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Concourse 2

Unit 1: Pronunciation

loud

There are 5 sections to this unit:

Here's the menu.
Clicking on the yellow arrow at the end of each section will return you to this menu.

Section Looking at:
A What is a phoneme?
How we decide which are the most important sounds and a little about how we write them.
B Consonants
The first major class of sounds, how they are made and what they do.
C Vowels
The second major class of sounds, how they are made and what they do.
D Connected speech
What happens to sounds when we speak at a normal speed.
E Intonation
How the tone of our voices varies and what it means.


Section A: What is a phoneme?


2

The sounds of English: phonemes, allophones and minimal pairs

In what follows, you will see that certain letters appear between two diagonal lines, like this: /b/.  The diagonal lines are the conventional way to show that we are talking about the sound, not the letter itself.
For example, the first letters of cinema and cave are the same, a 'c', but the sound they represent is different.  In cinema, it is an /s/ and in cave it is a /k/ sound.

A phoneme is, essentially, a sound but the critical point is that it is a sound which carries meaning.

The first thing 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, we make a difference between the words pat and bat simply by changing the 'p' to a 'b' sound.  This is because the sounds /p/ and /b/ in English are phonemes.  Selecting one sound or another will make a difference to the meaning of the noise you make when you say a word.
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, most varieties of 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 most varieties of 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.
If you hold a thin piece of paper in front of your mouth and say tack loudly, the paper will move.
If you do the same with the word track, the paper won't (or shouldn't) move (unless you shout).
In English, these two ways to say the letter 't' are not phonemes because you can change from one to the other without changing the meaning of the word.
In some languages, Mandarin, for example, the two ways to say 't' are separate phonemes and swapping them around will change the meaning of what you say.
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 one sound.  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.
There is a list on this site of commonly used minimal pairs for classroom practice.  Click here to get it.

england

British English phonemes

We are talking about one standard variety of English only here.  Other standards, US, Caribbean, Australian etc., will have slightly different sets of phonemes.  That is how accents are often recognised.

There are two fundamental sorts of phonemes in any language.

Consonants
are made by blocking or partially blocking the air flow.
Vowels
are made by expelling air through your mouth with the tongue in various positions.
  1. voiced sounds sound stronger because you also vibrate the cords in your throat when you make them.
    They are the sounds at the beginnings of these words:
        butter, book, bill
        dim, dunce, dance
        give, gap, go
        judge, jump, John
        vale, van, victory
        that, though, thus
        zoom, zombie, zillion
        gendarme, genre, j'accuse
  2. unvoiced sounds sound weaker and do not involve the addition of vibration of the vocal cords.  They are the sounds at the beginning of these words:
        push, pill, pent
        tip, tap, top
        kit, cake, cut
        chart, chop, chip
        find, funny, farce
        theory, thigh, thump
        sassy, save, sort
        shop, ship, sheep
  3. other consonant sounds do not form part of the pairs of voiced and unvoiced sounds and occur at the beginning of these words:
        hat, hopper, hoop
        my, money, monster
        knee, know, nice
        love, legal, lorry
        roll, roof, Roger
        yell, yard, yonder
        wish, was, why

    and one other consonant sound in English only occurs at the end of words or syllables as in:
        ring, thing, sling
  1. pure vowels consist of only one sound.  They occur in these words:
        eat, eek, easy
        into, is, if
        look, took, shook
        choose, views, news
        bed, said, shed
       
    ago, the, a
        terse, verse, hearse
        bought, sought, law
        mat, cat, hat
        pub, cub, shove
        heart, chart, laugh
        notch, knot, what

    and at the end of:
        savvy, shabby, tacky
  2. diphthongs are combinations of two vowels and occur in these words:
        cheer, near, queer
        euro, curate, pure (this sound is variably pronounced by British English speakers)
        toy, hoy, cloy
        chair, lair, mayor
        face, pace, chase
        lice, wine, fine
        note, vote, soak
        rout, snout, bout

If you read the lists above out loud, you have pronounced all the phonemes in English at least three times each.

Purely for your reference, here is a list of the representation of all the phonemes in English with a few notes.  Sooner or later, you will have to learn to use the symbols.
phonemese
If you want this chart as a PDF document, click here.


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pronunciation
How to transcribe the sounds of English



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Section B: Consonants


sh

The consonant sounds of English

Ssshhh!  

Now that you know what a phoneme actually is, we can look at the first main category: consonants.  Consonants are the hard sounds of English.  If we only have the consonants in a phrase we can still understand the phrase because the consonant sounds carry the most meaning.
For example, try to understand this:

r y cmng t th prty?

If we put the other letters back, we get: Are you coming to the party?
Because the consonant sounds are those which carry the most meaning, txt msgs r snt that way.

When you produce a sound by completely or partially blocking the air flow, you produce a consonant.  For example, if you block and then release air through pressing your lips together, you will produce the sound /p/.  Leave your lips open and you simply make an 'ee' sound, if you make any sound at all.

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 and there are, in fact, 24 consonant sounds.  If you take the course in transcribing sounds on this site (new tab), you will discover what they all are.  For now, we need to look at two ways to pronounce consonants.

Letters and sounds are not the same thing.  For example, in the word letting in English there are only three consonant sounds (l, tt and ng) although there are five consonant letters (l, t, t, n and g).
The sounds made by those consonants are transcribed as /l/, /t/ and /ŋ/ so the whole word is transcribed (i.e., written down) as /ˈlet.ɪŋ/.


throat

Voiced and unvoiced consonants

Put your hand on your throat and say this:

SSSSSSSSSSSSSSZZZZZZZZZZZZZZZZZZZSSSSSSSSSSSSSSSSSSSSZZZZZZZZZZZZZZZZ

What did you feel?  Try again and then click eye openhere when you have an answer. 

The difference is the sound represented by Z is voiced and the sound represented by S is unvoiced.  Now try saying this and think about where your tongue is in your mouth.

sue zoo sue zoo sue zoo sue zoo sue zoo sue zoo sue zoo sue zoo sue zoo sue

Click eye open when you have done that.

There are some pairs of voiced and unvoiced consonants in English in this list.  Can you identify which ones are voiced and which ones are unvoiced?  Try the hand-on-throat trick.
Click on the table when you have your answer.

voiced or unvoiced

In English, whether a sound is voiced or unvoiced is very important because, as you can see, the act of adding voice to a consonant makes it change its significance.  Voicing and not voicing are phonemic differences in English but not so in many other languages.

Here is a list of all the consonant sounds in English with examples and their transcriptions:

/p/ peach
open
supper
/b/ bang
cupboard
cab
/t/ top
pat
hotter
/d/ do
added
made
/k/ cough
cake
pack
/ɡ/ good
beg
lagged
/tʃ/ chair
patch
attach
/dʒ/ jumper
hedge
badger
/f/ food
phase
defer
/v/ value
cover
love
/θ/ path
th
ink
cloth
/ð/ the
thin
brother
/s/ sack
hiss
cider
/z/ zoo
closed
passes
/ʃ/ sugar
passion
notion
/ʒ/ leisure
rouge
genre
/h/ happy
behave
hope
/m/ man
come
demand
/n/ nice
money
can
/ŋ/ ring
singing
bang
/l/ love
lull
pillar
/r/ roll
hurry
barred
/j/ yacht
yank
yard
/w/ war
will
way

As you can see, for the consonant sounds in English, most of the sounds are written using the normal letters of the alphabet.  There are, however, a few symbols which are used to describe some sounds.  They are:

  1. /ʃ/ which is the symbol for the first sound in she and often represented in writing by the letters sh.  This sound combines with /t/ to make the harder sound represented by ch at the beginning of chair and that has the symbol /tʃ/ to represent it.
  2. /ʒ/ is the symbol for the sound at the beginning of genre and gendarme (both borrowed from French).  In English words it most frequently occurs in the middle of words such as leisure, measure, pleasure etc.  This sound combines with /d/ to make the sound we have twice in the word judge and that has the symbol /dʒ/ to represent it.
  3. /θ/ and /ð/ are usually represented in English by the letters th but the distinction is that the first is unvoiced, as in thank and the second is voiced, as in this.
  4. /ŋ/ is the sound we hear at the end of sing and it is usually represented by the letters ng.  It never occurs in English at the beginning of words but it can occur at the end of a syllable in the middle of a word like singer.
  5. The last sound looks like a letter in English /j/ but is not pronounced as at the beginning of January.  It is often represented by the y at the beginning of yet, yacht, yes etc.
  6. Lastly, you should be aware that the sound of the letter g at the beginning of go or at the end of dog is represented as /ɡ/ not /g/.

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How to transcribe the sounds of English



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Section C: Vowels


soft

The 'soft' sounds of English

Now that you know what a phoneme is and have discovered something about consonants, we can look at the second main category: vowels.  Vowels are the soft sounds of English.  If we only have the vowels in a phrase we cannot usually understand it because the vowels alone carry little meaning.
For example, try to understand this:

ae ou oi o e ay

If we put the consonants back, we get the more familiar:
    Are you coming to the party?

Vowels can, however, form minimal pairs as in, for example:
   hare and here
   hot
and hat
   put
and putt
and so on so they are not without meaning in themselves.

When you produce a sound by completely or partially blocking the air flow, you produce a consonant.  If you allow the air to flow freely, you produce a vowel.
For example, if you partially block the air flow between your tongue and teeth and say the word zoo you can hear that there is a voiced consonant sound at the beginning (z).
Now take away the 'z' sound and you are left with the vowel 'oo'.

Traditionally, there are 5 vowel letters in English: A, E, I, O, U but we can add Y and W to the list sometimes.  Unfortunately, there are 21 vowel sounds.  We need, therefore, to have a number of symbols to represent the sounds and if you do the course in transcription on this site (new tab), you will discover them all.  Here, we will focus only on what vowels are and how we make them.

We saw above that the air flow is not restricted when making vowel sounds.  The nature of the vowel depends on four factors:

  1. Tongue height (whether the tongue lies on the floor of the mouth, is near the roof or half-way up)
  2. Tongue position (whether the tongue is at the back, in the middle or at the front of the mouth)
  3. Lip rounding (whether the lips are rounded or not)
  4. Vowel length (how long the sound is)

Tongue height and position are quite technical areas and there is a guide on this site which explains them.  Here, we will focus on lip rounding and length because they are the most important and easiest to teach.


rounding

Lip rounding

If you are pleasantly surprised and say
    Oooh, that's nice!
you will have rounded your lips nicely.  If, you are unpleasantly surprised and say
    Eeek!
you will have pulled your lips horizontally.  That's the effect of lip rounding vs. lip stretching.
Get a mirror, look in it and try saying Oooh!  Eeek! a few times and you will see what's meant.
The sounds you have made are transcribed as /uː/ and /iː/.


length

Vowel length

Try saying these two words:
    bid
    bead

What difference do you notice with the vowel sound?
Click eye open when you have an answer.

In English, whether a sound is made with rounded lips or not and whether it is short or long makes a real difference to the meaning that is expressed.
The sounds you made when you said the two words are transcribed as /ɪ/ and /iː/ and you can see that the second of these has the symbol 'ː' following it.  It is called a length mark and also appeared in the transcription of the vowels in Oooh and Eeek that we had above.


2

Two kinds of vowels

Apart from issues of length, lip rounding and tongue position, we need to consider two other vowel characteristics.  (In what follows, the transcription is provided but ignore it if you want to.)

  1. Pure vowels.  There are 13 of these:
    1. The long sound in the centre of, e.g., cheese, sheep, leak, cheat etc.  This is the sound you made above when you said Eeek!  It is transcribed as /iː/.
    2. The short sound that you made when you said bid which also occurs in trip, lip, kid, slid etc.  It is transcribed as /ɪ/.
    3. The short, lip rounded sound that occurs in put, foot, loot, shoot etc.  It is transcribed as /ʊ/.
    4. The longer, lip rounded sound that occurs in noose, loose, shrew, clue etc.  It is transcribed as /uː/.
    5. The short sound that occurs in dead, said, Med, led etc.  It is transcribed as /e/.
    6. The very short sound that occurs in about, alive, father, shovel etc.  It is transcribed as /ə/.  If you learn to transcribe nothing else, learn this one.  The vowel is the commonest in English (although there is no letter to represent it) and many words, when said quickly, use the sound.  For example,
          He was at the cinema
      contains 5 of these sounds (underlined).  This sound is called the schwa.
    7. The long sound that you say with rounded lips in hearse, verse, nurse, search etc.  It is transcribed as /ɜː/.
    8. The long sound that you say with rounded lips in caught, bought, sought, war, tore etc.  It is transcribed as /ɔː/.
    9. The short sound in chat, fat, mat, lap etc.  This is transcribed as /æ/.
    10. The short sound in blood, nub, cud, shut etc.  This is transcribed as /ʌ/.
    11. The long sound in part, heart, dance, chant etc.  This is transcribed as /ɑː/.
    12. The short sound you say with rounded lips in hot, shot, lot, what etc.  This is transcribed as /ɒ/.
    13. The short sound that comes at the end of words such as happy, plenty, carry, marry etc.  This is transcribed as /i/.  It is formed similarly to the long sound in bead, seed, she'd etc. but it is shorter.
  2. Diphthongs.  There are 8 of these.  The sounds are all combinations of pure vowels and if you do more in this area, you will learn how to transcribe them.  Here, an example will do.
    The sound you make in the middle of the word day is a combination of two of the pure vowels above:
    1. the short /e/ sound in Fred, bed, head etc., plus
    2. the short /ɪ/ sound in bin, sin, din etc.
      Put them together and you get the sound in day, say, lay, betray, decay, may etc. which is transcribed as /eɪ/.
      Say the words very slowly and you will hear the sound start with one vowel and glide into the other.
Here's a table with all the vowel sounds in English.  It's for your reference, not something you need to learn at this stage.
/iː/ sleep
sheep
free
/æ/ sat
hat
flab
/ɪə/ here
beer
mere
/ɪ/ kid
slid
blip
/ʌ/ blood
cup
shut
*/ʊə/ during
furious
pure
/ʊ/ put
foot
wolf
/ɑː/ part
large
heart
/ɔɪ/ boy
depl
oy
toy
/uː/ goose
loose
Bruce
/ɒ/ hot
cot
shod
/eə/ lair
share
fair
/e/ Fred
dead
said
†/i/ happy
navvy
sall
y
/eɪ/ lace
day
tray
‡/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

* This diphthong in the example words is not pronounced by all speakers.  For example, sure may be pronounced with the diphthong as /ʃʊə/ or with a monophthong as /ʃɔː/.  The sound is produced more frequently in longer words such as individual.
† /i/ may be transcribed as /iː/ in some analyses.
‡ this is the most common sound in English but there is no letter to represent it.  It is called a schwa and is represented as /ə/.

If you would like a chart of all the English phonemes, vowels and consonants, click here.


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vowels
How to transcribe the sounds of English



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Section D: Connected speech


change

How sounds change when we speak

This is a complicated area and what follows is not at all complete.  There are links at the end for guides with more detail.

So far, we have mostly been talking about single sounds or single words but when any language is spoken at a normal speed (rather than, for example, reading out single words carefully), then the sounds often change.
If learners don't recognise the changes, they may find it difficult to understand what they hear and if they can't produce the changes, they will often sound unnatural and stiff.

small

Contracted forms

English is unusual, but not unique, in having a wide range of contracted forms so, for example:
    She would have been to the cinema
is, in speech and informal writing, rendered as
    She'd've'been to the cinema
Less extremely, I am is contracted to I'm, we have to we've and so on.
Here's a list of the common contracted forms in English.

Full form Contracted Full form Contracted Full form Contracted Full form Contracted
I am I'm I have I've I had / would I'd let us let's
you are you're you have you've you had / would you'd not n't
he is he's he has he's he had / would he'd will / shall 'll
she is she's she has she's she had / would she'd do d'
it is it's it has it's it had / would it'd does 's
we are we're we have we've we had / would we'd about 'bout
they are they're they have they've they had / would they'd of the o'

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.
It is transcribed as /ˈaɪ.ˈbɔːt.fɔː.fə.ju/ and you can refer to the chart above to see how that happens.
This is called the weak form of the vowel.  Here are some other examples:

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:

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


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These links take you away from the course and connect to guides elsewhere on the site.
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The first link is to a guide in the in-service section so is quite technical.

connected speech
How to transcribe the sounds of English



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Section E: Intonation


pitch

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.

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 six 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! (rising tone indicating slight surprise)
    4. Of course! It was my idea! (sharply rising tone indicating great surprise)
    5. I don't know. I might be back from France in time (rising followed by falling to show doubt)
    6. Well, it's an idea, I guess (falling followed by rising to show curiosity)

We need to be a little cautious here because the connection between intonation and the feelings of a speaker are not always so predictable.  What we have said above is, therefore, a rule of thumb, not a rule.


learn

Learn more

These links take you away from the course and connect to guides elsewhere on the site.
They open in new tabs and are not essential (for now).
The first link is to a guide in the in-service section so is quite technical.

intonation
How to transcribe the sounds of English



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Take a test

To make sure you have understood so far, try a test of your knowledge of intonation.
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