English phonology

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Like many other languages, English has wide variation in pronunciation, both historically and from dialect to dialect. In general, however, the regional dialects of English share a largely similar (but not identical) phonological system.[1]. The pronunciations given have been checked in dictionaries like Oxford Learner's, Merriam Webster. It is meant to be concise and is here to be useful and to be improved (originally posted as Sounds of English [2]).

A thorough print reference on the subject is J.C. Wells, Accents of English (3 volumes).[3]

Vowels[edit]

Vowels are always voiced (which means the vocal cords vibrate when the sound is made).
vaʊ əlz ər ɔːl wəz vɔɪst

Long "pure" vowels[edit]

/ɑ:/[edit]

  • R, star, car, far
  • father, bother US, bottle US, knowledge US
  • clerk UK, bath UK, laughter UK, draught UK

/i:/[edit]

  • B, C, D, E, G, P, T, V, Z US
  • he, she, me, we
  • sea, tea, seem, feet, (-)teen, key
  • apostrophe, Socrates, catastrophe / strə fi/ ; suffix-final "y" (as in stormy, safety, slowly) is also pronounced with a shorter /i/

/u:/[edit]

  • 2, Q, U, W, you
  • choose, use
  • new, flew, grew, knew, true, blue
  • to strong form, through

/ɔː/[edit]

  • 4, 40
  • door, floor, shore, store (US /ɔːr/ )
  • daughter, caught, thought, fought
  • law, saw, lawyer /ˈlɔː jər/
  • fluorine, chlorine
  • sort, sword (US /ɔːr/ )

/ɜː/[edit]

  • first, third, 30, 30th
  • shirt, clerk, certification, learn
  • Some people sometimes pronounce words like sure & pure with this sound rather than ʃʊr, pjʊr, (myself included).

Short vowels[edit]

/ɒ/[edit]

Primarily UK. various US accents substitute a low back vowel, usually /ɑ:/, but sometimes ɔ:. Short ʌ in high frequency functional words like what and of.

  • what UK 1
  • bottle ˈbɒ tl, throttle ˈθrɒ tl
  • shot, spot, lots, of UK 1, pots, across
  • knowledge ˈnɒl ɪdʒ

US 1 = ʌ in what and of, ɑ: in the other examples.

/ʌ/[edit]

  • 1, 100
  • sun, but, mud, uncle
  • son, won, brother, other, another, above
  • flood, blood
  • tough, rough, enough /ɪ nʌf/

/ʊ/[edit]

  • Look!, a good cookbook
  • put, push, pull
  • woman / mən/

/ɪ/[edit]

  • 6, 15, 16, 50, 60, him, this, finish, minute (n.)
  • been, again
  • below, behind, between, beneath, bemoan, belabor, besmirch, etc.
  • women / mɪn/, electric /ɪ lek trɪk/, elegance /el ɪ ɡəns/, enough /ɪ nʌf/
  • -age 1, -e(d)ge /ɪdʒ/ (village, marriage, storage, baggage, luggage, mortgage /mɔː ɡɪdʒ/, college, knowledge)

1 Exceptions include more recent borrowings from French, e.g. garage /ɡə rɑːʒ/ US /ɡær ɪdʒ/ UK, fuselage /fjuː sə lɑːʒ/, triage, montage, etc.

/e/[edit]

The precise realization of this form varies. In South Africa the sound is closer to /e/, while in the US it is closer to /ɛ/. (fête, bête, lait, aime pouvaient). Since the distinction is not considered phonemic (since the long "A" sound is realized as the diphthong /eɪ/), the standard transcription is /e/ though the sound is closer to /ɛ/ than /e/ (fée, pourrai, pouvez, aimer.)

  • 7, 10, 12, F, L, M, N, S, X, zed
  • health, wedding, nephew, elementary /ˌel ɪ men tri/
  • says, said

/ə/[edit]

The most common vowel sound in English (also the most central vowel) (quite lax) uh... (French "euh" is very similar, but with rounded lips)

  • around, about, above, across, ago, asleep, etc.
  • perpetual, residual, science, electric, elegant, woman, sermon
  • to weak form, them weak form, that weak form, a, the weak form
  • -ous (famous, gelatinous, disastrous)
  • -er (safer, cheaper, etc.)
  • -able, -ible (understandable, comfortable 1, legible, incredible)
  • -ate (in ADJ and N): chocolate (n.) /tʃɑː klət/, corporate (adj.), conglomerate (adj.), associate (n.), etc.
  • Some transcribe the sound of the suffix -ion as /ən/, though most dictionaries simply use "syllabic" /n/. More terminology wars... :) e.g. nation, ration, consideration, fashion /fæʃ n/, etc.

1 Most commonly the first schwa is dropped entirely. kʌmf təbl / kʌmf ə təbl, cf. "comfy" :)

/æ/[edit]

  • bad, faster, fastest, that 1
  • laughter US + parts of UK, draught US + parts of UK (fr. courant d'air)

1 As a demonstrative pronoun / determiner that is pronounced /ðæt/, as a relative pronoun, that is usually pronounced /ðət/, though it may be dropped entirely.

Diphthongs[edit]

//[edit]

  • A, H, J, K, 8
  • they, grey
  • take, plane, fate
  • main, rain, paid, said /səd/
  • day, way, say, says /səz/
  • weigh, neighbour, freight
  • vein
  • aviation, (un)able, Asia (/ ʒə/)

/ɑɪ/[edit]

  • I, Y, 5, 9
  • rice, mice
  • guide, quite quiet /kwɑɪt kwɑɪ ət/, choir /kwɑɪ ər/
  • kind, mind, behind
  • light, sight, sigh, height
  • align, benign, sign

/əʊ / oʊ/[edit]

  • O, 0, (zero)
  • close, clothes /kləʊðz/, chose, chosen
  • though, although, thorough /θɜː roʊ/ US /θʌ/ UK, borough /bɜː roʊ/ US // UK
  • own, grow, known, flown
  • soap, foam

/ɑʊ/[edit]

  • 1000
  • out, about, around, announce, pounce
  • how, now, power, tower, town

/ɔɪ/[edit]

  • noisy, oil
  • toys, boys

/eə/[edit]

Mostly UK. North American English (NAME) is usually /er/

  • there, where
  • hair, pair
  • share, care
  • heir

/ʊə/[edit]

Mostly UK. North American English (NAME) is usually /ʊr/

  • poor 1, tour (guide)
  • sure 1, (al)lure

1 both "poor" and "sure" can be pronounced with ɔː i.e. ʃɔː, pɔː

/ɪə/[edit]

  • Mostly UK. North American English (NAME) is usually /ɪr/
  • dear, near
  • here
  • beer, peer, tier

Consonants[edit]

Most consonants are paired: at each position one can make two sounds (one voiced, one unvoiced). For example:

Voiced Unvoiced
ð these, that, bathe θ think, bath, -th
b big p pig
v even Stephen f enough phonetics
d stewed t cooked
z reads s writes
ʒ pleasure ʃ sure
badge, joke batch, choke
g agree k cake, second(s), chemistry


  • Nasal consonants — m, n, ŋ — liquids — r, l — and glides — w, j (why, yellow) — are all voiced.
  • Syllabic n and l are roughly equivalent to /ən/, /əl/. (fashion, bottle)

See Also[edit]

References[edit]

  1. Wikipedia: English phonology
  2. sashi/Créoliste (2017). "Sounds of English".
  3. J. C. Wells (1982). Accents of English (vol. 1, 2, 3). London: Cambridge. ISBN 0-521-29719-2.