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 | edit source]

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 | edit source]

/ɑ:/[edit | edit source]

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

/i:/[edit | edit source]

  • 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 | edit source]

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

/ɔː/[edit | edit source]

  • 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 | edit source]

  • 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 | edit source]

/ɒ/[edit | edit source]

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 | edit source]

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

/ʊ/[edit | edit source]

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

/ɪ/[edit | edit source]

  • 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 | edit source]

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 | edit source]

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 | edit source]

  • 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 source]

//[edit | edit source]

  • 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 | edit source]

  • 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 | edit source]

  • 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 | edit source]

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

/ɔɪ/[edit | edit source]

  • noisy, oil
  • toys, boys

/eə/[edit | edit source]

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

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

/ʊə/[edit | edit source]

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 | edit source]

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

Consonants[edit | edit source]

Consonants in English are not atypical of the consonants found in Western languages, and consonants found elsewhere are not too foreign, with the exception of the clicks and whirrs found in African languages. And the alphabet writing system helps to fortify the organized usage of consonant clusters, of which English has a great number, such that words with similar semantic roots can be constructed from a base consonant pair; glisten, gleam, glamour, glass, all have the idea of light in them, though, on the other hand words like glade, and glide do not.


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 | edit source]

References[edit | edit source]

  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.