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Department of Linguistics


Classifying Consonants

Robert Mannell

Questions to ask when classifying consonants

  1. What is the source of power?
    i.e. What is the AIRSTREAM feature?
    (pulmonic, glottalic, velaric)
  2. What is the state of voicing?
    i.e. What is the LARYNGEAL feature?
    (voiced, voiceless, breathy, creaky)
  3. Is the air being channeled through the nose?
    i.e. What is the NASALITY feature?
    (oral, nasal)
  4. Is the air being directed over the sides of the tongue?
    i.e. What is the LATERALITY feature?
    (lateral, central)
    (nb. if a sound isn't lateral, then it is central by default)
  5. What kind of obstruction is being made in the vocal tract?
    i.e. What is the STRICTURE feature?
    (stop, fricative, approximant)
  6. Where is the obstruction being made
    i.e. What is the PLACE feature?
    (bilabial, labio-dental, dental, alveolar, retroflex, palato-alveolar, palatal, velar, uvular, pharyngeal, glottal)

Occasionally other features are required to classify consonants. For example, airstream direction (egressive, ingressive) is necessary to separate ejectives and implosives. Sometimes it is also necessary to specify which part of the tongue is being used in an articulation (eg. "apical" and "laminal" (tongue blade) gestures are possible for dental, alveolar and palato-alveolar places of articulation).