English phonology is the study of the phonology (i.e. the sound system) of the English language. Like all languages, spoken English has wide variation in its pronunciation both diachronically and synchronically from dialect to dialect. This variation is especially salient in English, because the language is spoken over such a wide territory, being the predominant language in Australia, Canada, the Commonwealth Caribbean, Ireland, New Zealand, the United Kingdom and the United States in addition to being spoken as a first or second language by people in countries on every continent, and notably in South Africa and India. In general the regional dialects of English are mutually intelligible.
Although there are many dialects of English, the following are usually used as prestige or standard accents: Received Pronunciation for the United Kingdom, General American for the United States and General Australian for Australia.
The number of speech sounds in English varies from dialect to dialect, and any actual tally depends greatly on the interpretation of the researcher doing the counting. The Longman Pronunciation Dictionary by John C. Wells, for example, using symbols of the International Phonetic Alphabet, denotes 24 consonants and 23 vowels used in Received Pronunciation, plus two additional consonants and four additional vowels used in foreign words only. For General American it provides for 25 consonants and 19 vowels, with one additional consonant and three additional vowels for foreign words. The American Heritage Dictionary, on the other hand, suggests 25 consonants and 18 vowels (including r-colored vowels) for American English, plus one consonant and five vowels for non-English terms .
The following table shows the consonant phonemes found in most dialects of English. When consonants appear in pairs, fortis consonants (i.e. aspirated or voiceless) appear on the left and lenis consonants (i.e. lightly voiced or voiced) appear on the right:
The vowels of English differ considerably between dialects. Because of this, corresponding vowels may be transcribed with various symbols depending on the dialect under consideration. When considering English as a whole, no specific phoneme symbols are picked over others; instead lexical sets are used, each named by a word containing the vowel in question. For example, the vowel of the LOT set ("short O") is transcribed /ɒ/ in Received Pronunciation, /ɑ/ in General American, and /ɔ/ in Australian English. For an overview of the correspondences see IPA chart for English dialects.
The monophthong phonemes of General American differ in a number of ways from Received Pronunciation:
Reduced vowels occur in unstressed syllables.
The choice of which symbols to use for phonemic transcriptions may reveal theoretical assumptions or claims on the part of the transcriber. English 'lax' and 'tense' vowels are distinguished by a synergy of features, such as height, length, and contour (monophthong vs. diphthong); different traditions in the linguistic literature emphasize different features. For example, if the primary feature is thought to be vowel height, then the non-reduced vowels of General American English may be represented as follows:
If, on the other hand, vowel length is considered to be the deciding factor, the following symbols may be chosen:
(This convention has sometimes been used because the publisher did not have IPA fonts available, though that is seldom an issue any longer.)
If vowel transition is taken to be paramount, then the chart may look like one of these:
Many linguists combine more than one of these features in their transcriptions, suggesting they consider the phonemic differences to be more complex than a single feature.
Distribution of allophones
Although regional variation is very great across English dialects, some generalizations can be made about pronunciation in all (or at least the vast majority) of English accents:
Initial-stress-derived nouns mean that stress changes in many English words came about between noun and verb senses of a word. For example, a rebel [ˈɹɛ.bɫ̩] (stress on the first syllable) is inclined to rebel [ɹɪ.ˈbɛɫ] (stress on the second syllable) against the powers that be. The number of words using this pattern as opposed to only stressing the second syllable in all circumstances doubled every century or so, now including the English words object, convict, and addict.
Note: This information applies to RP. Other than variations in the possible onsets with or without final /j/, and the presence or absence of the phoneme /ʍ/, it also applies to the other main varieties of English. /ʍ/ only occurs syllable-initial and does not occur in clusters.
The syllable structure in English is (C)(C)(C)V(C)(C)(C)(C), with a maximal example being strengths (/strɛŋkθs/, although it can be pronounced /strɛŋθs/).
There is an on-going sound change (yod-dropping) by which /j/ as the final consonant in a cluster is being lost. In RP, words with /sj/ and /lj/ can usually be pronounced with or without this sound, e.g., [suːt] or [sjuːt]. For some speakers of English, including some British speakers, the sound change is more advanced and so, for example, in General American /j/ is also not present after /n/, /l/, /s/, /z/, /θ/, /t/ and /d/. In Welsh English it can occur in more combinations, for example in /tʃj/.
The following can occur as the onset:
* In General American, /tr/ and /dr/ tend to affricate, so that tree resembles "chree", and dream "jream". This may be transcribed as [tʃr] and [dʒr] respectively, but the pronunciation varies and may, for example, be closer to [tʂ] and [dʐ] or with a fricative release similar in quality to the rhotic, ie. [tɹ̝̊ɹ̥], [dɹ̝ɹ], or [ʈʂɻ], [ɖʐɻ].
Note: A few onsets occur infrequently making it uncertain whether they are native pronunciations or merely non-assimilated borrowings, e.g. /pw/ (pueblo), /bw/ (bwana), /kv/ (kvetch), /sv/ (svelt), /sr/ (Sri Lanka), /ʃw/ (schwa), /ʃm/ (schmuck), /sθ/ (sthenics) and /sfr/ (sphragistics).
The following can occur as the nucleus:
Most, and in theory all, of the following except those which end with /s/, /z/, /ʃ/, /ʒ/, /tʃ/ or /dʒ/ can be extended with /s/ or /z/ representing the morpheme -s/z-. Similarly most, and in theory all, of the following except those which end with /t/ or /d/ can be extended with /t/ or /d/ representing the morpheme -t/d-.
The following can occur as the coda:
Note: For some speakers, a fricative before /θ/ is elided so that these never appear phonetically: /fɪfθ/ becomes [fɪθ], /siksθ/ becomes [sikθ], /twelfθ/ becomes [twelθ].
Stress is phonemic in English. For example, the words desert and dessert are distinguished by stress, as are the noun a record and the verb to record. Stressed syllables in English are louder than non-stressed syllables, as well as being longer and having a higher pitch. They also tend to have a fuller realization than unstressed syllables.
Examples of stress in English words, using boldface to represent stressed syllables, are holiday, alone, admiration, confidential, degree, and weaker. Ordinarily, grammatical words (auxiliary verbs, prepositions, pronouns, and the like) do not receive stress, whereas lexical words (nouns, verbs, adjectives, etc.) must have at least one stressed syllable.
English is a stress-timed language. That is, stressed syllables appear at a roughly steady tempo, and non-stressed syllables are shortened to accommodate this.
Traditional approaches describe English as having three degrees of stress: Primary, secondary, and unstressed. However, if stress is defined as relative respiratory force (that is, it involves greater pressure from the lungs than unstressed syllables), as most phoneticians argue, and is inherent in the word rather than the sentence (that is, it is lexical rather than prosodic), then these traditional approaches conflate two distinct processes: Stress on the one hand, and vowel reduction on the other. In this case, primary stress is actually prosodic stress, whereas secondary stress is simple stress in some positions, and an unstressed but not reduced vowel in others. Either way, there is a three-way phonemic distinction: Either three degrees of stress, or else stressed, unstressed, and reduced. See secondary stress for details.
When a stressed syllable contains a pure vowel (rather than a diphthong), followed by a single consonant and then another vowel, as in holiday, many native speakers feel that the consonant belongs to the preceding stressed syllable, /ˈhɒl.ɨ.deɪ/, or assign it to both the preceding and following syllables. Such consonants are sometimes describes as ambisyllabic. However, when the stressed vowel is a diphthong, as in admiration or weaker, speakers agree that the consonant belongs to the following syllable: /ˈædmɨˈreɪʃən/. (Phonetically, the vowel in weak is also a diphthong, [ij].)
Prosodic stress is extra stress given to words when they appear in certain positions in an utterance, or when they receive special emphasis. It normally appears on the final stressed syllable in an intonation unit. So, for example, when the word admiration is said in isolation, or at the end of a sentence, the syllable ra is pronounced with greater force than the syllable ad. (This is traditionally transcribed as /ˌædmɨˈreɪʃən/.) This is the origin of the primary stress-secondary stress distinction. However, the difference disappears when the word is not pronounced with this final intonation.
Prosodic stress can shift for various pragmatic functions, such as focus or contrast. For instance, consider the dialogue
In this case, the extra stress shifts from the last stressed syllable of the sentence, tomorrow, to the last stressed syllable of the emphasized word, dinner. Compare
Although grammatical words generally do not have lexical stress, they do acquire prosodic stress when emphasized. Compare ordinary
with more emphatic
History of English pronunciation
Around the late 14th century, English began to undergo the Great Vowel Shift, in which
The other long vowels became higher:
Later developments complicate the picture: whereas in Geoffrey Chaucer's time food, good, and blood all had the vowel [oː] and in William Shakespeare's time they all had the vowel [uː], in modern pronunciation good has shortened its vowel to [ʊ] and blood has shortened and lowered its vowel to [ʌ] in most accents. In Shakespeare's day (late 16th-early 17th century), many rhymes were possible that no longer hold today. For example, in his play The Taming of the Shrew, shrew rhymed with woe.
æ-tensing is a phenomenon found in many varieties of American English by which the vowel /æ/ has a longer, higher, and usually diphthongal pronunciation in some environments, usually to something like [eə]. Some American accents, for example that of New York City or Philadelphia, make a marginal phonemic distinction between /æ/ and /eə/ although the two occur largely in mutually exclusive environments.
The bad-lad split refers to the situation in some varieties of southern English English and Australian English, where a long phoneme /æː/ in words like bad contrasts with a short /æ/ in words like lad.
The cot-caught merger is a sound change by which the vowel of words like cot, rock, and doll (/ɒ/ in New England, /ɑː/ elsewhere) is pronounced the same as the vowel of words like caught, talk, and tall (/ɔ/). This merger is widespread in North American English, being found in approximately 40% of American speakers and virtually all Canadian speakers.
The father-bother merger is the pronunciation of the short O /ɒ/ in words such as "bother" identically to the broad A /ɑː/ of words such as "father", nearly universal in all of the United States and Canada save New England and the Maritime provinces; many American dictionaries use the same symbol for these vowels in pronunciation guides.
Published - November 2008
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