AspirationAspiration As I’ve mentioned elsewhere, everything has a beginning, middle and end. In terms of speech, awareness of beginnings and endings is helpful is varying your performance for different settings, from the most intimate on-mic technique, to the most challenging outdoor amphitheatre. Both vowels and consonants deserve some attention with regard to beginnings and endings, but we’ll work with consonants for now. We’ll start this exploration by focusing on Beginnings in this post, and Endings in the next post.

In terms of diction, most people think of consonants as an important weapon in the battle to be heard and understood. Learning to commit strongly to the actions that generate strong consonant sounds is a hurdle that most theatre actors in training must overcome, whether in class or merely in production. Teachers and directors for the theatre invariably must demand of their actors to "spit out the words" and commit to the sounds of the language of the play. Of the consonant sounds, the stop-plosive sounds have the greatest potential for impact in a large space, if they’re given the requisite energy to reach all corners of the playing environment. However, this kind of choice is totally inappropriate for more intimate theatre work, and so one must learn to be sensitive to the context in which you play, and how those demands set up a new series of requirements of your speech. To do that well, it helps to appreciate the options available, or the range of articulations, for a given sound.

Let’s dig further into the stop-plosive sounds, /p b, t d, k g/. Each of these pairs has a voiceless partner ( /p t k/ ) and a voiced partner (/b d g/). In English, the voiceless consonants are aspirated at the beginning of words and stressed syllables pin, tin, kin; appoint, attest, akin; that’s to say that these consonants are articulated with a puff of air. I’ve written quite a lot about this and more recently in the early steps of this series in "Bouncing the Lips," where we explored aspiration of the lip-based (bilabial) consonant /p/. Because we’ve done /p b/ already, we’ll focus on /t d/ and /k g/ in this post.

The release of these plosive consonants are goverened by something linguists call "Voice Onset Time" (VOT for short)—which is the length of time from when the consonant is released, and when voicing begins. Generally, voiceless consonants have voicing begin after the release of the consonant (ie going into the sound that follows), while voiced consonants have voicing begin on the release of the consonant, or slightly before the release. There’s a lot of room for variation, and different languages have different expectations. This is important because we’ll need to be able to do different versions for different accents. Aspirated voiceless consonants have the greatest delay between the release of the consonant and voicing.

To learn how to appreciate this difference, we’re going to compare /d/ with /t/ and /ɡ/ with /k/, working our way through a variety of VOT possibilities, and learning the IPA symbols for these variations as we go. We’ll start with the most “voiced” sounds, and work our way toward the most “voiceless” sounds.

  1. Say “dee” [diː] but stick on the voicing of the /d/ so that you make the place of the sound /d/ release the consonant only after you’ve made the sound for as long as possible. I’m going to transcribe this in IPA with a length mark, that looks like a colon made out of little trianɡles, on the /d/ to indicate the length on the voicing: [dːiː]. Repeat that at least 3 times: [dːiː dːiː dːiː]
  2. Now, do a “dee” with more voicing time than usual, but less than you just did. I’ll use a half-long diacrictic to indicate this articulation: [dˑiː]. Again, repeast 3 times: [dˑiː dˑiː dˑiː]
  3. Next, say “dee” with the usual amount of voicing for English: that is, with the voicing beginning just as consonant releases. I’ll just use a plain ol’ [d] for this, no diacritics at all: [diː]. Repeat 3 times: [diː diː diː]
    You should know that initial /d/ in English is essentially the same as an unaspirated /t/ in many languages.
  4. We’re now moving into the territory of voiceless consonants, so we’ll use /t/ from here on out. First we’ll do a /t/ that has no aspiration, and essentially perhaps a slightly longer VOT than we just did. We’ll just use a plain [t] for this, too. [tiː]. Repeat that at least 3 times: [tiː tiː tiː]
    Without aspiration, this will sound a lot like an initial /d/ in English.
  5. Now, let’s add a little bit of aspiration. The diacritic mark in the IPA for aspiration is a tiny superscript "h" that follows the symbol: [tʰ]. Think of that little "h" representing the puff of air escaping. Try it with [tʰiː]. Now try it 3 times in a row: [tʰiː tʰiː tʰiː]
  6. To do more excessive aspiration, we want to draw out the puff of air, which we’ll indicate with several "h" diacritics. Be extravagant with this sound: [tʰʰiː]. Now repeat 3 times: [tʰʰiː tʰʰiː tʰʰiː]

If we put all 6 steps together into a sequence from most voiced to most aspirated, this is what we get:

[dːiː dˑiː diː tiː tʰiː tʰʰiː]

I find that I’m inclined to get quieter in the middle, as I negotiate my way around the shift from /d/ into /t/.

Now we want to try the whole shebang again, but this time with /ɡ/ and /k/. I’m going to recommend that you not say “gee” the way you normally do /dʒi/ with a "soft G", but with a "hard G", which is the sound of /ɡ/ [ɡiː], and then that you not say "K" the way we do in English, but as key, [kiː], to rhyme with [ɡiː].

  1. Lots of Pre-voicing: [ɡːiː ɡːiː ɡːiː]
  2. Some Pre-voicing: [ɡˑiː ɡˑiː ɡˑiː]
  3. Voice on the Release: [ɡiː ɡiː ɡiː]
  4. No Aspiration: [kiː kiː kiː]
  5. Some Aspiration: [kʰiː kʰiː kʰiː]
  6. Lots of Aspiration: [kʰʰiː kʰʰiː kʰʰiː]

Finally, we want to string the 6 versions of velar stop-plosives into a single sequence:

[ɡːiː ɡˑiː ɡiː kiː kʰiː kʰʰiː]

Can you do this sequence with the bilabial stop-plosives, /b/ and /p/?

  1. Lots of Pre-voicing: [bːiː bːiː bːiː]
  2. Some Pre-voicing: [bˑiː bˑiː bˑiː]
  3. Voice on the Release: [biː biː biː]
  4. No Aspiration: [piː piː piː]
  5. Some Aspiration: [pʰiː pʰiː pʰiː]
  6. Lots of Aspiration: [pʰʰiː pʰʰiː pʰʰiː]

And the string of bilabials:

[bːiː bˑiː biː piː pʰiː pʰʰiː]

Having a sense of the variations if these beginnings can really help you to make subtle yet important shifts between various accents and dialecs.

Try this tongue twister, focusing on the /t/, first with a lot of aspiration [tʰʰ]. (If you’re a mainstream North American, don’t worry about the second /t/ in "totally".)

Two toads, totally tired.

If you’ve read many of the posts here on the site, you’ll know that I’ll recommend that you try the tongue twister now with less aspiration than normal, then with no aspiration, so it’s almost "Do dodes, dodally dired". This very dry /t/ sound creates a very different sort of beginning than what you may be useful, and that works for dialects and also for mic technique, as we don’t want a lot of aspiration on the mic.

Now for a /k/ sound. This tongue twister involves /k/ and /b/ — focus on the former, and let the latter take care of itself:

Pretty Kitty Creighton had a cotton batten cat.
The cotton batten cat was bitten by a rat.
The kitten that was bitten had a button for an eye,
And biting off the button made the cotton batten fly.

Start by making the very aspirated /kʰʰ/ , then try the other versions, too: less aspirated and unaspirated. Now try doing the same tongue twister but this time focusing on the /b/ sound, trying to enhance its voicing: linger on the "b" — this will slow things down, but emphasize the words.

Finally try the tongue twister, playing the intervocalic /t/ that is, the ones between vowels, as is Pretty Kitty. (Note that many dialects would not aspirate the /t/ in words like "cotton batten", because it would go into the /n/, either with a nasal plosion or with a glottal co-articulation. Put altogether, these changes will emphasize the articulation of the beginnings of most of the syllables in the text. This might be appropriate for an outdoor performance, or perhaps as a character of an actor, "playing" their articulation.


Next: Endings

Eric Armstrong is the voiceguy. Eric is a dialect, voice, speech and text coach based in Toronto, Canada, where he normally teaches full-time at York University’s Dept. of Theatre. Eric has been teaching voice for the actor full-time since 1994, and has taught in Canada and the US, at the University of Windsor, Brandeis University, Roosevelt University, Canada's National Voice Intensive and York University. He has worked for nationally and internationally recognized companies such as Crow’s Theatre, Volcano, SoulPepper, & Canadian Stage in Toronto, and The Court Theatre and Steppenwolf in Chicago. Eric holds a BFA from Concordia University (Montreal) in Theatre Performance, and an MFA from York University (Toronto) in Acting. His mentors were David Smukler (York, Canada’s National Voice Intensive) and Andrew Wade (Royal Shakespeare Company). He has also studied at the Drama Studio, London, and Il Stage Internazzionale di Commedia dell’Arte in Reggio Emilia, Italy. He’s a long time member of the Voice and Speech Trainers Association, where he has served on the board, as a conference planner, photo editor for the Voice and Speech Review, Founding Director of Technology and Internet Services, and has written numerous peer-reviewed articles, essays and reviews for the VASTA Newsletter, the VASTA Voice, and The Voice and Speech Review.

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