consonant (n.) [←] [...] from Latin [...] from com- "with" (see com-) + sonare "to sound" (see sonata). Consonants were thought of as sounds that are only produced together with vowels.

Is last sentence false, because this IPA Chart with Sounds displays (and vocalises) consonants that can be pronounced alone? If so, which past nationality or peoples thought of consonants as above? Why? This doesn't answer the above question.

PS: The above consists with Linguistics For Dummies (1 ed, 2012; by Déchaine, Burton, Vatikiotis-Bateson):

[p 248:] Producing a speech sound requires an open vocal tract and airflow. This is what vowels (like a, e, i, o, u) do — that’s why any vowel can be a syllable by itself. Consonants (like p, t, k, s, d) constrict the vocal tract and typically can’t be heard on their own. So it’s no wonder the most common syllable in the world’s languages is the consonant plus vowel (CV) combination that gives us words like so, be, tea, too.

[p 250:] For example, in most languages, vowels can stand alone as a syllable, but consonants typically cannot. But languages make different decisions about which consonants can be syllabic.

  • This could be a comment, but I don't have enough experence to post it as one. I don't think that this comepletely answers your question, but I know that Japanese usually follows a vowel then consonant pattern, as it uses a syllabary. Commented Jul 11, 2015 at 5:00
  • What examples make you say that /b/ and /d/ can be produced without vowels? Commented Jul 11, 2015 at 6:09
  • @JeremyNeedle See my edited OP please. Better? My guess may be wrong though.
    – user5306
    Commented Jul 11, 2015 at 14:32
  • I'm sorry, the linked chart doesn't explain this position to me. Every phone on the chart has a sound demo, but I don't see that it says any of them can be produced alone (without a vowel); indeed, almost all of these are produced with /a/. I asked about your /b/ and /d/ examples because one could say things like liquids, nasals, and fricatives can be produced alone, but in practice this isn't really the case either (few vowel-less words exist). Commented Jul 11, 2015 at 15:05
  • 2
    Syllables are natural units and they typically have consonants at the beginning and/or end with a vowel in the middle carrying the tone and stress information. Most consonants can't be intoned or stressed; only syllabic resonants can be syllable nuclei. The Latin grammarians weren't wrong; this was also the scheme hit on by the Sanskrit grammarians in developing their abugida; every consonant in Sanskrit has an underlying /a/ vowel after it. That's the name of the consonant and also the automatic pronunciation of the letter in writing; vowels are modifications of the consonant characters.
    – jlawler
    Commented Jul 11, 2015 at 15:25

2 Answers 2


The Latin term is a calque from Greek σύμφωνον "pronounced with". According to Dionysius Thrax, they "do not have a sound on their own, but, when arranged with vowels, they produce a sound". Aristotle (poetics) expressed the same view of "mutes" being without sound of their own:

"Such sounds may be subdivided into vowel, semi-vowel, and mute. A vowel is that which without any addition has an audible sound; a semivowel needs the addition of another letter to give it audible sound, for instance S and R; a mute is that which with addition has no sound of its own but becomes audible when combined with some of the letters which have a sound. Examples of mutes are G and D."

In Sanskrit grammatical tradition, vowels are svara meaning "sound", and consonants are vyañjana, meaning "ornamentation" (also "sauce" and a bunch of other things). So the view that you're pointing to probably originates with Aristotle, with terminology supplied by Dionysius.


In most languages a syllable must consist of at least one vowel and zero or more consonants. While you can pronounce a consonant in isolation most languages require syllables and words to contain vowels. Syllabic sonorants like in bottle and button aren't really counterexamples, because sonorants are, well, sonorous enough to function as syllable nuclei, but very few languages permit syllables consisting entirely of obstruents.

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