Stop Consonants

Today I’m going to talk a little more about stop consonants. The definition of a stop consonant has three parts. First, either the tongue or the lips close off the air flow entirely. Second, this closure causes a build up of pressure, and third, there is a release of this built up air. There are 6 different stop consonants. Pp, bb, where the pressure is built up by the lips being closed; tt, dd, where the pressure is built up by the tongue raising and closing off the air flow; and kk, gg, where the pressure is built up by the back of the tongue reaching up an touching the back of the throat, causing the pressure to build up there.

Let’s take for example, the word ‘what’, which ends with a T, to go over once again this three part definition of a stop consonant. Wha- So the tongue moves into position, and that is the stop, the airflow is cut off, pressure builds up, tt, and the release, to make the end tt, of the sound.

When I want to show that the release (#3) in a stop consonant is not pronounced, I write it in IPA with this symbol: | Examples: stop

, wait [w e ɪ T].

As I mentioned in a previous blog entry, the third part, the release part, of these consonant sounds can sometimes be left out. Take, for example, the word wait. If someone’s walking out the door, I might yell ‘wait, wait!’ You did not hear a tt, release of the T. Or, for example, I might say ‘stop! stop!’ Again, you did not see the pp, but also, I wasn’t simply going sto-. I was bringing the lips into position. I was doing everything, including the build up of air and pressure, I simply didn’t release it. Stop – the pressure is building up. And that mouth movement at the end, whether it’s the P or the T, and the build up of pressure, changes the sound enough that even though the release doesn’t happen, to a native ear it sounds enough like the sound that we recognize it as being the T or the P.

I’ve noticed for myself in speech that I tend not to do this with the K. Even though the K is a stop consonant, I’ve noticed, that if I’m finishing a word with K like ‘crack’, kk, there’s always, for me, a very light release of that K sound.

This is also true when you’re linking a word that ends with an unvoiced stop consonant to the next word in the sentence. For example, put your dishes in the sink. Put – tongue moves into position, stops the air, pressure builds up – your dishes in the sink. Put your dishes in the sink. I don’t, tt, release the T before I make the P sound. I’ve noticed that with the P and the K sounds, I don’t entirely skip the release. It’s almost like I go through the motion of the release with my mouth, but almost no air passes through. It’s like a small release happens as I’m moving in to the next consonant sound. Instead of pp, a P sound, it’s more simple the sound of my lips releasing. For example, stop the car. Stop the car. There is just that very subtle sound. Stop the car. But it’s certainly not stoppp the car with its own separate release for that. Stop the car. I love sock monkeys. Sock monkeys, sock kk, kk, kk monkeys. It’s a very quiet and subtle sound.

The reason why I’m talking about this again today is because I recently got an email from someone asking if this concept is true also for the voiced stop consonants dd, bb, and gg. And I would say the easy answer is, the short answer is, yes. Often the release is left out. But just like with the K and the P sounds, there is often a little bit more sound than with the T, where the sound is completely stopped. This may be because it is a voiced sound, uh, so the vocal cords are making sound anyway, but at any rate, most native speakers would not make a full release with that sound in speech.

Some examples: I went to the club with her. Very, very subtle B sound. I went to the club with her. Here we’re going to see the sentence in slow motion, and you will see that the lips are already rounding for the W when they tap together to quickly make the B sound. And the W is the sound that follows. Right here, rounded, quickly together for the B. So it’s already starting to make and form the next sound when it taps for that B. She did know. She did know. Very subtle, not didd, not a full release. She did know. Because you’re already moving into that NN, n consonant sound. We’re having a tag sale. Again, gg, a very subtle release back there at the back of the throat. Definitely not a gg, tagg, tagg, not a full G sound.

Now that I’ve explained that Americans will sometimes not complete these stop consonant sounds, I’m going to address another question I received in an email. Someone asked me to differentiate between the following 4 sets of phrases: We install the software, we installed the software. I like that, I liked that. He hit me, he hid me. I have a big pen. I have a Bic pen. Could you hear the difference as I read them out loud? At this point we’re getting into something very subtle. It might be the difference between — and no sound at all, or — and no sound at all, said very quickly between two words. I you don’t hear the difference between these sentences, don’t feel bad. As I said, it’s a very specialized sound, and I expect that only someone who has heard a lot of English, and hears it consistently by native speakers, would start to develop an ear to hear that difference. To a native speaker of course, the difference is clear, but to a non-native speaker, it will take a lot of very practiced listening to differentiate between the two phrases in these pairs. Unfortunately, there’s no shortcut to that.

That’s it, and thanks so much for using Rachel’s English.

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[b] ‘b’ as in ‘bit’

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