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Voiced and Unvoiced consonants

I am reading “Words and Rules” by Steven Pinker, where I came across voiced and unvoiced consonants. The book explains some of the seeming idiosyncrasies of of the English language with the help of this categorization of consonants which is based on whether they are voiced or not.

Until now I had no idea what this distinction meant. When I looked it up, I learnt that the distinction was whether your vocal cords vibrate or not when articulating a sound. When you make the sound sssss, the vocal cords do not vibrate, while when you make the sound zzzz, the vocal cords vibrate. I do not know much about the anatomy of the voice box, but an easy way to identify whether the vocal cords are vibrating or not, is to feel your upper throat with your fingers while making the noise (as explained here on wikipedia).

If you actually try that while making the s and z sounds, you will feel the vibration for z but not for s. Since the vocal cords do not vibrate for s, it is called an unvoiced consonant, while z is a voiced consonant. Other such example pairs are p and b, f and v and k and g wherein the first of the pairs is unvoiced and the second is voiced.

The book is very interesting (I am only in the 3rd chapter now), but once I learned this voicing distinction, I see this distinction in Indian languages too (the 3 that I am familiar with).

Take Telugu consonants. The way the consonants are listed are as below.

క ఖ గ ఘ ఙ

చ ఛ జ ఝ ఞ

ట ఠ డ ఢ ణ

త థ ద ధ న

ప ఫ బ భ మ

This is exactly the same way in which Hindi consonants are listed too (In both the languages, there are other consonants that follow this set of 25, but I have not given those, as they do not follow this 5 letter pattern).

What is happening here is that the first two letters in each row are unvoiced, while the third and fourth letters are the voiced versions of the first two. Suddenly I realized that there are patterns in the way they are listed. While this is something that people with any interest in language probably already knew, it was completely new and exciting to me.

Curiously, the Indian language I am most familiar with, Tamil, is very different. Tamil maintains only one consonant for each pair. In all the 4 of the 5 cases listed above for Telugu, Tamil uses the same letter for both the voiced and unvoiced versions. For Pa and Ba, it just uses ப (called “pa”). Similarly Ka and Ga has only one letter க which is called “Ka” but used for both sounds. Ta and Da has the same letter டcalled Ta. Tha (as in Thailand) and Dha(as it The) has just one letter த.  But it does have different letters for cha (ச) and ja (ஜ), which is the exception of those 5. I have also heard people say that ஜ (Ja) is not a “true” Tamil character since words of Tamil origin do not have that sound and that it is usually used in words imported from Hindi/Sanskrit. I do not know enough of the language to confirm it (the few examples I know do indeed support this), but if so, there too, Tamil has only one letter.

F and V also constitute a pair of unvoiced and voiced consonants. In this case too, Hindi has separate consonants for each of them फ and व . Telugu and Tamil do not have letters for Fa, while they both have letters for Va. That is probably because Telugu and Tamil do not have words with the Fa sound.



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