Sounds of English

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Vowels

Vowels are always voiced (which means the vocal cords vibrate when the sound is made).

vaʊ əlz ər ɔːl wəz vɔɪst

Long "pure" vowels

/ɑ:/

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

/i:/

  • 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:/

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

/ɔː/

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

/ɜː/

  • 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

/ɒ/

  • 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/

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

/ʊ/

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

/ɪ/

  • 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/

The precise realisation 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/

  • 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/

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

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

//

  • 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/

  • 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 / /

  • 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/

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

/ɔɪ/

  • noisy, oil
  • toys, boys

//

  • Mostly UK. North American English (NAME) is usually /er/
  • there, where
  • hair, pair
  • share, care
  • heir

/ʊə/

  • 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/

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

Consonants

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

Voiced Unvoiced
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)