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Phonetic Symbols

In most languages, the letters of the alphabet used for spelling do not always correspond exactly to the actual speech sounds. This is especially true for English, as you are well aware, and some of your difficulties with English pronunciation are most likely a direct result of this fact. Let us consider a few examples of the discrepancies between spelling and pronunciation:

1) often words have more letters than sounds as in the word “shoe” which has four letters but only two sounds;

2) the letter may have no relation to the sound as in the word “phone” which is pronounced as “fone”, or the word “of” pronounced as “ov”;

3) words may be spelled differently but pronounced the same as with the words, “to, too, two”;

4) words may be spelled the same but pronounced differently as with the verb “use”, pronounced as “uze” and the noun “use”, pronounced as “use”;

5) different letters may be used for the same sound such as the words “keep” and “cook” in which the beginning letters “k” and “c” are both pronounced as “k”;

6) some letters may be silent such as the letter “b” in the word “thumb”, the letter “k” in the words “know”, and the letter “t” in the word “listen”. These are only a few examples of the limitations of English spelling, and you will probably think of many more from your own personal experience.

Because of the inherent ambiguity in attempting to discuss the sounds of English using the conventional alphabet and spelling system, it is helpful, if not necessary, to use phonetic symbols. The symbols used to discuss sounds are typically adopted from the International Phonetic Alphabet, or IPA. The IPA is the system commonly used for research and language teaching purposes and includes symbols for most of the sounds of the World’s languages.

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Vowel Sounds of American English

There are thirteen phonetic symbols for vowels but, in English spelling, there are only five letters to represent these sounds. This is why the English spelling system for vowels is often confusing and difficult to learn. Consequently, to accurately represent each of the vowels, it is necessary to use a number of additional symbols that are not contained in the standard alphabet.

Unlike the consonants, which may be produced with or without voicing, the vowels are always produced with voicing (vibration of the vocal cords). The particular vowel that is produced is determined by the degree of opening in the mouth and the position and shape of the tongue and lips.

For example, if you make the vowel /i/ as in the word “see” and then the vowel /u/ in “Sue”, you will notice that your lips are rounded for the /u/ , but not for the /i/. Now, lets add the vowel /ʌ/ as in the word “but”, and then make the sequence of sounds /i-ʌ-u/. Feel your tongue move from the front of your mouth to the back. This is because the tongue is raised or bunched in the front of the mouth for /i/, and then moves to the middle for /ʌ/, and then to the back for /u/. Thus, the positioning of the tongue in the mouth (front, middle, back) is one of the primary ways of classifying the vowel sounds.

Front Vowels

This first group of vowel sounds, /i, ɪ, e, ɛ, æ/, is called front vowels because they are produced with the highest part of the tongue arched towards the front of the mouth.

Central Vowels

The next group of vowels, /ʌ, ə/ and /ɝ, ɚ/, is called central vowels because they are produced with the tongue arched in the center of the mouth, i.e., midway between the front and back. These vowels are further distinguished according to whether they are stressed or unstressed. To illustrate, say the words “but” and “about”, and you will observe that the vowel in “but” and the first vowel in ‘about” are nearly the same. The main difference is that the vowel in “but” is stressed, and the vowel in “about” is unstressed, i.e., it occurs in an unstressed syllable. This difference is represented phonetically by using the symbol /ʌ/ for the stressed form of the vowel and /ə/ for the unstressed form.

Similarly, the symbols /ɝ/ and /ɚ/ are used to distinguish between the stressed and unstressed form of the /r/-vowel. The symbol /ɝ/ is used for the stressed vowel in words like “bird” and “nurse”, and the symbol /ɚ/ is used for the unstressed form in words like “mother” and “later”. Like the /r/-consonant, the /r/-coloring of the /r/-vowel is produced by a slight curling of the tongue tip.

Back Vowels

The next group of vowels, /u, ʊ, o, a/, is called back vowels because they are produced with the back part of the tongue arched toward the back of the mouth. The three vowels /u, ʊ, o/ also differ from all of the other vowels because they are produced with a higher degree of lip rounding. Listen to the back vowels in the sample words and try saying them to familiarize yourself with the sounds and symbols.

Diphthongs

The sounds in the last group, /ai, au, oi, iɚ, eɚ, oɚ, aɚ/, are combinations of vowels that function as single vowels. They are produced by starting with one vowel and then gliding or moving to another vowel. They are characterized by a constantly changing quality, and the symbols used to represent them are only suggestive of their starting and ending point. There are many different possible diphthongs besides those included here, but these are some of the most common ones and will serve to acquaint you with this type of sound.

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Consonant Sounds of American English

The consonants of American English are usually described and classified according to the 1) manner in which they are produced (stops, fricative, affricates, nasals, liquids, and glides), 2) place of production in the mouth (lips, teeth, gums, and palate or roof of the mouth), and 3) presence or absence of voicing.

Voiced and Unvoiced Consonants

All consonants are either: voiced or unvoiced. Voiced consonants are produced by the vibration of the vocal cords, and unvoiced consonants are produced by the lack of such vibration. Consider the /p/ and /b/, for example, and say the words “pack” and “back.”. Notice that your lips come together and explode the air in exactly the same way for the /p/ and /b/. The only difference between these two sounds is that the /p/ is produced without voice and /b/ is made with voice.

Similarly, the /s/ and /z/ in the words “Sue” and “zoo” are produced alike, except that the /s/ is voiceless and the /z/ is voiced. This difference is easy to feel if you put your hand on your throat and make the sounds /s/ and /z/. Be sure that you do not pronounce the letter S and Z, but actually make the sound, like this: “ssss” and “zzzz”. Notice that you feel the same sort of vibration for the /z/ as you did for the vowel sounds “ah” and “ee”, but there is no vibration for the /s/.

Stop Consonants

Stop Consonants /p,b/, /t,d/, /k,g/, are called “Stops” because to produce each one, you must stop the air stream completely, then release it into a little explosion. This group of sounds is divided into three sub-groupings according to the place of production. The /p,b/ are made by stopping the air with the lips and then releasing them suddenly. The /t,d/ are made by stopping the air with the tip of the tongue in contact with the upper gum behind the teeth, then releasing the tongue. The /k,g/ are produced by placing the back of the tongue in contact with the back portion of the roof of the mouth (velum), and then releasing the tongue to let the air escape.

Friction Consonants

The next group of sounds, /f,v/, /θ,ð/, /s,z/ /ʃ,ʒ/ is called “Frictions” because the air stream is forced through a narrow passage in the mouth which creates a friction or hissing sound. Sometimes these sounds are also called “Continuants” because they can be continued or prolonged. Compare this feature with the “Stops” which cannot be prolonged or continued.

The Frictions are sub-divided into four groups according to their place of production as follows:

1) /f,v/ are produced by forcing the air through a narrow opening formed by placing the lower lip lightly against the upper teeth ;

2) the /θ,ð/ are made by putting the tongue tip between the teeth and forcing the air between the tongue and upper teeth;

3) the /s,z/ are produced by forcing the air between the tip of the tongue and the upper gum ridge, similar to the position for the /t,d/, except complete contact is not made;

4) the /ʃ,ʒ/, are made by forcing the air between the front portion (blade) of the tongue and the roof of the mouth slightly behind the upper gum ridge. The /ʒ/ sound does not occur at the beginning of words and appears only in a few words borrowed from French.

Affricate Consonants

The two sounds /tʃ,dʒ/ which make up this group are composed of a stop and a friction sound blended together to form a single sound. The /tʃ/, is composed of the stop /t/ and the friction /ʃ/, and the /dʒ/ is composed of the stop /d/ and the friction /ʒ/. To illustrate, try producing the initial /tʃ/ sound the word “church”, and you will notice that your tongue starts out in the same position as for the /t/. Now, prolong or lengthen the final /tʃ/ sound in the word “church” and you will discover that you can only prolong the friction /ʃ/.

Nasal Consonants

The three nasal sounds /m, n, ŋ/ making up this group are called “Nasals” because the air stream is directed through the nose. This is accomplished by blocking the passage of air through the mouth and lowering the velum (back portion of the roof of the mouth) so the air escapes through the nose. The /m/ is formed with the lips together in the same position as for the /p,b/. The /n/ is formed with the tongue tip in contact with the upper gum ridge in the same position as for the /t,d/. The /ŋ/ is formed by placing the back of the tongue in contact with the velum in the same position as for the /k,g/. In English, the /ŋ/ never occurs at the beginning of words. All of the Nasals are produced with voice and, like the Frictions, they can be continued for as long as the breath holds out.

Liquid Consonants

The two sounds /r/ and /l/ composing this group have some features of both consonants and vowels and, therefore, are also called semi-vowels.
The /r/ sound is called a retroflexive consonant because the tip of the tongue is curled upwards and pointed towards the roof of the mouth just behind the gum ridge. In spelling, the letter “r” is used both for the /r/-consonant and the /r/-vowel. Phonetically, the /r/-vowel is represented as /ɜ ̂/ when it is in a stressed syllable and as /ɚ/ when in unstressed syllables. If you prolong the /r/-consonant, as in “red”, it will have the /r/ quality of the /r/-vowel. One important distinction between the two is that the /r/-consonant is not syllabic, i.e., it cannot form the core of a syllable or stand-alone. Also, unlike the /r/-vowel, the /r/-consonant does not occur at the end of words.

The /l/ sound is produced by placing the tongue tip on the upper gum ridge in the same position as the /t,d/ and directing the air stream over one or both sides of the tongue. Because the air escapes from the side of the tongue, this sound is also called a lateral consonant. When the /l/ occurs at the end of a word (as in “ball”) or before another consonant (as in “milk”) it has a different quality from the /l/ at the beginning of a word (as in “like”) or after another consonant (as in “please”).  The /l/ in “ball” and “milk” is sometimes called a “dark /l/ ” and is produced by raising the back of the tongue in addition to the contact between the tongue tip and the gum ridge.

Glide Consonants

The two sounds /j,w/ are called glides because they are transitional sounds which move or “glide” towards the vowel sound that follows. Like the /r,l/, the glides have characteristics of both consonants and vowels and are also called semi-vowels. Technically, the /h/ is a friction sound, rather than a glide, but it is included with this group because it takes on the quality of the vowel that follows.

The /j/ sound is formed by raising the front portion of the tongue (blade) toward the roof of the mouth, slightly behind the upper gum ridge, and then moving toward the position of whatever vowel that follows. The starting position of this sound is quite similar to that of the /ʃ,ʒ/, except the actual formation of the sound is characterized by the motion towards the vowel, rather than by position. The /j/ sound occurs only at the beginning and middle of words.

The /w/ sound is formed by rounding the lips, raising the back of the tongue, and then moving toward the vowel that follows. The starting position of this sound is similar to the vowel /u/, as in the word “moon”. Like the /j/, the /w/ is characterized by the movement towards the vowel and also occurs only at the beginning and middle of words.

The /h/ is a voiceless friction sound which is produced by exhaling the unvocalized breath stream in a slight puff, with the vocal cords close enough together to produce audible friction, but no voicing. Otherwise, it has no characteristic mouth position, but takes on the position of the vowel or glide that follows it. This sound only occurs at the beginning of a word or syllable. In spelling, the letter “h” is often silent, as in the words “this, hour, child”, and when it appears at the end of a word, it is never pronounced, as in the words “oh” and “enough”.

Consonant Blends

Consonant blends are combinations of two or three consonants, which are, produced one after the other without being separated by vowels. Sometimes they are also called consonant clusters. For purposes of this program, we will refer to combinations of consonant at the beginnings of words as consonant blends, and those at the ends of words, as consonant clusters.

There are four categories of Consonant Blends; /r/-blends, /l/-blends, /s/-blends, and three-element blends. For example, the /r/-blend “/pr/”, as in the word “pretty”, is produced by combining the /p/ and /r/. The /l/-blend “/pl/”, as in the word “please”, is produced by combining the /p/ and /l/. The /s/ -blend “/sp/”, as in the word “spell”, is produced by combining the /s/ and /p/. As a final example, the three-element blend “/spr/”, as in the word “spring”, is produced by combining the /s/, /p/, and /r/.