Oh goody! Another word-geek fest today. In my last post, I talked about vowel sounds. Today, we’ll focus on consonants.
Most consonants cannot actually be said without an accompanying vowel sound. (Try saying the sound for “d” and see what I mean: you can’t really say it unless you add a schwa or some other vowel sound after it.) So the energy of a sentence is going to come from its vowels.
That said, consonants do play a role in how a word or sentence feels in the mouth. They can be divided into rough categories, based on how you hold your mouth and how the air moves through your mouth when you say the sounds.
Today, I want to focus on stops or mutes. These are the consonant sounds that, when at the end of a word, force you to stop: b; c (hard), k, and q; d; g (hard); p; and t.
The word stop, for instance, ends in a stop—that final p. And the word mute ends in a mute—that final t. How interesting that our words for these kinds of sounds actually exemplify the sound they’re describing. Coincindence? Probably not. We feel sound in our mouths and ears, and it only makes sense that the sounds of the words we create correlate to their meaning.
To understand the role of a stop, consider this sentence: The cats jumped onto the table. The s on the end of cats allows you to connect this word with the word that follows. But if you take the s off—The cat jumped onto the table—you now have a felt pause between cat and jumped. The t in cat cannot elide (i.e., blend) with the j in jump.
This felt pause can be used to great effect, as in Tennyson’s “The Eagle”:
He watches from his mountain walls/ And like a thunderbolt he falls.
The t on the end of thunderbolt creates a pause—and thus a bit of suspense—before the final two words of the line. Tennyson did this without line breaks or punctuation, simply by using a stop. How cool is that?