically.  Pick all of the voiceless stops in certain places, or both voiced and voiceless stops in certain places, or voiceless and aspirated stops in certain places—don’t pick a lineup like /p/ /d/ /k/ /q/, where only one is voiced, and the voiceless stop is missing from the alveolar place.  If you pick one consonant pronounced with the tongue curled back, pick more than one.  You can choose not to have any fricatives, but please don’t choose to have them all… it’s not that easy to tell them apart!

After I discuss vowels in my next blog post, I’ll give you so more practical tips on how to use all the language info I’ve blogged about so far to create a sound system for your fantasy language.