The American English Accent – The Voiced and Unvoiced

The voiced and unvoiced consonants

In this section we will try to clarify the difference between the voiced consonants and the unvoiced consonants.

If you want to master English pronunciation you have to able to distinguish between these two types of consonants. This is necessary for you to learn the proper pronunciation when you learn new vocabulary. And more importantly you need to know the difference between voiced and unvoiced consonants to be able to pronounce the words of English correctly. What makes one consonant be voiced and another not?

A consonant is voiced when it makes the vocal chords vibrate. It is voiceless when it is pronounced without vibrating the vocal cords.

The sound of the letters “p” and “b”

For example, the sounds indicated by the letters “b” and “p” differ only in their vocalization (voicing). The are both “bilabials”, that is, they are produced by closing both lips. But the “b” is voiced and the “p” is unvoiced. In this article, we will follow common practice and indicate the letters of the alphabet with quotes (“b” and “p“) and the sounds with slashes (/b/ and /p/)

You can appreciate the difference by lightly touching with the tips of your fingers your “Adam’s Apple” (the voice box that you can see in the front of your throat) as you pronounce the word bowl . You can feel the vibration with the tips of our fingers. Concentrate on the first sound, the consonant /b/ before passing to the vowel represented by the “o“. Notice that you can lengthen the sound (something is heard!) without the “o”. This is because /b/ is a voiced consonant.

Now pronounce the word pole. Do you feel the vibration in the vocal cords? No. The reason is that /p/ is an unvoiced consonant. Notice that you you can’t lengthen the sound or hear anything.

When you pronounce these sounds, don’t forget the advice we already gave you in other articles: exaggerate the value of the vowel “o” with a strong English accent!

Listen to the following exercise until you can distinguish betwen the two sounds and produce them yourself.

You should be able to telll the difference between the /p/ and the /b/ in the sentence The doctor said: “Bill, take your pill!

Try it now!

The sounds of the English letters /k/ (sometimes “c”) and /g/

It is not only the sounds /p/ and /b/ that are voiced or unvoiced. The same distinction holds for the sounds represented by the letters “k” y “g” in the International Phonetic Alphabet. By the way, do you see that it will not be hard for you to learn the symbols of the IPA? Many of the symbols, like the k and the g are already familiar to you. They are the normal letters of the alphabet.

The IPA symbol k interests us now. It is the “hard” sound of the letter “c”, the sound that the letter “c” usually takes before the letters “a”, “o”, and “u”, for example in the words car, coat, cube.

Now can you see how the IPA system makes it easy for you to learn the pronunciation of new words? Now, we don’t have to worry that sometimes the letter “c” has the sound of the IPA symbol k (as in the word cold) or that sometimes the same letter “c” of the English alphabet is pronounced as the IPA s (as in the words cell ).
Now try to feel in your voice box the vibration in the word coal! You can’t because it is the unvoiced partner in the pair. If you touch your voice box while you pronounce the word goal, you do feel the vibration because the sound g is voiced.

Practice the two words coal and goal. But keep on pronouncing the the English vowel with its lengthening. Exaggerate the English language character of the vowel. Don’t pronounce it as if it were col or gol in your language. And also remember the explosive nature of the consonant represented by the “c” in English when it is pronounced as the IPA k. Blow out the candle when you say coal.