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Welcome back to my series on linguistics. In last week’s lesson, we looked at airstream mechanisms – what they are and the different types. These mechanisms allow us to make different types of sounds which can then be used in speech. This week, we will look at these different types of speech sounds.

Linguists consider there to be several different types of speech sounds. They break these up into two categories: segmental and suprasegmental (also known as prosodic). Segmental speech sounds include only vowels and consonants. While suprasegemental or prosodic speech sounds include stresspitch, and length.

The dictionary defines segmental as:

noting or pertaining to the discrete elements of sequential speech, as consonants and vowels.

with suprasegmental being defined as:

pertaining to or noting features of speech, as stress, pitch, and length, that accompany individual consonants and vowels and may extend over more than one such segmental element;pertaining to junctural and prosodic features.

So segmental sounds are the basic building blocks, the discrete (or individual) elements, of speech. While suprasegmental sounds are extra features of speech that accompany the segmental sounds. And sometimes these extra features actually extend or cover more than one segmental sound.

An analogy I’ve heard used to explain this concept is music theory. In music theory, you have your basic notes on the staff. These would be “segmental”. But you also frequently have other things on the staff – time signature, words giving direction on volume (such as crescendo, diminuendo, forte, piano), codas and ligatures and other marks that affect the notes. These would be “suprasegmental”. They are just as important, but they are not the basic building blocks of the piece of music.

Now, let’s look at the 5 types of speech sounds introduced above, in more detail.

Vowel – A vowel consists of an almost free air passage. When we make a vowel sound, we do modify the airstream on its way from the lungs out through the mouth. For example, if you say “a” as in “father”, most probably your mouth is open fairly wide and your tongue is near the bottom of your mouth (so as far away from the roof of the mouth as possible). If you then, while still saying “a”, change to say “i” as in “beet”, most probably either your tongue rises to partway between the roof and the base of your mouth, or you might close your mouth a little so it’s not as open. Yet these two modifications are slight and don’t obstruct the airflow in a major way.

Consonant – A consonant is essentially the opposite of a vowel. It consists of some type of obstruction or occlusion to the airstream as it passes out through the mouth. These could range from completely stopping the air for a brief bit (such as “p”, “k”), to using the tongue to create friction (such as “s”, “sh”), to diverting the airstream through the nose (such as “m”, “n”).

Stress – Stress in a language is special emphasis placed on a particular syllable or group of consonants and vowels within a word. This emphasis could be in the form of loudness where the stressed syllable is said slightly louder than the non-stressed syllable(s). Or it could be in the form of a change in the vowel itself. For example, compare the English words “water” and “terrible”. In both words, the stress is on the first syllable. So in “water”, “wa” is emphasized and therefore usually said a little louder than “ter”. In “terrible”, “ter” is emphasized and also said a little louder than “ri” or “ble”. But in addition, the “e” in “ter” is pronounced differently in each word (even though the spelling is the same). In “water”, the “e” is part of a non-stressed syllable and so becomes the same vowel that you hear in the word “the”. In “terrible”, the first “e” is part of a stressed syllable and so becomes the same vowel that you hear in the word “bet”.

Length – Length refers to how long a consonant or vowel is – for how long it is uttered. In languages that use length, the length is a relative thing. For example, in English, the “i” in “bit” and the “ee” in “beet” are two different lengths. (They are both also two different vowel sounds, but for now we won’t worry about that.) The first one is short, while the second one is long. In some languages, such as Italian, this same feature of length can apply to consonants. This usually occurs when a consonant is doubled, or spelt with two letters instead of one. An example (in Italian) is “casa” house and “cassa” big box/cashier. In “casa” you pronounce the “s” like in English. In “cassa” you hold the “s” for a little bit longer.

Pitch – Pitch in linguistics is the same as musical pitch. (In technical terms, both refer to the frequency of the soundwave you make when you utter a sound). However, in linguistics, pitch used in a few ways. In general, European languages use pitch in what is known as intonation. So in English a question sentence will usually rise in pitch (or intonation) at the end. While a non-question sentence will usually fall in pitch. For example, “How are you doing?” versus “I’m doing fine.” But some languages don’t use intonation as such, where pitch affects the overall sentence, but use pitch for each word or syllable. The Chinese dialects/languages are famous for this, but there are other languages around the world that do this as well. In these languages, each word/syllable will have a particular pitch (usually called tone) associated with it. And in general that word will always be said with that pitch, regardless of the other words around it.

Those are the 6 different types of speech sounds that linguists consider. I know this lesson has been a little longer than the others, but I hope you are still with me. Next week we will start to look at consonants and vowels in more detail, which will eventually take us to the International Phonetic Alphabet.



  1. “MOOC: Linguistics 101 – Fundamentals”, The Virtual Linguistics Campus: http://linguistics.online.uni-marburg.de/
  2. “Segmental Definition”, Dictionary.com: http://dictionary.reference.com/browse/segmental
  3. “Suprasegmental Definition”, Dictionary.com: http://dictionary.reference.com/browse/suprasegmental