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  English Phonetics

The English Alphabet

The English alphabet has 26 letters. Each letter has a lower and upper case form. The letters A, E, I, O, U are vowels.

[zed] or [AmE zi:]

English Phonetics and Phonology

Phonetics (from the Greek word phone = sound/voice) is a fundamental branch of Linguistics and itself has three different aspects:

  • Articulatory Phonetics - describes how vowels and consonants are produced or “articulated” in various parts of the mouth and throat;
  • Acoustic Phonetics - a study of how speech sounds are transmitted: when sound travels through the air from the speaker's mouth to the hearer's ear it does so in the form of vibrations in the air;
  • Auditory Phonetics - a study of how speech sounds are perceived: looks at the way in which the hearer’s brain decodes the sound waves back into the vowels and consonants originally intended by the speaker.

The actual sound produced, such as a simple vowel or consonant sound is called phone.

Closely associated with Phonetics is another branch of Linguistics known as Phonology. Phonology deals with the way speech sounds behave in particular languages or in languages generally. This focuses on the way languages use differences between sounds in order to convey differences of meaning between words. All theories of phonology hold that spoken language can be broken down into a string of sound units (phonemes). A phoneme is the smallest ‘distinctive unit sound’ of a language. It distinguishes one word from another in a given language. This means changing a phoneme in a word, produces another word, that has a different meaning. In the pair of words (minimal pairs) 'cat' and 'bat', the distinguishing sounds /c/ and /b/ are both phonemes. The phoneme is an abstract term (a speech sound as it exists in the mind of the speaker) and it is specific to a particular language.

A phoneme may have several allophones, related sounds that are distinct but do not change the meaning of a word when they are interchanged. The sounds corresponding to the letter "t" in the English words 'tea' and 'trip' are not in fact quite the same. The position of the tongue is slightly different, which causes a difference in sound detectable by an instrument such as a speech spectrograph. Thus the [t] in 'tea' and the [t] in 'trip' are allophones of the phoneme /t/.

Phonology is the link between Phonetics and the rest of Linguistics. Only by studying both the phonetics and the phonology of English is it possible to acquire a full understanding of the use of sounds in English speech.

English Pronunciation

We use the term ‘accents’ to refer to differences in pronunciations. Pronunciation can vary with cultures, regions and speakers, but there are two major standard varieties in English pronunciation: British English and American English.

Within British English and American English there are also a variety of accents. Some of them have received more attention than others from phoneticians and phonologists. These are Received pronunciation (RP)* and General American (GA).

Received pronunciation is a form of pronunciation of the English language, sometimes defined as the "educated spoken English of southeastern England". RP is close to BBC English (the kind spoken by British newscasters) and it is represented in the pronunciation schemes of most British dictionaries. RP is rather a social accent than regional, associated with the educated upper classes (and/or people who have attended public schools) in Britain.

English pronunciation is also divided into two main accent groups, the rhotic and the non-rhotic, depending on when the phoneme /r/ is pronounced. Rhotic speakers pronounce written "r" in all positions. They will pronounce the "r" in stork, whereas non-rhotic speakers won't, making no distinction between stork and stalk. Non-rhotic speakers pronounce "r" only if it is followed by a vowel - right, rain, room, Robert, far awey, etc.

Non-rhotic accents are British Received Pronunciation and some other types of British English, Australian, New Zealand and South African English. American English is rhotic (the "r" is always pronounced), with the notable exception of the Boston area and New York City. Rhotic accents can be found also in most of Canada. SE Britain is apparently the source of non-rhotic. England is non-rhotic, apart from the south-western England and some ever-diminishing northern areas. Scotland and Ireland are rhotic.

* "Received" here is used in its older sense to mean "generally accepted".

The Sounds of English and Their Representation

In English, there is no one-to-one relation between the system of writing and the system of pronunciation. The alphabet which we use to write English has 26 letters but in (Standard British) English there are approximately 44 speach sounds. The number of speech sounds in English varies from dialect to dialect, and any actual tally depends greatly on the interpretation of the researcher doing the counting. To represent the basic sound of spoken languages linguists use a set of phonetic symbols called the International Phonetic Alphabet (IPA). The chart below contains all of the IPA symbols used to represent the sounds of the English language. This is the standard set of phonemic symbols for English (RP and similar accents).


   [] - small capital letter I
   [] - 'epsilon' -- a Greek letter
   [] - sometimes called 'upsilon'
   [] - 'ash'; digraph a-e -- usually just "digraph"
   [] - script A
   [ ] - open O
   [] - 'caret'

   [] - 'eng' (right-tail n)
   [] - 'eth'
   [] - 'theta'
   [] - 'schwa'

The colon / : / represents longer duration in pronunciation and is found in long vowels such as / i: /, / a: /, / u: /, etc.

Vowels and Consonants (en/bg)

Classifying the Vowels Sounds of English

The classifcation of vowels is based on four major aspects:

  1. Tongue height - according to the vertical position of the tongue (high vowels, also referred to as close; low vowels, also referred to as open; intermediate - close-mid and open-mid)
  2. Frontness vs. backness of the tongue - according to the horizontal position of the highest part of the tongue.
  3. Lip rounding - whether the lips are rounded (O-shape) or spread (no rounding) when the sound is being made.
  4. Tenseness of the articulators - refers to the amount of muscular tension around the mouth when creating vowel sounds. Tense and lax are used to describe muscular tension.
  Front vowels
(tongue body is pushed forward)
Central vowels
(tongue body is neutral)
Back vowels
(tongue body is pulled back)
High/close vowels
(tongue body is raised)
// see
// sit
  // boot
// book
Mid vowels
(tongue body is intermediate)
/e/ bait*
// bet
// sofa**, // bird/o/ boat*
// bought***
Low/open vowels
(tongue body is lowered)
// bat// under**

// father, // sock(BrE)

*In some American accents (especially Californian English), vowel sounds in words such as bait, gate, pane and boat, coat, note are not consider diphthongs. American phonologists often class them as tense monophthongs (/e/ and /o/).
**// is used in unstressed syllables, while // is in stressed syllables. The vowel // used to be a back vowel, and the symbol was chosen for this reason. This is no longer a back vowel, but a central one.
***A considerable amount of Americans don't have the deep // in their vocabulary, they pronouce bought, ball, law with the deep // sound.

See also: IPA vowels chart with sounds

According to the position of the lips:

  • English front and central vowels are always unrounded.
  • English back vowels //, /, /o/, // are rounded (// vowel is unrounded).

Vowel Tenseness:

  • Tense vowels (produced with a great amount of muscular tension): //, //, //, //, //. Tense vowels are variable in length, and often longer than lax vowels.
  • Lax vowels (produced with very little muscular tension): //, //, //, //, //, //, //. Lax vowels are always short.

Classifying the Consonants Sounds of English According to the Manner and Place of Articulation

According to the manner of articulation (how the breath is used) the consonants are: stops, also known as plosives, fricatives, affricates, nasals, laterals, and approximants. Nasals, laterals and approximants are always voiced; stops, fricatives and affricates can be voiced or unvoiced.

During production of these sounds, the airflow from the lungs is completely blocked at some point, then released. In English, they are /p/, /b/, /t/, /d/, /k/, and /g/.
FricativesThe flow of air is constricted, but not totally stopped or blocked. In English, these include /f/, /v/, //, //,
/s/, /z/, //, //, and /h/.
AffricatesThese sounds begin like stops, with a complete blockage of air/closure of the vocal tract, and end with a restricted flow of air like fricatives. English has two affricates - the // sounds of "church" and the // of "judge".
Nasals Nasals are sounds made with air passing through the nose. In English, these are /m/, /n/, and //.
LateralsLateral consonants allow the air to escape at the sides of the tongue. In English there is only one such sound - /l/
ApproximantsIn the production of an approximant, one articulator is close to another, but the vocal tract is not narrowed to such an extent that a turbulent airstream is produced. In English, these are /j/, /w/ and /r/. Approximants /j/ and /w/ are also referred to as semi-vowels.

According to the place of articulation (where in the mouth or throat the sound is produced) the consonants are:

Bilabial: with both lips/p/, /b/, /m/
Labiodental: between lower lip and upper teeth /f/, /v/
Dental/Interdental: between the teeth//, //
Alveolar: the ridge behind the upper front teeth/t/, /d/, /s/, /z/, /n/, /l/, /r/
Alveo-palatal (or post-alveolar): it is the area between
the alveolar ridge and the hard palate
//, //, //, //
Palatal: hard palate, or 'roof' of the mouth'/j/
Velar: the soft palate or velum/k/, /g/, //
Glottal (laryngeal): space between the vocal cords/h/

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