Chapter 3

The sounds of English




In the previous chapter, phonology has two aspects. We have dealt in general terms with the production, transmission and reception of sounds and we shall now turn our attention to the sound patterns in English. Since Standard English has no official pronunciation, we find considerable variation throughout the world: an American does not sound like an Australian and neither sounds like an Englishman. It would be impossible to cover all the variations found and so the description will be limited to the pronunciation sanctioned in Britain and in the U.S by radio and television what will be described, therefore, are the network norms established by BBC (National Broadcasting Company) and CBS (Columbia Broadcasting System) in the United States.





PHONETICS and PHONOLOGY both study the sounds of speech but in somewhat different ways. Phonology is the study of sound systems in particular languages. It is concerned with significant units of sound called PHONEMES and the patterns or relationships between them. The symbol for that sound is enclosed in slash lines. For example the sound at the beginning of the English word tell is represented by the symbol /t/. this sound is a phoneme in English. It is significant because it can distinguish meaning. For example, the word tell is a different word from sell because the first word begins with the phoneme /t/ and the second begins with the phoneme /s/. they have different sounds and different meanings.





LETTERS are, of course, the symbol we use to make up the alphabet and to write words. They may be used to represent spoken sounds but they are not sounds. In fact, most writing systems do not represent the sounds of speech in an entirely accurate manner. This is particularly true in English. Think a moment about the fact that the vowel in sheep is spelt with  ee ; the vowel in meat is spelt ea ; the vowel in piece is spelt with ie . And yet all three words contain the same vowel sound. 

   Phonetic SYMBOLS , unlike the letters with which we normally write, represent the sounds of speech in a one-to-one fashion: each symbol represents one sound and each sound is represented by one and only one symbol. For example, the sound which is spelt with th as in think is really only one sound and so there is one phonetic symbol for it: [ θ ]. On the other hand, the x in box represents two sounds. The phonetic symbols for these sounds are [ ks ].





All human beings alike, yet every human being has a unique set of fingerprints. In a similar way, all languages make use of consonants and vowels yet no two languages have the same set of distinct sounds of phonemes. A phoneme is not one specific sound but it is like the common denominators of all realizations of a specific sound. Let us take an example. If we say the words:


            pin       spin      nip


aloud, we realize that the ‘p’ sounds are all slightly different. The ‘p’ in ‘pin’ is pronounced with a lot of breath, the ‘p’ in ‘spin’ has qualities of the ‘b’ in ‘bin’ and the ‘p’ in ‘nip’ is pronounced as if it were followed by a short vowel. All these ‘p’ sounds are different and indeed no two  people ever pronounce ‘p’ in exactly the same way, but  the differences are not sufficiently great to be used to distinguish meanings in English. We say, therefore, that all the ‘p’ sounds in English belong to the same phoneme. If, on the other hand, we examine the words:


            pin       pen


we realize that although these words only differ in their vowel sounds they refer to distinct objects. Since these vowel sounds can be used to distinguish many words:


            din       den

            kin       ken

            tin        ten


we say that the vowels /I / and /e / are different phonemes .





One method of establishing the phonemes of a language is by means of minimal pairs. An illustration will help to explain this. In English, we have the word pan and the word ban . These words differ fairly fundamentally in meaning but, as far as the sounds go, they differ only in the initial segment. The sounds /p/ and /b/ can be shown to distinguish meaning in many pairs of words:


            pet                   bet

            pill                   bill

            post                 boast

            punk                bunk


We can, therefore, conclude that /p/ and /b/ are distinct phonemes in English. The consonants of British and American English are essentially the same and twenty-four distinct consonants can be distinguished by means of minimal pairs. A list such as:


            pie       buy      tie        die       guy       fie        vie       lie

            my       nigh     thigh    thy       sigh      shy       rye       high


allows us to isolate the following consonant phonemes: /p, b, t, d, g, f, v, l, m, n , θ , ð , s, , r, h /



Lists such as:


            chin     sin        win

            gin       tin


add / t , ʤ ,  w/, while:


            simmer            sinner               singer


provide  us with /ŋ / and:


            rice      rise


isolate /z/


The remaining three phonemes are revealed by three sets below:


            leper    letter    ledger   leisure


Which give us /ʒ / and:


            car       bar       far


which provide /k/, and finally:


            bard     card     yard


which reveal /j/.








As might be expected, there is much greater variation in the pronunciation of vowel phonemes than is the case with consonants. The variety of British English that we have chosen to describe has twelve monophthongs and eight diphthongs whereas our US variety has ten monophthongs and five diphthongs. The systems will be described first of all, and then the differences will be accounted for. They can be described as follows:


VOWEL 1 which has the phonetic symbol / i: / is a close, long, front vowel, made with spread lips. It occurs in such words as ‘eat’, ‘seed’ and ‘see’.

VOWEL 2   which has the phonetic symbol / I / differs from vowel 1 in both quality and length. It is  a half-close, short, front vowel made with spread lips. It is also one of the most frequently used vowels in the English language and one that is often replaced by vowel 1 in the speech of non-native speakers. This vowel occurs in such words as ’it’, ‘sit’ and ‘city’.

VOWEL 3   which has the phonetic symbol / e / is a short, front vowel produced with spread lips. It occurs in words like ‘egg’ and ‘get’ but does not occur in word-final position in English.

VOWEL 4   which is represented phonetically by / æ / is a short, front, open vowel. It is made with the lips in a neutrally open position. It occurs in words like ‘add’, ‘sat’ and, like / e /, does not occur in word-final position in English.

VOWEL 5   is represented by the symbol / ɑ: /. It is a long, open, back vowel made with slightly rounded lips. It occurs in words like ‘art, ‘father’ and ‘far. This vowel does not occur in US English.

VOWEL 6   is represented by the symbol / ɒ /. This is a short, open, back vowel made in British English with slightly rounded lips and in the US with neutrally open lips. It is found in words such as ‘on’ and ‘pod’ and does not occur in word-final position. In US English words such as ‘card’ and ‘cod’ are distinguished by length of vowel and by the pronunciation of ‘r’ in the former rather than by any intrinsic difference in vowel quality.




VOWEL 7   is represented by / ɔ: /. This is a long, half-open, back vowel pronounced with lip-rounding. Again, there is more lip-rounding in the British pronunciation of / ɔ: /. This sound occurs in ‘all’, sawed’ and ‘raw’.

VOWEL 8   is represented phonetically by /ʊ /. This is a short, half-close, back vowel pronounced with lip-rounding. It does not occur in word-initial position but is found in ‘put’ and in ‘to’.

VOWEL 9   is transcribed / u: /. This is a long, close, back vowel produced with lip-rounding. It is  found in words such as ‘’ooze’, booed’ and ‘too’.

VOWEL 10   is represented by / ʌ /. This is a short, open, centralized vowel. It does not occur in word-final position but is found in ‘up’ and ‘bud’.

VOWEL 11   does not occur  in US English. It is represented by the symbol / ɜ: /. It is a long, central vowel and occurs in such words as ‘err’, ‘church’ and ‘sir’.

VOWEL 12   is represented by / Ə / and is the only vowel sound in English with a name. / Ə / is called ’schwa’. The schwa is the most frequently occurring vowel sound in colloquial English speech, and all unstressed English vowels tend to be realized as / Ə /. This is a short, central vowel which occurs in the unstressed syllables of such words as ‘ago’ and ‘mother’.

All the vowels described above are monophthongs. This means that there is no tongue movement during the production of the vowel sound. A diphthong, however, involves the movement of the tongue from one vowel position another.



Fig. 5: Diphthongs in BBC English.


       VOWEL 13   is represented by /eI /. Like all English diphthongs it is long. It starts close to Vowel / e / and moves towards Vowel 2. This sound occurs in such words as ‘ail’, ‘rain’ and ‘day’.

VOWEL 14   is represented by /Əʊ /. It starts near the centre of the mouth in British English and moves towards Vowel 8. This diphthong is narrower and is pronounced with more lip-rounding in US English. It occurs in such words as ‘oat’, ‘known’ and ‘go’.

VOWEL 15   is represented by / aI /. This is a wide diphthong which starts in the region of Vowel 4 and moves towards Vowel 2. This diphthong is found in words such as ‘aisle’, ‘fight’ and ‘high’.

VOWEL 16   is represented by /aʊ /. This is a wide diphthong which starts in the region of Vowel 4 and moves towards Vowel 8. It occurs in such words as ‘out’, ‘house’ and ‘now’.

VOWEL 17   is represented by / ɔ I /. This diphthong begins in the region of Vowel 7 and moves towards Vowel 2. It occurs in such words as ‘oil’, ‘toyed’ and ‘boy’.


The above are the five diphthongs shared by British and US English.


VOWEL 18   is represented by / I Ə /. It is a centering vowel in that it starts near Vowel 2 and moves towards Vowel 12. This diphthong is found in such words as ‘ear’, ‘pierce’ and ‘beer’. You will notice that this diphthong occurs in words which involve post-vocalic ‘r’. The sound in such words would be represented by /ir/ in US English.

VOWEL 19   is represented by / e Ə /. It is a centering diphthong which starts near Vowel 3 and moves  towards Vowel 12. It is found in such words as ‘air’, ‘paired’ and ‘there’. This sound is usually represented in US English by /er/, that is, by the combination of a vowel similar in quality to Vowel 3 followed by the consonant /r/.

VOWEL 20   is represented by / ʊƏ / (/ʊ r/ in the US). It is a centering vowel starting near Vowel 8 and moving towards Vowel 12. This diphthong does not occur in word-initial position but is found in words like ‘tour’ and ‘moor’. With many speakers this diphthong is replaced by the monophthong /ɔ / so that it is not uncommon to have speakers who pronounce ‘Shaw’, ‘shore’ and ‘sure’ in exactly the same way, as /ɔ /.





The English language permits a number of consonant clusters such as /dr/ and /spl/. There are restrictions on the type of combination which can occur. These can be summarized in two groups: consonant clusters in initial position, and consonant clusters in final position.





  The maximum cluster of consonants (C) in an initial  position in English is three, and they must be followed by  a vowel (V), thus: CCCV. If there are three consonants, however, the first must be /s/, the second must come from the set /p,t,k/, and the third must come from the set /l,r,w,j/, but these can only occur in certain patterns, as shown bellow:


               p + l or j (in British English)

s +          t + r or j (in British English)

               k + l or w or j (in British English).


The above possibilities are illustrated by the following words:


       splash, sprain, spurious/spj ʊ Ə ri Ə s/

       strain, stew /stju:/

       screech, sclerosis, squander /skw ɔ nd Ə / and skew /skju:/


If there are only two consonants in the cluster, the first must come from set /p,t,k,b,g,f,v,θ,s,∫,h/ in the following patterns. The normal orthography is used but the reader is reminded that sounds and not spellings are referred to:


             p  + l/r/j                                 as in      play, pray, pure

            t   + r/j/w                                as in      tray, tune, twin

            k   + l/r/j/w                            as in       climb, crab, cure, queen

            b  + l/r/j                                 as in       blue, bruise, beauty

            g + l,/r/j/w                             as in      glow, grow, argue, Gwen

            f  +  l/r/j                                 as in      fly, fry, fury

            v  +  j                                      as in      view

            θ  +  r/j/w                               as in      through, thew, thwart

            s  +  l/j/w/p/t/k/m/n           as in      slow, suit, sweet, spoil,

steal, sky,    smother, snow

              +  r                                      as in      shred

            h  +  j                                      as in      huge




English permits up to four consonants in word final position, so we have CCCVCCCC as a possible English word. Such words are uncommon but ‘strengths’ illustrates the patter. The following types of clusters can be established, starting with VCC:


            p  +  t/θ/s                               as in      swept, depth, caps

            t  +  θ/s                                   as in      eight, puts

            k  +  t/s                                   as in      packed, box

            b  +  d/z                                  as in      rubbed, nibs /nıbz/

            d  +  z/θ                                  as in      feeds, breadth

            g +  d/z                                   as in      sagged, rugs

            t∫ +  t                                       as in      itched /ıt∫t/

m  +  p/d/f/θ/z                      as in      limp, drummed, nymph,

                                                           warmth, rims

            n  +  t/d/ t∫/ ʤ /θ/s/z            as in      mint, lined, lunch, hinge,

                                                                         tenth, mince, buns



The VCCC patter is quite frequent in English although it is not found as widely in the language as the VCC pattern.


            pts                   as in                  scripts   /skrıpts/

            pst                   as in                  lapsed   /læpst/

            pθs                   as in                  depths    /depθs/

            tst                    as in                  blitzed   /blıtst/

            kst                   as in                  next    /nekst/

            mps                  as in                  limps   /lımps/

            ŋst                   as in                  amongst / Ə m ʌ ŋst/



The VCCCC pattern, where four consonants occur at the end of a word or syllable is rare in English and is only found when the inflectional endings /s/ and /t/ are added to a VCCC form as in ‘thousandths’  /θa ʊ z Ə ntθs/, exempts  /eksempts/  or glimpsed  /glimpst/.








In this chapter, methods of describing the sound system of English have been examined. Each model of grammar has its own preferences and so different descriptions will emphasize different aspects of phonology. The account given above, however, is compatible with all models of grammar for English and will be extended in subsequent chapters where some of the most influential descriptions of English produced in the last fifty years are examined.












Thu, 7 Jul 2011 @00:24




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