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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. With no conclusive, internationally recognized standards for English, even the English spoken in different countries can occasionally prove to be an impediment to understanding what is said, although for the most part the different regional accents of English are mutually intelligible.
See IPA chart for English for concise and International Phonetic Alphabet for English for more detailed charts of the English phonemes.
Although there are many dialects of English, the following are usually used as prestige or standard accents: Received Pronunciation for the UK, General American for the USA 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 .
A chart showing the positions of the stressed monophthongs of one accent of English, namely southern California English (based on Ladefoged 1999), is shown below. Notable is the absence of /ɔ/ as in thought and /ɒ/ as in lot, which have merged with /ɑ/ as in father in this accent through the father-bother and cot-caught mergers.
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]. In some American accents, /æ/ and /eə/ are apparently now separate phonemes.
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 is pronounced the same as the vowel of words like caught, talk, and tall. This merger is widespread in North American English, being found in approximately 40% of American speakers and virtually all Canadian speakers.
Some noteworthy phonological processes in English:
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.
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:
- The voiceless stops /p t k/ are aspirated at the beginnings of words (for example tomato) and at the beginnings of word-internal stressed syllables (for example potato).
- A distinction is made between tense and lax vowels in pairs like beet/bit and bait/bet, although the exact phonetic implementation of the distinction varies from accent to accent.
- Wherever [ɹ] originally followed a tense vowel or diphthong (in Early Modern English) a schwa offglide was inserted, resulting in centering diphthongs like [iə] in beer [biəɹ], [uə] in poor [puəɹ], [aɪə] in fire [faɪəɹ], [aʊə] in sour [saʊəɹ], and so forth. This phenomenon is known as breaking. The subsequent history depends on whether the accent in question is rhotic or not: In non-rhotic accents like RP the postvocalic [ɹ] was dropped, leaving [biə, puə, faɪə, saʊə] and the like (now usually transcribed [bɪə, pʊə] and so forth). In rhotic accents like General American, on the other hand, the [əɹ] sequence was coalesced into a single sound, a non-syllabic [ɚ], giving [biɚ, puɚ, faɪɚ, saʊɚ] and the like (now usually transcribed [bɪɹ, pʊɹ, faɪɹ, saʊɹ] and so forth). As a result, originally monosyllabic words like those just mentioned came to rhyme with originally disyllabic words like seer, doer, higher, power.
- In many (but not all) accents of English, a similar breaking happens to tense vowels before [ɫ], resulting in pronunciations like [piəɫ] for peel, [puəɫ] for pool, [peəɫ] for pail, and [poəɫ] for pole.
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).
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/, /t/ and /d/. In Welsh English it can occur in more combinations, for example in /tʃj/.
The following can occur as the onset:
Note: A few onsets occur infrequently making it uncertain whether they are native pronunciations or merely non-assimilated borrowings, e.g. /sv/ (svelt), /sr/ (Sri Lanka), /vr/ (oeuvre), /ʃw/ (schwa), /smj/ (smew), and /sfr/ (sphragistics).
The following can occur as the nucleus:
- All vowel sounds
- /m/, /n/ and /l/ in certain situations (see below under word-level rules)
- /r/ in rhotic varieties of English (eg General American) in certain situations (see below under word-level rules)
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].
- Both the onset and the coda are optional
- /j/ at the end of an onset (/pj/, /bj/, /tj/, /dj/, /kj/, /fj/, /vj/, /θj/, /sj/, /zj/, /hj/, /mj/, /nj/, /lj/, /spj/, /stj/, /skj/) must be followed by /u:/ or /ʊə/
- Long vowels and diphthongs are not followed by /ŋ/
- /ʊ/ is rare in syllable-initial position
- /ə/ does not occur in stressed syllables
- /ʒ/ does not occur in word-initial position in native English words although it can occur syllable-initial, eg /trɛʒə/
- /θj/ does not occur in word-initial position except in the archaic word thew
- /m/, /n/, /l/ and, in rhotic varieties, /r/ can be the syllable nucleus (ie a syllabic consonant) in an unstressed syllable following another consonant, especially /t/, /d/, /s/ or /z/
- Certain short vowel sounds, called checked vowels, cannot occur without a coda in a single syllable word. In RP, the following short vowel sounds are checked: /ɛ/, /æ/, /ɒ/ and /ʌ/.
History of English pronunciation
See also Phonological history of the English language
Around the late 14th century, English began to undergo the Great Vowel Shift, in which
- the high long vowels [iː] and [uː] in words like price and mouth became diphthongized, first to [əɪ] and [əʊ] (where they remain today in some environments in some accents such as Canadian English) and later to their modern values [aɪ] and [aʊ]. This is not unique to English, as this also happened in Dutch (first shift only) and German (both shifts).
The other long vowels became higher:
- [eː] became [iː] (for example meet),
- [aː] became [eː] (later diphthongized to [eɪ], for example name),
- [oː] became [uː] (for example goose), and
- [ɔː] become [oː] (later diphthongized to [oʊ], for example bone).
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 row.
- Phonological history of the English language
- Phonological history of English vowels
- Phonological history of English consonants
- Received Pronunciation
- General American
- Accent reduction
- Australian English phonology
- Rhotic and non-rhotic accents
- Pronunciation of English th
- English spelling
- Category:Splits and mergers in English phonology
- English pronunciation of Greek letters
- Ladefoged, Peter (1999). "American English." In Handbook of the International Phonetic Association, 41–44, Cambridge: Cambridge University Press. ISBN 0-521-63751-1.
- Roach, Peter (2000). English Phonetics and Phonology. Cambridge: CUP.
- The sounds of English and the International Phonetic Alphabet (www.antimoon.com). Includes mp3 audio samples of all the English phonemes.
- The Chaos by Gerard Nolst Trenité. A classic English poem containing about 800 of the worst irregularities in English spelling and pronunciation.
- British and American English pronunciation courses