In Semitic linguistics, an emphatic consonant is an obstruent consonant which originally contrasted with series of both voiced and voiceless obstruents.
Classification of emphatics
The emphatic is a form of consonant (not to be confused with the emphatic form verb tense) that is produced by obstructing the airflow to the mouth when the sound is being produced. The emphatic is thus characterized by a distinctive, sometimes almost guttural sound in pronunciation. Within linguistics, the emphatic can be understood as one of a broader class of concepts that are used in order to classify consonants and the basis of how they are produced by the mouth, tongue, and vocal tract. Most people will probably begin to understand what the emphatic is after hearing it pronounced an adequate number of times.
Rules to follow
The main rule for the emphatic consists simply of how the sound is produced: the airflow is blocked within the throat when the emphatic sound is being used by a speaker. This is really all there is to it. Once you know how the throat moves in this regard, you will be able to recognize the emphatic.
Two of the main examples of the emphatic within the English language are the sounds "k" and "g". Try producing these sounds, and you will see how the throat is supposed to move when producing the emphatic. You will notice a kind of closure, with the sound almost having to air almost having to squeeze by while hitting the surfaces of the throat. That would be the classic sign of the emphatic.
The emphatic is thus quite distinct from other sounds. For example, the sound "t" would be produced by the tip of the tongue, and not by the back of the throat.
Use in the English language
The emphatic is not all that major a part of spoken English. It plays a far more dominant role, for example, in the Semitic languages. This can make it difficult for an English speaker to properly pronounce many of the sounds within such languages, since he will not be used to the dominant (as opposed to just occasional) presence of the emphatic. In general, the Indo-European languages, including all of the Romance languages, have eschewed the dominance of the emphatic in favor of other ways of making distinctions between phonemes.
As with all other concepts used by linguists to define consonants in terms of how they are produced, the concept of the emphatic may be of limited interest to most native layspeakers of a given language. After all, it is not necessary for the average English speaker to learn that "k" is an emphatic consonant before learning how to actually pronounce the sound "k". A deeper conceptual awareness of the emphatic, though, may be invaluable for a person who is engaged in the study of the Semitic languages. Among other things, this awareness of the emphatic would help such a person consciously train his mouth, tongue, and throat to pronounce the relevant sounds in an accurate way.
Also, the fact that the emphatic is dominant in some language families but not in others is one fact that linguists can use in order to make distinctions between those families in the first place and trace the relationships between the different languages of the world.
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