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2. The phonemes of spoken English

© 2015 Greg Brooks, CC BY http://dx.doi.org/10.11647/OBP.0053.02

2.1 Choosing an accent to analyse

English is spoken with many accents, and the number of phonemes, and the exact sounds of many of them, vary across accents. In order to list phonemes, therefore, I first had to choose an accent to base my list on. Because this book deals with British spelling, the accent I have chosen is the British accent known to many linguists as ‘Received Pronunciation’ (RP). Recently some linguists have re-named it ‘Southern British Standard’ (SBS), or ‘Standard Southern British’, or even ‘General British’ (Cruttenden, 2014), but I have retained the term RP because it is more widely known. The French textbook of English from which I learnt phonetic transcription (see below) in 1963 called it the accent ‘des milieux cultivés du sud-est anglais’, but that was too narrow a definition; though it is particularly prevalent in educated circles in the South-East of England, people from all over Britain have this accent, and their regional origins are therefore difficult to deduce from their accent.

2.2 How many phonemes?

In RP there are 44 phonemes. Of these, 24 are consonant phonemes, and 20 are vowel phonemes.

From the fact that there are many more phonemes in RP than the 26 letters of the English alphabet, it is fairly clear that some phonemes have no predominant one-letter spelling. But for the purposes of this book a single way of representing each phoneme is needed. To do this, I use the symbols of the International Phonetic Alphabet (IPA). You will need to learn to read this system fluently in order to be able to use the rest of this book. Many words in this book are written in IPA alongside the conventional spelling, so that you can do some incidental learning as you read. The symbols for consonant phonemes are easier to learn (because most are ordinary letters, though some have unfamiliar values), so I start with them.

For some purposes it is important to distinguish between voiceless consonant phonemes – those pronounced without vibrating the vocal cords – and voiced consonant phonemes – the rest. Those which are voiceless are so labelled in Table 2.1, and various sub-systems which rely on this distinction are discussed under /d, t/ in sections 3.5.2 and 3.5.7, under /ɪ/ in section 5.4.3, and also in sections 3.7.8, 5.7.2 and 7.2.3.

There is little difference in the number or pronunciation of the consonant phonemes across much of the English-speaking world, and much less variation than in the vowel phonemes – in fact, differences in vowel phonemes almost entirely define the differences between accents. However, two consonant phonemes which do not occur in RP (and are therefore not counted in my analyses of correspondences) but do occur in many Scots accents are mentioned in a few places:

  • the voiceless counterpart of /w/, which is usually spelt <wh>, sounds roughly like ‘hw’, and is symbolised /ʍ/; examples would be which, when
  • the throat-clearing sound which is spelt <ch> in some Scottish words, e.g. dreich, loch, Sassenach, and German names like Schumacher (or <gh> in some Irish words, e.g. lough, or <kh> in transcriptions of some Russian names, e.g. Mikhail), and is symbolised /x/ - on no account to be confused with letter <x>, but I have not included this correspondence in my analysis because /x/ is not a phoneme of RP. See Notes to sections 9.9/15/19 and 10.33.

    2.3 The consonant phonemes of Received Pronunciation

Table 2.1 presents the IPA symbols for the 24 consonant phonemes of RP.

Table 2.1: The International Phonetic Alphabet symbols for the 24 consonant phonemes of the Received Pronunciation accent of English.

Consonant phonemes with doubled spellings* which are rare in one-syllable words

/b/

as in the first sound of

by

/baɪ/

/d/

as in the first sound of

dye

/daɪ/

/g/

as in the first sound of

goo

/guː/

/m/

as in the first sound of

my

/maɪ/

/n/

as in the first sound of

nigh

/naɪ/

/p/

as in the first sound of

pie

/paɪ/

voiceless

/t/

as in the first sound of

tie

/taɪ/

voiceless

/r/

as in the first sound of

rye

/raɪ/

Consonant phonemes with doubled spellings* which are regular at the end of one-syllable words after a short vowel phoneme spelt with one letter

/k/

as in the first sound of

coo

/kuː/

voiceless

/ʧ/

as in the first sound of

chew

/ʧuː/

voiceless

/f/

as in the first sound of

few

/fjuː/

/ʤ/

as in the first sound of

jaw

/ʤɔː/

/l/

as in the first sound of

law

/lɔː/

/s/

as in the first sound of

sue

/suː/

voiceless

/v/

as in the first sound of

view

/vjuː/

/z/

as in the first sound of

zoo

/zuː/

Consonant phonemes without doubled spellings

/h/

as in the first sound of

who

/huː/

/ŋ/

as in the last sound of

ring

/rɪŋ/

/∫/

as in the third sound of

fission

/ˈfɪ∫ən/

voiceless

/ʒ/

as in the third sound of

vision

/ˈvɪʒən/

/θ/

as in the first sound of

thigh

/θaɪ/

voiceless

/ð/

as in the first sound of

thy

/ðaɪ/

/w/

as in the first sound of

well

/wel/

/j/

as in the first sound of

yell, union

/jel, ˈjuːnjən/

* For doubled spellings see section 3.2 and much of chapter 4.

2.4 The vowel phonemes of Received Pronunciation

Table 2.2 presents the IPA symbols for the 20 vowel phonemes of RP and, as mentioned in section 1.12, the 2-phoneme sequence /juː/.

Table 2.2: The International Phonetic Alphabet symbols for the 20 vowel phonemes of the Received Pronunciation accent of English, plus /juː/.

Short pure vowels

/æ/

as in the first sound of

ant

/ænt/

/e/

as in the first sound of

end

/end/

/ɪ/

as in the first sound of

ink

/ɪŋk/

/ɒ/

as in the first sound of

ox

/ɒks/

/ʌ/

as in the first sound of

up

/ʌp/

/ʊ/

as in the second sound of

pull

/pʊl/

/ə/ (schwa)

as in the first sound of

about

/ə’baʊt

Long pure vowels

/ɑː/

as in the first sound of

aardvark

/ˈɑːdvɑːk/

/ɜː/

as in the first sound of

earl

/ɜːl/

/ɔː/

as in the whole sound of

awe

/ɔː/

/uː/

as in the first sound of

ooze

/uːz/

/iː/ *

as in the first sound of

eel

/iːl/

Special 2-phoneme sequence

/juː/ *

as in the first two sounds of

union

/ˈjuːnjən/

Diphthongs

/eɪ/ *

as in the first sound of

aim

/eɪm/

/aɪ/ *

as in the first sound of

ice

/aɪs/

/əʊ/ *

as in the first sound of

oath

/əʊθ/

/aʊ/

as in the first sound of

ouch

/aʊʧ/

/ɔɪ/

as in the first sound of

oyster

/ˈɔɪstə/

/eə/

as in the whole sound of

air

/eə/

/ɪə/

as in the whole sound of

ear

/ɪə/

/ʊə/

as in the second sound of

rural

/ˈrʊərəl/

* These four vowel phonemes and /juː/ are the ‘letter-name’ vowels – see sections 5.1, 5.7, 6.2 and 6.3. Phoneme /uː/ also belongs with them.

The last short pure vowel listed in Table 2.2, the /ə/ phoneme, is heard in the first syllable of about /əˈbaʊt/ and the second syllable of oyster /ˈɔɪstə/. It is the least distinctive phoneme in English – think how little effort is needed to say it. However, that does not mean it is unimportant, because it has three special characteristics:

  • in RP it occurs only in unstressed syllables, and (almost) never in stressed syllables (except that RP-speakers now increasingly pronounce because as /bɪˈkəz/ rather than /bɪˈkɒz/). In occurring only in unstressed syllables /ə/ is unique among English vowel phonemes (but note that this applies only to English – in many other languages /ə/ occurs in both stressed and unstressed syllables);
  • in (my analysis/version of) RP it is the only short vowel phoneme which occurs word-finally;
  • it is the most frequent phoneme of all in spoken English, in every accent, because a high proportion of unstressed syllables contain it. In RP, for example, it constitutes about 10% of running speech.

Also uniquely, this phoneme has a special name (derived from Hebrew): schwa, or the schwa vowel.

As stated in section 1.2, the phonetic symbols used in this book are identical to those used in the 18th (2011) edition of the Cambridge English Pronouncing Dictionary. They are also identical to those used in most of the eight editions of Gimson’s Pronunciation of English, including the 7th. However, as this book was nearing publication, my attention was drawn to the fact that, in the latest (eighth) edition of Gimson’s Pronunciation of English (Cruttenden, 2014), Cruttenden has introduced two changes:

  • for the ‘short a’ sound, listed above as ‘/æ/ as in the first sound of ant’, he now uses plain /a/ (for the reasons for this see his page xvii);
  • for /eə/ as in the whole sound of air he now uses /ɛː/, on the grounds that this phoneme, in the mouths of most speakers of ‘General British’ (≈ RP), is no longer a diphthong but a long pure vowel.

One of the current editors of the Cambridge English Pronouncing Dictionary, Prof. Jane Setters of the University of Reading, kindly told me that, although she and her fellow editors are aware of these changes and use them in their teaching, they do not propose to introduce them into the Dictionary. Since I wish this this book to parallel the Dictionary I have not adopted them either.

2.5 Polysyllabic words and word stress

In all English words of two or more syllables, one of the syllables is spoken with heavier emphasis than the rest. For example:

  • oyster is stressed on the first syllable
  • about is stressed on the second syllable.

In IPA transcriptions the stressed syllable is marked with a small vertical notch placed in front of it: /ˈɔɪstə, əˈbaʊt/. Analysing and marking word stress is not just an exercise; many phoneme-grapheme and grapheme-phoneme correspondences apply only in words of more than one syllable, some only in stressed syllables, others only in unstressed syllables. The clearest example is the occurrence of /ə/ only in unstressed syllables. Occasionally for simplicity I use an acute accent on the ordinary spelling of a word to indicate stress, e.g. aríthmetic (noun), arithmétic (adjective).

The question of predicting from the written form of polysyllabic words where the stress falls on them is attempted, and largely failed, in section A.10 in Appendix A.