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Linguapress English Grammar

The sounds of English

A simple introduction to English phonetics

[ə 'sɪmpl ɪntrə'dʌkʃn tu 'ɪŋglɪʃ fə'netɪks]

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Standard English phonetics
This page looks at the sounds of  "standard" British English, also known as the King's English, RP or Oxford English. There are many other varieties of spoken English which may be accents or dialects, and are pronounced with variations of some sounds.

Sometimes it's hard to know how to pronounce a new word. In English, as in many other languages, spelling does not always tell us how a word is spoken, so we have words like though, through, thought and tough (a particularly challenging set of words to master!) whose spelling is similar, but whose pronunciation is very different. Phonetics is a way of writing words to show how they are pronounced, and the principle is simple: one sound = one phonetic symbol.

1. Phonetics - the sounds of words 

    One of the problems with learning to speak English is that some letters, for example "c" are pronounced differently in different words. We say "cat", but we say "cell", the same letter "c" in writing, but two different sounds, [k] in cat, and  [s] in  cell.  So to represent sounds as they are spoken, we can write not in normal words, but using a "phonetic alphabet", which has more than the normal 26 letters of the written English alphabet.  When we write words using a phonetic alphabet, we put them between square brackets [....].  
     Phonetic alphabets use one symbol for each sound. Most of these symbols, such as [b], [s] and [m] are easy to understand; a few others, such as [ θ ] as in "thick" or [ ʊə ] as in "sure" need to be learned.... but this is not very difficult.
    There are a few different phonetic alphabets, but the most frequently used set of phonetic letters is the "IPA".... which in this case means the International Phonetic Alphabet.

1.1.  Consonants

Consonants are sounds that are not usually used on their own. We can't say "b"... well we could say "b" but it has no meaning, just like the sounds "k" or "n".  The good thing about consonants is that they tend to be the same from one type of English to another, and even fairly similar from one language to another. English has consonants that some other languages do not have, such as ð ] or [ ŋ ] ... but generally speaking even consonants like [ ð ] are the same in different accents of English - though in some accents people may say [ d ] instead of [ ð ]
    There are three basic groups of consonants, 1. plosives or occlusives, 2. fricatives or sybillants and affricatives, 3. liquids, semivowels and nasals.  We will not concern ourselves here with the subcategories of these groups.

Group 1 - Plosives
    Plosive and fricative consonants can be either unvoiced (voiceless) as in [t], or voiced, as in [d]. We do not use our vocal cords to produce unvoiced or voiceless consonants. Standard English has six plosive consonants:
Voiceless examples Voiced examples
p put = [pʊt]  skip = [skɪp] b big [bɪg]  grab [græb] 
t tent = [tent]  tiny = [tainɪ] d duck  [dʌk]  would [wʊd]
 k cat  [kæt]   pick  [pɪk] g go [goʊ]  flag  [flæg]
As these examples show, the phonetic transcription of a word can contain more or less letters than normal writing of the word. It depends on the word, and how it is pronounced. At the start of a word, plosives are pronounced in full, at the end of a word or group of words they may be weaker. Listen to the difference in pronunciation between the two "p"s in this sentence. "Put it in the cup". The final p is hardly audible. If we pronounced it in full, the sentence would sound like "Put it in the cuppa".

Group 2 - Fricatives and affricatives
There are eleven consonants in this group.
Voiceless examples Voiced examples
h hit = [hɪt]  inhale [ɪn'heil]  
f fit = [fɪt]  stuff = [stʌf] v van [væn]  live [liv] 
θ thick = ɪk] path = [pa:θ] ð then  [ðen]  with [wɪð]
 s sat  [sæt]   Miss  [mɪs] z goes [goʊz]  flags  [flægz]
 ʃ shall  [ʃæl]   wish  [wɪʃ] ʒ beige [beiʒ]  
 tʃ chip  [tʃɪp]   which  [wɪtʃ] jog [dʒɒg]  badge  [bæ]

Fricative sounds occur when air through the mouth is restricted by lips teeth or tongue.  The affricative consonants  [tʃ] and [dʒ] combine a plosive and a fricative sound.

Group 3 - Liquids, semivowels and nasals
The liquid consonants are [l] and [r], the semivowels are [w] and [ j ] , which are generally found at the start of words or before vowels; the nasal consonants are [n] [m] and [ ŋ ].
l lit = [lɪt]  will = [wɪl]
r red = [red] sorry = [sorɪ]
 w what  [wɒt]  
 j you  [ju:]   refuse  [rɪ'fju:z]
 n net  [net]   can  [kæn]
 m met  [met]   come  [kʌm]
 ŋ sing [sɪŋ]   singing ['sɪŋɪŋ]   finger ['fɪŋgə]

1.2.  Vowels

Standard English speakers use two kinds of vowel, simple vowels and diphthongs.  Simple vowels consist of a single vowel sound, and can be short, as in "cat" [kaet]  or long as in "cart" [kɑ:t].  Diphhongs are a combination of two vowel sounds, as in "wait" [weit]  or "side" [said]. They are not two distinct vowels, but a slide from one vowel to another: [said], not [sa-id]

Group 4 - Simple vowels (monophthongs)
Different dictionaries and textbooks use slightly different phonetic symbols for some vowels, in particular for long vowels. Sometimes long vowels are designated with a colon (:) after the symbol. Using the colon makes it easier for learners to quickly see if a vowel is short or long.
Short examples Long examples
æ cat  [kæt] ɑ  or ɑ: cart [kɑt] or  [kɑ:t]
e bed  [bed]
ɪ ship [ʃɪp] i  or  i: sheep [ʃi:p]
ɒ shot  [ʃɒt] ɔ  or  ɔ: short  [ʃɔ:t ]
ʊ pull [pʊl], push [pʊʃ] u  or u: pool [pu:l], few [fju:]
ʌ duck  [dʌk], mother ['mʌðə] 
ə away  [ə'wei], brother ['brʌðə]  ɜ  or  ə: bird [bə:d] or [bɜd] first [fə:st] 

The last short  vowel in this list, which we call the "schwa"  [ə], is the most common vowel in English, and is used in a large number of unstressed words and syllables, as in the example above, away  [ə'wei], where the first syllable is unstressed. It is the vowel most often used for words such as the articles "a" [ə] and "the" [ðə] (we only pronounce these words as  [ei] and  [ði:] in specific cases).

Group 5 - Diphthongs in standard English.
In most cases, diphthongs are used in stressed syllables
ai light = [lait]  while = [wail]
ei made = [meid] display = [dis'plei]
ɔɪ boy  [bɔɪ]   join  [dʒɔɪn]
əʊ note [nəʊt]   go  [gəʊ]
shout  [ʃaʊt]   confound  [kən'faʊnd]
ɪə dear [dɪə]   period ['pɪərɪəd]
fair [feə]   compare [kəm'peə]
ʊə poor [pʊə]   pure [pjʊə]  

2 More examples.  

Note four final points:
Normal writing
phonetic transcription
He lives in a big house in London  hi: lɪvz ɪn ə bɪg haus ɪn 'lʌndən
Where's my computer gone ? weəz mai kəm'pjutə gɒn
I asked you to put it in the shed, not in the shade! ai ɑ:skt ju: tə pʊt it ɪn ðə ʃed nɒt ɪn ðə ʃeid (or  ai ɑ:st ju:..... )
You should eat a good breakfast before you go to school! ju: ʃʊd i:t ə gʊd 'brekfəst bɪfɔ: jʊ gəʊ tə sku:l
The chairman will introduce the invited speakers at the start of the conference ðə 'tʃeərmən  wəl  ɪntrə'dju:s ði: ɪn'vaitɪd 'spi:kəs ət ðə stɑ:t əv ðə 'kɒnfrəns
You're joking ? jɔ:  'əʊkɪŋ     OR  jʊə  'əʊkɪŋ  
There are fewer and fewer visitors each year, aren't there? ðeər ə fjʊər ən fjʊə  'vɪzɪtəz i:tʃ yə: ɑ:nt ðeə
I think I've broken my thumb !   ai θɪŋk aiv brəʊkn mai θʌm

For more on the sound of spoken English, go to word stress in English  on

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L'accentuation des mots en anglais
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Selected main grammar pages
Verbs: the present tense
Verbs : the future
Past tenses
Phrasal & prepositional verbs
Gerunds, participles and -ing forms
The infinitive
Irregular verb tables
Nouns, pronouns, adjectives
Noun phrases
Adjective order in English
The possessive
Sentences & clauses
Relative clauses in English
Conditional clauses in English
Word order in English
Reported questions in English
Language and style 
Word stress in English
The short story of English
More resources
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Crosswords and word games

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