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Concourse 2

The essentials of pronunciation

pronunciation

This guide will, necessarily, use some phonemic transcription (as in the picture above).  At all times, there will be an effort to explain what is meant so you do not need to be familiar with the phonemic script.
However, if you are serious about teaching, you will need to learn how to transcribe pronunciation so you should take the short course in transcribing, on this site.


5

The 5 areas in this guide

This guide concerns the 4 basic areas you need to cover to be able to help learners with their pronunciation:

  1. The sounds of English: phonemes, allophones and minimal pairs
  2. Consonants
  3. Vowels and weak forms
  4. Stress and intonation
  5. Connected speech

2

The sounds of English: phonemes, allophones and minimal pairs

The first this to be aware of is that we are talking about English sounds.  The study of language sounds (phonemic analysis) is language specific.

Phonemes:
In English the sounds /p/ and /b/ are phonemes because changing one to the other affects the meaning of a word (bat or pat).  This is called the Minimal Pair Test:
If you change a single sound in a word and make a new word, the sound you have changed is a phoneme in that language.
In other languages, Arabic, for example, these two sounds are not phonemes and changing one to the other will not change the meaning of a word (but it might sound odd).
Allophones:
Allophones are slightly different pronunciations of certain phonemes which do not affect the meaning of what is said (although it may sound odd).  We saw above that /p/ and /b/ are allophones in Arabic as are, incidentally, /f/ and /v/ in some varieties.
All languages have a number of allophones.  For example, in English the sound /t/ can be pronounced with and without a following /h/ sound.  Compare the sounds in track and tack.  In English, these sounds are not phonemes because you can change /t/ to /th/ without changing the meaning of a word.  In some languages, Mandarin, for example, /t/ and /th/ are separate phonemes and swapping them around will change the meaning of what you say.  The same applies to /k/ vs. /kh/ (ski vs. cat) and /p/ vs. /ph/ (spin vs. pot).
The /l/ sound in English also has two allophones, the light [l] as in lap and the dark version (which has the symbol [ɫ]) and occurs at the end of words like moveable.  The word lull has one of each, the light 'l' at the beginning and the dark 'l' at the end.
Minimal pairs:
Pairs of words which are distinguished only by a change in one phoneme are called minimal pairs.  For example, hit-hat, kick-sick, fit-bit, sheep-ship, jerk-dirk, hot-cot, love-live etc. are all distinguished in meaning by a single change to a vowel or a consonant.  That's in English, of course.  It bears repeating that what is an allophone in English may be a phoneme in other languages and vice versa.
Minimal pairs can also be distinguished by where the stress falls.  For example:
If you stress the word export on the first syllable, you are referring to the noun.  Stress the second syllable and you refer to the verb.
Stress the word convict on the first syllable and you refer to a resident of a prison.  Stress the second syllable and you refer to act of finding someone guilty of an offence.

The next two sections look at the two major categories of phonemes in English: consonants and vowels.


consonants

Consonants

Consonants are sometimes described as the 'hard' sounds of the language.  They carry the most meaning because you cn ndrstnd nglsh wrds wth cnsnts only, can't you?  It is important that learners can pronounce consonants correctly.

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/.

key

A key difference: voiced and voiceless consonants

Some consonants are pronounced without using your voice (i.e., vibrating your vocal chords).  To hear the difference, say zoo and sue and put your hand on your throat.
The sound of 'z' you make by vibrating your vocal chords: you can feel it.
The sound of 's' is made without your voice: you feel no vibration.

In English, 21 letters of the alphabet represent consonants: B, C, D, F, G, H, J, K, L, M, N, P, Q, R, S, T, V, X, Z, and usually W and Y.
However, English spelling is not a good guide to English pronunciation so we need to know a little more.
There are, in fact, 24 basic consonant sounds:

/p/ as in peach /b/ as in  bang /t/ as in  top
/d/ do /k/ cough /ɡ/ good
/tʃ/ chair /dʒ/ jumper /f/ food
/v/ value /θ/ path /ð/ the
/s/ sack /z/ zoo /ʃ/ sugar
/ʒ/ leisure /h/ happy /m/ man
/n/ nice /ŋ/ ring /l/ love
/r/ roll /j/ yacht /w/ war

Notice that the symbol /j/ is not the sound in jug but the sound at the beginning of yes.
Only 7 of the 24 sounds need a special symbol to represent them.  These 7 special symbols are:

Symbol Example How to say it Note on spelling
ʃ ship Put your tongue near the top of your mouth and blow air lightly over it using no voice. This sound is usually spelled 'sh' but sometimes spelled with 's' or 'ss' as in sugar and passion.
ʒ usually Put your tongue near the top of your mouth and blow air lightly over it using your voice. This sound is usually spelled with 's': pleasure, treasure, precision, leisure, measure etc. 
θ bath Put your tongue tip between your teeth, blow a little air and remove your tongue using no voice. This sound is spelled 'th': thank, think, third, breath, cloth, mathematics, thunder etc.
ð that Put your tongue tip between your teeth, blow a little air and remove your tongue using your voice. This sound is spelled 'th': then, brother, bother, breathe, lather, clothes etc. 
ŋ thing This is pronounced like the 'n' in thin but you block the air and redirect it through your nose (that's why it's called a nasal consonant). This is almost always spelled 'ng': sing, flinging, twang, clang etc.
chips Put your tongue tip on the bony ridge behind your top teeth, build a little air behind and release using no voice. This is variably spelled 'ch', 'tch' or 't': suggestion, question, kitchen, reach, such, adventure, fortune etc.
judge Put your tongue tip on the bony ridge behind your top teeth, build a little air behind and release using your voice. This is variably spelled 'j', 'g' or 'dg': joy, German, budge, January, cage, pyjamas, sludge etc.

pair

Voiced and unvoiced pairs

We saw above that it matters quite a lot to the sound of a consonant whether you use your voice when making them or whether they are voiceless.  Here are the pairs of voiced and unvoiced consonants with examples:


Unvoiced Voiced Examples 
/p/ /b/ I caught a pike and took it home on my bike 
/tʃ/ /dʒ/ It was cheap so I bought the jeep 
/f/ /v/ He has a cooling fan in his van
/s/ /z/ On the bus I heard a fly buzz
/k/ /ɡ/ The cot was what we got
/t/ /d/ He patted the cat and it padded away
/θ/ /ð/ He became breathless and breathed hard
/ʃ/ /ʒ/ You need to take the location into the equation

For much more about consonants, go to the guide in the in-service section of the site.


vowels

Vowels

As we saw above, when you produce a sound by completely or partially blocking the air flow through the vocal tract, you produce a consonant.  When you don't restrict the airflow at all, you produce a vowel.
All vowels are, therefore, voiced in the sense that the sounds made by your vocal cords are affected by the shape of the channel through which the air flows.

With vowels, there is more of a problem because English has only 6 letters to represent them but there are 21 vowel sounds!
The 6 letters are: A, E, I, O, U and Y (in many cases).
Here are the 21 sounds with the symbols we use.  You can immediately see the lack of spelling-sound correspondence in English.

/iː/ sleep
sheep
free
/æ/ sat
hat
flab
/ɪə/ here
beer
mere
/ɪ/ kid
slid
blip
/ʌ/ blood
cup
shut
/ʊə/ sure
pour
poor
/ʊ/ put
foot
suit
/ɑː/ part
large
heart
/ɔɪ/ boy
deploy
toy
/uː/ goose
loose
Bruce
/ɒ/ hot
cot
shod
/eə/ lair
share
prayer
/e/ Fred
dead
said
/i/ happy
navvy
sally
/eɪ/ lace
day
betray
/ə/ about
father
a
cross
  /aɪ/ price
wine
shine
/ɜː/ verse
hearse
curse
/əʊ/ boat
coat
note
/ɔː/ fought
caught
brought
/aʊ/ south
house
louse


sorts

Types of vowels

This is a complicated area and what follows is only an outline.

common

the commonest vowel in English

The commonest vowel in English does not have a letter to represent it but it does have a symbol: the schwa /ə/.
It is a mid vowel, pronounced right in the middle of your mouth and is very short.

It is almost impossible to say anything without using it.  The vowel is the one that begins the word about and ends the word sister.  We do not pronounce the beginning of about as an 'a' sound (as in hat) and we do not pronounce the 'e' in sister the same way it is pronounced in beg.  In some dialects of English, we do not pronounce the 'r' at the end of sister (as in run).  So the phrase about my sister is transcribed with a schwa at each end: /ə.ˈbaʊt maɪ ˈsɪ.stə/.
The schwa occurs everywhere.  Here are some examples with the schwa sound underlined:

vowel a schwa in transcribed
a asleep /ə.'sliːp/
e different /'dɪ.frənt/
i definite /'de.fɪ.nət/
o prosody /'prɒ.sə.di/
u tedium /'tiː.dɪəm/
ou tedious /'tiː.dɪəs/
io nation /'neɪʃ.ən/

pencils

short vowels and long vowels

If you look at the symbols above, you'll see that the symbol for the 'ee' in sheep is /iː/ but the symbol for the 'y' at the end of happy is /i/.
When you try to say the words, you will hear that the sound at the end of happy is much shorter than the sound in the middle of sheep but you make both sounds in the same way.
The small ':' sign after the symbol shows that the vowel is long.

Look, too, at the symbol for the vowel in kid, slip and blip (/ɪ/) and compare it to the sound of the vowel in free (/iː/).  Which one would come in sit and which one comes in seat Click here when you have an answer.

pure

pure vowels and diphthongs

Some vowels in English are 'pure' and some are formed by moving from one vowel to another.

In the first and second columns of the vowel table above, the sounds are single vowels (monophthongs).  There are 13 of these.
In the third column, we have the 8 diphthongs usually recognised.
If you pronounce the sound of a diphthong really slowly and clearly, you can usually hear the two separate sounds in a diphthong.
For example, the sound in /ʊ/ is the simple vowel sound in foot but the vowel /ʊə/ in pour is formed by starting with the /ʊ/sound (as in loot) and then moving to the /ə/ sound: it sounds like oo - er.
Another example is the pronunciation of prayer: begin with the /e/ sound as in dead and move to a schwa (/ə/) to make the diphthong: it sounds like eh - er.

semi

semi vowels

We saw above that the letter Y is sometimes considered a vowel and sometimes a consonant.  It is, in fact, a semi-vowel.

  • Sometimes it acts as a consonant: the sound it represents at the beginning of the word yesterday is a consonant (transcribed as /j/) and at the end it forms part of the vowel sound.
  • The sound it represents in bicycle is a vowel (transcribed as /ɪ/).

So, the clause yesterday I rode a bicycle is transcribed as: /ˈjest.əd.i ˈaɪ rəʊd ə ˈbaɪ.sɪk.l̩/.

The sounds represented by the letter W have a similar characteristic.
In the word was it is a consonant (/w/) but in the word lower, it is a diphthong vowel (/əʊ/.

If you would like to learn a lot more about vowels go to the guide in the in-service section.


stress

Stress and intonation

When we stress a sound or a word in English, we do three things:

  1. We make it louder
  2. We make it longer
  3. We usually raise its pitch or note

There are two types of stress to consider here.

Sentence stress
This refers to stressing a word (or part of one) in a sentence.
Usually, in English, we stress the new information in a sentence and that often comes at the end of what we say.  For example:
    He came to the party with his brother and sister.
    I went to work by
bicycle.
Sometimes we stress a word or part of one because we want to make a special contrast.
Try it with these examples:
    Did you go to Cambridge?
    No.  I went to
Oxford.
    Was it expensive?
    No, it was really
cheap.
    Peter was late.
    No.
Paul was late.
Word stress
This refers to which part of a word we stress.
There are no absolute rules in English and the area causes lots of problems.
Most common 2-syllable nouns in English take the stress on the first syllable so we have, for example (looking around the office):
    printer
    keyboard
    glasses
    pencil
    bookshelf
    drawer
etc.
Many common 2-syllable verbs are stressed on the second syllable:
    impose
    agree
    complain
    decide
    destroy
    invent
etc.
Longer words pose more of a problem and the rules are complicated.

With word stress in particular, it is important in the classroom to mark the stress when you introduce a new word.  Like this:
highlight

If you want to learn more about stress in English refer to the in-service guide to word stress.

Intonation refers, among other things, to the way the pitch and volume of the voice falls and rises across a sentence.
Intonation is another quite technical area so this, too, will be brief.
There are two guides on this site where you can go for more detail:

  1. The guide to key concepts in intonation and then ...
  2. ... the guide to intonation.

Here's a very short guide:

1 neutral arrow Flat: neutral tone showing little emotion; it may sound rude or uninterested
2 falling arrow Falling tone: showing a positive response
3 rising arrow Rising tone: indicating slight surprise or a query: Why do you ask? 
4 sharp rising arrow Sharply rising tone: indicating astonishment that someone should ask
5 rise fall arrow Rising tone followed by falling tone: indicating doubt: I may come
6 fall rise arrow Falling tone followed by rising tone: indicating something like: Carry on.  I'm interested to know why you ask.

You can try it for yourself by putting all six intonation patterns on the responses here:

  1. Are you coming to the party?
    1. I can do (flat and neutral showing boredom)
    2. Yes, of course (falling tone, showing positive response)
    3. Of course! It was my idea! (sharply rising tone)
    4. I don't know. I might be back from France in time (rising followed by falling to show doubt)
    5. Well, it's an idea, I guess (falling followed by rising to show curiosity)

connected

Connected speech

So far, we have mostly been talking about single sounds or single words.
The last part of this refers to what happens when words meet in sentences.
Again, this is quite a technical area so the following will be quite brief.

weak

weak forms

Do you remember the schwa (/ə/)?
This sound occurs in many words when they are in a connected stream but not when they stand alone.
For example, the word for (which alone sounds just like the word four) usually contains a schwa when it occurs in speech and is a very short /fə/ sound.  The word four does not do that.
Try saying
I bought four for you
and you will hear what's meant.
This is called the weak form of the vowel.  Here are some other examples:

  • The word been is often pronounced as bin in rapid speech.
  • The word and is often pronounced 'n' in rapid speech as in fish 'n' chips.
  • The word of is usually pronounced /əv/ in rapid speech.  The /v/ sound can also be dropped as in a cuppa coffee.
  • The words too, two and to are differently pronounced in rapid speech:
    two and too are pronounced in their full form as /tuː/ but to is often weakened to /tə/.  Try saying: Two friends went to London and I did too.

There's a list of common weak forms on this site.

join

where words meet

At the borders between words a number of things can happen:

  • sounds can change.  For example:
  • if you say when possible quickly, the 'n' at the end of when can sound like a 'm' because your lips are already moving to make the sound of 'p'.
  • sounds can move.  For example:
  • when you say an apple quickly, it can sound like a napple.
  • sounds can disappear.  For example:
    • when you say a clothes line quickly, it usually sounds like a close line.
  • sounds can appear.  For example:
  • when you say law and order quickly, it sounds like there is a 'r' sound before the word and.

For more in this area, go to the in-service guide to connected speech.


guide

Other guides

There are links above to guides to tell you more about the issues on this page but here they are in one place.

consonants in the in-service section so slightly more technical
vowels
word stress
connected speech
intonation
intonation (key ideas) in the initial-plus section so slightly easier
teaching pronunciation
phonology terminology whatever your background
learn to transcribe

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


Take a short test of some key ideas.