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Concourse 2

Phonology terminology

eee aaah sh
'eee' /iː/ aah /ɑː/ sh /ʃ/

Many people have established and maintained honourable academic careers in the study of pronunciation.  This short guide does not attempt to cover the area in any great detail.  If you would like to see some of the terminology and symbols used in practice, see the section on pronunciation of verb forms on this site.

The in-service training pronunciation index has links to particular aspects of phonology: vowels, consonants, connected speech phenomena, intonation and more.

Some essential terminology

Phonetics
is the study of all speech sounds and is applicable to all languages.  It is concerned with how humans produce sounds, how they are transmitted physically and how they are perceived and decoded.
Phonology
is to do with the sounds of a specific language rather than all human speech and it is this which concerns us here.
The phoneme
is the basic sound unit of a language.  We combine phonemes into morphemes (meaning units) and into words.  The phoneme is written with its symbol between two slash marks: /t/ = the 't' sound in later.
Consonants
when you produce a sound by completely or partially blocking the air flow through the vocal tract, you produce a consonant.  For example, if you block and then release air through pressing your lips together, you will produce the sound /p/.  If you block the back of your mouth by raising your tongue, you will produce /k/.
The in-service training section of this site has a guide to consonants here.
Vowels
if you produce a sound without blocking the air flow you will make a vowel such as the 'a' in cat (/kæt/).  The quality of the sound is affected by where your tongue is vertically and horizontally in the mouth and whether your lips are rounded or not.
The in-service training section of this site has a guide to vowels here.
Semi vowels
are sounds which are produced like vowels but actually don't function like them.  An example is the /j/ sound at the beginning of the word yet.  The y letter represents a consonant in this case but at the end of the word fly, it is a vowel and transcribed as /flaɪ/.  The letter w also has this characteristic: at the beginning of was it is close to being a consonant (called a glide, in the trade) but in the centre of cower it is a vowel sound so the transcription of was cowering is /wəz ˈkaʊər.ɪŋ/.
Minimal pairs
are words which differ in meaning because of a change to a single phoneme.  In fact, this is part of the definition of a phoneme.
For example, the words, cat and hat are only distinguished by the first phoneme; /k/ in the first case, /h/ in the second.  In English, these are minimal pairs so the sounds are phonemes.  Some languages do not recognise the distinction between /h/ and /k/ in this way so in those languages the words are not minimal pairs and the sounds are not phonemes.
For example, /p/ and /b/ can readily be seen to be phonemes in English by applying the minimal pairs test.  We know that bat and pat are different words with different meanings so the sounds are phonemes.  In some languages (e.g., Arabic) changing /b/ to /p/ will have no effect on the meaning of a word so in those languages the sounds are not phonemes.
To see how minimal pairs may be exploited in the classroom, see the guide to teaching troublesome sounds.  You will need to be able to read phonemic transcription to get the most from that guide.
Allophone
if you say kid and skid aloud you will have produced two different allophones.  In the first, there is a slight aspirant or /h/ sound following the /k/; in the second it is absent.  These sounds are different but they are not phonemes.  If you add the aspirant to the sound in skid you will not make a different word although it will sound odd.  In some languages, the two sounds are phonemes and people will understand a different meaning if the /k/ is aspirated or not.  These allophones are written either like this: /k/ or like this: /kʰ/.
Voicing
describes how phonemes may be different depending on whether the vocal cords vibrate or not at the time of pronunciation.  For example, the /k/ sound is made without voicing but the /ɡ/ sound is made with the mouth parts in the same place but with voice added.  If you put your hand on your throat and say the words sue and zoo, you will see what is meant and feel a slight vibration on the second word (/s/ is unvoiced but /z/ is voiced).
Intonation
is the way in which the speaker's pitch (or tone) rises and falls to signal, e.g., a question, surprise, disappointment etc.
Stress
is the term used to describe the emphasis speakers give to certain syllables in a word or certain words in a sentence.  For example:
Word stress: when the stress falls on the first syllable in export the word is a noun (export), when it falls on the second, it's a verb (export).
(There is an exercise on word stress for teachers and advanced learners on this site.  Click here to go there.)
Sentence stress in English usually falls on the new information being provided and that, for English, generally comes towards the end of the utterance.  So for example in the exchange:
    A: What did you do yesterday?
    B: I went to see my mother.
the first speaker will normally stress yesterday and the second speaker will normally stress my mother because that is the key information in both cases.
We can, of course, stress other elements in order to emphasise their importance.  This is called special stress.  For example, try reading these sentences aloud, stressing the word in bold:
    a) I went to London with my brother (i.e., not another person)
    b) I went to London with my brother (i.e., not to another place)
    c) I went to London with my brother (i.e., it was not someone else who went with my brother)
    d) I went to London with my brother (i.e., not someone else's brother)
Stress and syllable timing
The following is the theory.
There are, it is claimed, two fundamental forms of stressing.
In some languages, such as French, Italian, Spanish, Cantonese and Mandarin, every syllable is perceived as taking up the same amount of time.  This is the so-called 'machine gun' sound of these languages.  So we get:
I ... went ... to ... Lon ... don ... with ... my ... bro ... ther

That's syllable timing.
In other languages, notably English, Dutch, Farsi and Scandinavian languages, some syllables take longer to utter than others and this results in a reduction of the syllables in between.  So we get
Iwentto ... L o n d'n ... withmy ... b r o the(r)
That's stress timing.
For this reason, the preposition to is not pronounced in its full form as /tuː/ (rhyming with 'two' and 'too') but with a weak form of the vowel /tə/.  The funny, upside-down 'e' is called a schwa and is the commonest weak form in English.  Additionally, my is often reduced to m' and so on and in most varieties of British English the final /r/ sound on brother is not pronounced.
Be aware that even if this distinction exists, it is not an either-or one.  Languages will vary along a cline from syllable- to stress-timing tendencies.
(There is, in fact, a third form of timing: Mora timing.  In Japanese, e.g., a vowel (V) takes the same time to utter as a consonant (C) plus a vowel so V takes the same time as CV and CVV takes twice as long as CV.)
Weak forms
Because English is a stress-timed language (allegedly), many vowels are reduced in rapid, connected speech so, e.g., for is pronounced /fə/ (not /fɔː/), been is heard as /bɪn/ (not /biːn/, we is heard as /wɪ/ and so on.
For a list of the commonest weak forms in English, click here.

There is, of course, a matching exercise for all this.

The phonemes of English

Here's the list of the phonemes in English (the list would be different for other languages).
phonemes

If you would like to hear these sounds, the ideal place to go has been kindly provided by the British Council.