definition of Wikipedia
English phonology refers to the sound system (phonology) of the English language, or to the study of that system. Like many 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 (though not identical) phonological system.
Phonological analysis of English often concentrates on, or uses as a reference point, one or more of the prestige or standard accents, such as Received Pronunciation for England, General American for the United States, and General Australian for Australia.
A phoneme of a language or dialect is an abstraction of a speech sound or of a group of different sounds which are all perceived to have the same function by speakers of that language or dialect. For example, the English word "through" consists of three phonemes: the initial "th" sound, the "r" sound, and an "oo" vowel sound. Notice that the phonemes in this and many other English words do not always correspond directly to the letters used to spell them (English orthography is not as strongly phonemic as that of certain other languages).
The phonemes of English and their number vary from dialect to dialect, and also depend on the interpretation of the individual researcher. The number of consonant phonemes is generally put at 24 (or slightly more). The number of vowels is subject to greater variation; in the system presented on this page there are 20 vowel phonemes in Received Pronunciation, 14–16 in General American and 20–21 in Australian English. The pronunciation keys used in dictionaries generally contain a slightly greater number of symbols than this, to take account of certain sounds used in foreign words and certain noticeable distinctions that may not be strictly speaking phonemic.
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:
|Stop||p b||t d||k ɡ|
|Fricative||f v||θ ð||s z||ʃ ʒ||(x)3||h|
|Approximant||r1, 2, 5||j||w4|
The following table shows typical examples of the occurrence of the above consonant phonemes in words.
The distinctions between the nasals are neutralized in some environments. For example, before a final /p/, /t/ or /k/ there is only one nasal sound that can appear in each case: [m], [n] or [ŋ] respectively (as in the words limp, lint, link – note that the n of link is pronounced [ŋ]). This effect can even occur across syllable or word boundaries, particularly in stressed syllables: synchrony is pronounced as [ˈsɪŋkɹəni] whereas synchronic may be pronounced either as [sɪŋˈkɹɒnɨk] or as [sɪnˈkɹɒnɨk]. For other possible syllable-final combinations, see Coda in the Phonotactics section below.
An allophone is one of a set of multiple possible spoken sounds (or phones) used to pronounce a single phoneme. For example, the phoneme /t/ is pronounced differently in tonsils than in button, and still differently in cat. All of these "t" sounds are allophones of the same phoneme, since no two words can be distinguished from each other solely on the basis of which of these pronunciations is used.
Although regional variation is very great across English dialects, certain instances of allophony can be observed in all (or at least the vast majority) of English accents. (See also Allophones of vowels below.)
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, lexical sets are often used, each named by a word containing the vowel or vowels in question. For example, the LOT set consists of words which, like lot, have /ɒ/ in Received Pronunciation and /ɑ/ in General American. The "LOT vowel" then refers to the vowel that appears in those words in whichever dialect is being considered, or (at a greater level of abstraction) to a diaphoneme which transcends all dialects. A commonly used system of lexical sets is presented below; for each set, the corresponding phonemes are given for RP (first column) and General American (second column), using the notation that will be used on this page.
For a table that shows the pronunciations of these vowels in a wider range of English dialects, see IPA chart for English dialects.
The following tables show the vowel phonemes of three standard varieties of English. The notation system used here for Received Pronunciation (RP) is fairly standard; the others less so. For different ways of transcribing General American, see Transcription variants below. The feature descriptions given here (front, close, etc.) are abstracted somewhat; the actual pronunciations of these vowels are more accurately conveyed by the IPA symbols used (see Vowel for a chart indicating the meanings of these symbols; though note also the points listed below the following tables).
The differences between these tables can be explained as follows:
Other points to be noted are these:
Unstressed syllables in English may contain almost any vowel, but there are certain sounds – characterized by central position and weakness – that are particularly often found as the nuclei of syllables of this type. These include:
Vowel reduction in unstressed syllables is a significant feature of English. Syllables of the types listed above often correspond to a syllable containing a different vowel ("full vowel") used in other forms of the same morpheme where that syllable is stressed. For example, the first o in photograph, being stressed, is pronounced with the GOAT vowel, but in photography, where it is unstressed, it is reduced to schwa. Also, certain common words (a, an, of, for, etc.) are pronounced with a schwa when they are unstressed, although they have different vowels when they are in a stressed position (see Weak and strong forms in English).
Some unstressed syllables, however, retain full (unreduced) vowels, i.e. vowels other than those listed above. Examples are the /æ/ in ambition and the /aɪ/ in finite. Some phonologists regard such syllables as not being fully unstressed (they may describe them as having tertiary stress); some dictionaries have marked such syllables as having secondary stress. However linguists such as Ladefoged and Bolinger regard this as a difference purely of vowel quality and not of stress, and thus argue that vowel reduction itself is phonemic in English. Examples of words where vowel reduction seems to be distinctive for some speakers include chickaree vs. chicory (the latter has the reduced vowel of HAPPY, whereas the former has the FLEECE vowel without reduction), and Pharaoh vs. farrow (both have the GOAT vowel, but in the latter word it may reduce to [ɵ]).
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 according to the table to the left and below. If, on the other hand, vowel length is considered to be the deciding factor, the symbols in the table to the below and center 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.) The rightmost table lists the corresponding lexical sets.
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.
Lexical stress is phonemic in English. For example, the noun increase and the verb increase are distinguished by the positioning of the stress on the first syllable in the former, and on the second syllable in the latter. (See initial-stress-derived noun.) Stressed syllables in English are louder than non-stressed syllables, as well as being longer and having a higher pitch.
In traditional approaches, in any English word consisting of more than one syllable, each syllable is ascribed one of three degrees of stress: primary, secondary or unstressed. Ordinarily, in each such word there will be exactly one syllable with primary stress, possibly one syllable having secondary stress, and the remainder unstressed. For example, the word amazing has primary stress on the second syllable, while the first and third syllables are unstressed, whereas the word organization has primary stress on the fourth syllable, secondary stress on the first, and the second, third and fifth unstressed. This is often shown in pronunciation keys using the IPA symbols for primary and secondary stress (which are ˈ and ˌ respectively), placed before the syllables to which they apply. The two words just given may therefore be represented (in RP) as /əˈmeɪzɪŋ/ and /ˌɔːgənaɪˈzeɪʃən/.
Some analysts identify an additional level of stress (tertiary stress). This is generally ascribed to syllables that are pronounced with less force than those with secondary stress, but nonetheless contain a "full" or "unreduced" vowel (vowels that are considered to be reduced are listed under Vowels in unstressed syllables above). Hence the third syllable of organization, if pronounced with /aɪ/ as shown above (rather than being reduced to /ɪ/ or /ə/), might be said to have tertiary stress. (The precise identification of secondary and tertiary stress differs between analyses; dictionaries do not generally show tertiary stress, although some have taken the approach of marking all syllables with unreduced vowels as having at least secondary stress.)
In some analyses, then, the concept of lexical stress may become conflated with that of vowel reduction. An approach which attempts to separate these two is provided by Peter Ladefoged, who states that it is possible to describe English with only one degree of stress, as long as unstressed syllables are phonemically distinguished for vowel reduction. In this approach, the distinction between primary and secondary stress is regarded as a phonemic or prosodic detail rather than a phonemic feature – primary stress is seen as an example of the predictable "tonic" stress that falls on the final stressed syllable of a prosodic unit. For more details of this analysis, see Stress and vowel reduction in English.
For stress as a prosodic feature (emphasis of particular words within utterances), see Prosodic stress below.
Phonotactics is the study of the sequences of phonemes that occur in languages and the sound structures that they form. In this study it is usual to represent consonants in general with the letter C and vowels with the letter V, so that a syllable such as 'be' is described as having CV structure. The IPA symbol used to show a division between syllables is the dot [.]. Syllabification is the process of dividing continuous speech into discrete syllables, a process in which the position of a syllable division is not always easy to decide upon. Most languages of the world syllabify CVCV and CVCCV sequences as /CV.CV/ and /CVC.CV/ or /CV.CCV/, with consonants preferentially acting as the onset of a syllable containing the following vowel. According to one view, English is unusual in this regard, in that stressed syllables attract following consonants, so that ˈCVCV and ˈCVCCV syllabify as /ˈCVC.V/ and /ˈCVCC.V/, as long as the consonant cluster CC is a possible syllable coda; in addition, /r/ preferentially syllabifies with the preceding vowel even when both syllables are unstressed, so that CVrV occurs as /CVr.V/. This is the analysis used in the Longman Pronunciation Dictionary. However, this view is not widely accepted, as explained in the following section.
The syllable structure in English is (C)3V(C)5, with a near maximal example being strengths (/ˈstrɛŋkθs/, although it can be pronounced /ˈstrɛŋθs/). From the phonetic point of view, the analysis of syllable structures is a complex task: because of widespread occurrences of articulatory overlap, English speakers rarely produce an audible release of individual consonants in consonant clusters. This coarticulation can lead to articulatory gestures that seem very much like deletions or complete assimilations. For example, hundred pounds may sound like [hʌndɹəb pʰaʊndz] and 'jumped back' (in slow speech, [dʒʌmptbæk]) may sound like [dʒʌmpbæk], but X-ray and electropalatographic  studies demonstrate that inaudible and possibly weakened contacts or lingual gestures may still be made. Thus the second /d/ in hundred pounds does not entirely assimilate to a labial place of articulation, rather the labial gesture co-occurs with the alveolar one; the "missing" [t] in 'jumped back' may still be articulated, though not heard.
Division into syllables is a difficult area, and different theories have been proposed. A widely accepted approach is the maximal onsets principle : this states that, subject to certain constraints, any consonants in between vowels should be assigned to the following syllable, not the preceding one. Thus the word 'leaving' /liːvɪŋ/ should be divided /liː . vɪŋ/ rather than /liːv . ɪŋ/, and 'hasty' /heɪsti/ is /heɪ . sti/ rather than /heɪs . ti/ or /heɪst . i/. However, when such a division results in an onset cluster which is not allowed in English, the division must respect this. Thus if the word 'extra' /ekstrə/ were divided /e . kstrə/ the resulting onset of the second syllable would be /kstr/, a cluster which does not occur in English. The division /ek . strə/ is therefore preferred. If assigning a consonant or consonants to the following syllable would result in the preceding syllable ending in an unreduced short vowel, this is avoided. Thus the word 'comma' /kɒmə/ should be divided /kɒm . ə/ and not /kɒ . mə/, even though the latter division gives the maximal onset to the following syllable, because English syllables do not end in /ɒ/. In some cases, no solution is completely satisfactory: for example, in British English (RP) the word 'hurry' /hʌri/ could be divided /hʌ . ri/ or /hʌr . i/, but the former would result in an analysis with a syllable-final /ʌ/ (which is held to be non-occurring) while the latter would result in a syllable final /r/ which is also said not to occur in this accent. Some phonologists have suggested a compromise analysis where the consonant in the middle belongs to both syllables, resulting in an analysis of 'hurry' which comprises the syllables /hʌr/ and /ri/ and the medial /r/ is described as ambisyllabic. Where the division coincides with a word boundary, or the boundary between elements of a compound word, it is not usual to insist on the maximal onsets principle in a way that divides words in a counter-intuitive way; thus the word 'hardware' /hɑːdweə/ would be divided /hɑː . dweə/ by the M.O.P., but dictionaries prefer the division /hɑːd . weə/. For discussion of this topic, see Gimson, Giegerich or Kreidler
In an alternative approach, Wells (1990) claims that consonants syllabify with the preceding rather than following vowel when the preceding vowel is the nucleus of a more salient syllable, with stressed syllables being the most salient, reduced syllables the least, and secondary stress / full unstressed vowels intermediate. But there are lexical differences as well, frequently with compound words but not exclusively. For example, in dolphin and selfish, he argues that the stressed syllable ends in /lf/, but in shellfish, the /f/ belongs with the following syllable: /ˈdɒlf.ɪn/, /ˈsɛlf.ɪʃ/ → [ˈdɒlfɨn], [ˈsɛlfɨʃ] vs /ˈʃɛl.fɪʃ/ → [ˈʃɛlˑfɪʃ], where the /l/ is a little longer and the /ɪ/ not reduced. Similarly, in toe-strap Wells argues that the /t/ is a full plosive, as usual in syllable onset, whereas in toast-rack the /t/ is in many dialects reduced to the unreleased allophone it takes in syllable codas, or even elided: /ˈtoʊ.stræp/, /ˈtoʊst.ræk/ → [ˈtʰoˑʊstɹæp], [ˈtoʊs(t̚)ɹʷæk]; likewise nitrate /ˈnaɪ.treɪt/ → [ˈnʌɪtɹ̥ʷeɪt] with a voiceless /r/, vs night-rate /ˈnaɪt.reɪt/ → [ˈnʌɪt̚ɹʷeɪt] with a voiced /r/. Cues of syllable boundaries include aspiration of syllable onsets and (in the US) flapping of coda /t, d/ (a tease /ə.ˈtiːz/ → [əˈtʰiːz] vs. at ease /æt.ˈiːz/ → [æɾˈiːz]), epenthetic stops like [t] in syllable codas (fence /ˈfɛns/ → [ˈfɛnts] but inside /ɪn.ˈsaɪd/ → [ɪnˈsaɪd]), and r-colored vowels when the /r/ is in the coda vs. labialization when it is in the onset (key-ring /ˈkiː.rɪŋ/ → [ˈkʰiːɹʷɪŋ] but fearing /ˈfiːr.ɪŋ/ → [ˈfɪəɹɪŋ]).
The following can occur as the onset:
|All single consonant phonemes except /ŋ/|
|Stop plus approximant other than /j/:
/pl/, /bl/, /kl/, /ɡl/, /pr/, /br/, /tr/, /dr/, /kr/, /ɡr/, /tw/, /dw/, /ɡw/, /kw/, /pw/
|play, blood, clean, glove, prize, bring, tree, dream, crowd, green, twin, dwarf, language, quick, puissance|
|Voiceless fricative plus approximant other than /j/:
/fl/, /sl/, /θl/, /fr/, /θr/, /ʃr/, /hw/, /sw/, /θw/, /vw/
|floor, sleep, thlipsis, friend, three, shrimp, what, swing, thwart, reservoir|
|Consonant plus /j/ (before /uː/ or /ʊr/):
/pj/, /bj/, /tj/, /dj/, /kj/, /ɡj/, /mj/, /nj/, /fj/, /vj/, /θj/, /sj/, /zj/, /hj/, /lj/
|pure, beautiful, tube, during, cute, argue, music, new, few, view, thew, suit, Zeus, huge, lurid|
|/s/ plus voiceless stop:
/sp/, /st/, /sk/
|speak, stop, skill|
|/s/ plus nasal other than /ŋ/:
|/s/ plus voiceless fricative:
|/s/ plus voiceless stop plus approximant:
/spl/, /skl/, /spr/, /str/, /skr/, /skw/, /smj/, /spj/, /stj/, /skj/
|split, sclera, spring, street, scream, square, smew, spew, student, skewer|
|/s/ plus voiceless fricative plus approximant:
Certain English onsets appear only in contractions: e.g., /zbl/ ('sblood), and /zw/ or /dzw/ ('swounds or 'dswounds). Some, such as /pʃ/ (pshaw), /fw/ (fwoosh), or /vr/ (vroom), can occur in interjections. An archaic voiceless fricative plus nasal exists, /fn/ (fnese), as does an archaic /snj/ (snew).
A few other onsets occur in further (anglicized) loan words, including /bw/ (bwana), /mw/ (moiré), /nw/ (noire), /zw/ (zwieback), /kv/ (kvetch), /ʃv/ (schvartze), /tv/ (Tver), /vl/ (Vladimir), and /zl/ (zloty).
Some clusters of this type can be converted to regular English phonotactics by simplifying the cluster: e.g. /(d)z/ (dziggetai), /(h)r/ (Hrolf), /kr(w)/ (croissant), /(p)f/ (pfennig), /(f)θ/ (phthalic), and /(t)s/ (tsunami).
Others can be substituted by native clusters differing only in voice: /zb ~ sp/ (sbirro), and /zɡr ~ skr/ (sgraffito).
The following can occur as the nucleus:
Most (in theory, all) the following except those that end with /s/, /z/, /ʃ/, /ʒ/, /tʃ/ or /dʒ/ can be extended with /s/ or /z/ representing the morpheme -s/z-. Similarly, most (in theory, all) the following except those that end with /t/ or /d/ can be extended with /t/ or /d/ representing the morpheme -t/d-.
Wells (1990) argues that a variety of syllable codas are possible in English, even /ntr, ndr/ in words like entry /ˈɛntr.ɪ/ and sundry /ˈsʌndr.ɪ/, with /tr, dr/ being treated as affricates along the lines of /tʃ, dʒ/. He argues that the traditional assumption that pre-vocalic consonants form a syllable with the following vowel is due to the influence of languages like French and Latin, where syllable structure is CVC.CVC regardless of stress placement. Disregarding such contentious cases, which do not occur at the ends of words, the following sequences can occur as the coda:
|The single consonant phonemes except /h/, /w/, /j/ and, in non-rhotic varieties, /r/|
|Lateral approximant plus stop or affricate: /lp/, /lb/, /lt/, /ld/, /ltʃ/, /ldʒ/, /lk/||help, bulb, belt, hold, belch, indulge, milk|
|In rhotic varieties, /r/ plus stop or affricate: /rp/, /rb/, /rt/, /rd/, /rtʃ/, /rdʒ/, /rk/, /rɡ/||harp, orb, fort, beard, arch, large, mark, morgue|
|Lateral approximant + fricative: /lf/, /lv/, /lθ/, /ls/, /lʃ/||golf, solve, wealth, else, Welsh|
|In rhotic varieties, /r/ + fricative: /rf/, /rv/, /rθ/, /rs/, /rz/, /rʃ/||dwarf, carve, north, force, Mars, marsh|
|Lateral approximant + nasal: /lm/, /ln/||film, kiln|
|In rhotic varieties, /r/ + nasal or lateral: /rm/, /rn/, /rl/||arm, born, snarl|
|Nasal + homorganic stop or affricate: /mp/, /nt/, /nd/, /ntʃ/, /ndʒ/, /ŋk/||jump, tent, end, lunch, lounge, pink|
|Nasal + fricative: /mf/, /mθ/, /nθ/, /ns/, /nz/, /ŋθ/ in some varieties||triumph, gloomth, month, prince, bronze, length|
|Voiceless fricative plus voiceless stop: /ft/, /sp/, /st/, /sk/||left, crisp, lost, ask|
|Two voiceless fricatives: /fθ/||fifth|
|Two voiceless stops: /pt/, /kt/||opt, act|
|Stop plus voiceless fricative: /pθ/, /ps/, /tθ/, /ts/, /dθ/, /dz/, /ks/||depth, lapse, eighth, klutz, width, adze, box|
|Lateral approximant + two consonants: /lpt/, /lfθ/, /lts/, /lst/, /lkt/, /lks/||sculpt, twelfth, waltz, whilst, mulct, calx|
|In rhotic varieties, /r/ + two consonants: /rmθ/, /rpt/, /rps/, /rts/, /rst/, /rkt/||warmth, excerpt, corpse, quartz, horst, infarct|
|Nasal + homorganic stop + stop or fricative: /mpt/, /mps/, /ndθ/, /ŋkt/, /ŋks/, /ŋkθ/ in some varieties||prompt, glimpse, thousandth, distinct, jinx, length|
|Three obstruents: /ksθ/, /kst/||sixth, next|
Note: For some speakers, a fricative before /θ/ is elided so that these never appear phonetically: /ˈfɪfθ/ becomes [ˈfɪθ], /ˈsiksθ/ becomes [ˈsikθ], /ˈtwɛlfθ/ becomes [ˈtwɛlθ].
The prosodic features of English – stress, rhythm, and intonation – can be described as follows.
Prosodic stress is extra stress given to words or syllables when they appear in certain positions in an utterance, or when they receive special emphasis.
According to Ladefoged's analysis (as referred to under Lexical stress above), English normally has prosodic stress on the final stressed syllable in an intonation unit. This is said to be the origin of the distinction traditionally made at the lexical level between primary and secondary stress: when a word like admiration (traditionally transcribed as something like /ˌædmɨˈreɪʃən/) is spoken in isolation, or at the end of a sentence, the syllable ra (the final stressed syllable) is pronounced with greater force than the syllable ad, although when the word is not pronounced with this final intonation there may be no difference between the levels of stress of these two syllables.
Prosodic stress can shift for various pragmatic functions, such as focus or contrast. For instance, in the dialogue Is it brunch tomorrow? No, it's dinner tomorrow, the extra stress shifts from the last stressed syllable of the sentence, tomorrow, to the last stressed syllable of the emphasized word, dinner.
Grammatical function words are usually prosodically unstressed, although they can acquire stress when emphasized (as in Did you find the cat? Well, I found a cat). Many English function words have distinct strong and weak pronunciations; for example, the word a in the last example is pronounced /eɪ/, while the more common unstressed a is pronounced /ə/. See Weak and strong forms in English.
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.
English declarative sentences generally have a pattern of rising pitch on the final stressed syllable followed by falling pitch on the subsequent unstressed syllables (or on the last part of the final stressed syllable itself, if it is also the last syllable of the sentence). But if something is left unsaid, the final fall in pitch occurs only to a lesser extent. Wh-questions, and tag questions with declarative intent, follow the same pattern as do declarative sentences.
In contrast, yes-no questions show pitch rising on the last stressed syllable, and remaining high on any subsequent syllables.
English consonants have been remarkably stable over time, and have undergone few changes in the last 1500 years. On the other hand, English vowels have been quite unstable. Not surprisingly, then, the main differences between modern dialects almost always involve vowels.
Around the late 14th century, English began to undergo the Great Vowel Shift, in which
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 those of New York City, Philadelphia, and Baltimore, 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 British 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 caught, talk, and tall (/ɔ/), is pronounced the same as the vowel of words like cot, rock, and doll (/ɒ/ in New England /ɑː/ elsewhere). 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.
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