To Voice or Not to Voice

By voicing and devoicing consonants correctly, you can sound more like a native English speaker. This is simple to learn and can make a big difference in your accent.

Voicing is when we engage the vocal chords in the throat to create sound, as we do with /b/, /d/, /g/, and /v/. A consonant is devoiced when we don't engage the vocal chords, and instead force air out of the mouth to create a sound, as we do with /p/, /t/, /k/, and /f/. (Notice that when you say those sounds alone, you engage various articulators as well such as the lips, back of the throat, tongue, and teeth.)

What is the difference between the sounds /b/ and /p/? Try saying them alone. If you are saying them correctly, you will notice that the position of the lips is exactly the same for each. The only difference is that we engage the voice for /b/, and we blow a puff of air for /p/. That's voiced and unvoiced.

There are 8 paired, voiced/unvoiced consonant sounds, or phonemes, in American English. When they are mixed up, not only does it sound more accented, but it can cause misunderstandings. For example, the only difference between "tag" and "tack", "zoo" and "sue", and "robe" and "rope" is the voicing. Context can help a lot for comprehension, but errors can be distracting, directing the focus from what the speaker is saying to how they are saying it.

Here is a list of the 8 paired voiced/voiceless consonant phonemes in American English:

/b/ ban /p/ pan /d/ down /t/ town /v/ very /f/ ferry /g/ gold /k/ cold

/dʒ/ jeep /tʃ/ cheap /z/ zip /s/ sip /θ/ this /ð/ thin /ʒ/ vision /ʃ/ mission

Following are some practice sentences with the paired voiced and unvoiced sounds. It's a good idea to record yourself saying them, then listen back, focusing on the challenging sounds, repeating this until you feel confident.

Blue consonants are voiced; red consonants are unvoiced.

1. The gold rush brought lots of seekers in search of riches to the mother lode.

2. A cop in charge of hunting networks of smugglers that traffic in human cargo said that the problem is becoming a crisis.

Click this link to listen to the audio companion for the practice sentences.

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