On Tuesday, I talked about stops. Today we’ll focus on the promised nasals, sibilants, and liquids. (And you thought you left all this behind after English 101!)
Nasals—n, m, ng—are sounded in the nose. Say inning, and you’ll see what I mean. You can feel the n and ng sounds at the top of the back of your throat, almost in your nose.
Sibilants—s, z, j (soft), th, sh, zh, ch, f, v, x—make a sort of hissing sound, and you can aspirate (i.e., protract) them as long as you have breath. Say hiss and hold that final s sound. And again, notice how our words for this kind of sound—hiss, sibilant—have the very sounds they’re describing embedded in the word.
Finally, liquids—l, r, w, m, n—create a fluidity or fluency of sound, like water running over rocks. (You already noticed, right? All those l’s and r’s that I used to describe this sound…)
All right, you say, that’s totally cool (because you’re a word nerd, so you would think so), but who cares? Why does it matter?
Let’s say you’re writing a bedtime story. Do you want to use a lot of stops? No, of course not. That would be jarring. You want to lull that child to sleep. So you use liquids and sibilants, sounds that can be drawn out. You use low energy vowels.
But if you’re writing a suspenseful scene in a story, do you want to use lots of sleepy liquids? Maybe, depending on the mood you want to evoke. If you want to create a sense of calm before the storm, liquids might be totally appropriate. But if you’re in the midst of the storm and there’s a lot going on, you can reinforce that with high-energy vowels and stop-and-start mutes.
You could use lots of sibilants to create a scene with hissing machinery, or to create the voice of a dragon.
Nasals would work well to reinforce the whiny little sister voice.
And so on.
Of course, there aren’t hard and fast rules about how to do this. But knowing about sounds can help you choose a better word in a given sentence or scene, a word that by its very sound reinforces the mood you’re trying to create.