The English alphabet has 26 letters, made up of consonants and vowels. There are five vowels (a,e,i,,o,u) and the rest are all consonants. In English, pronunciation of words centres upon syllables: a syllable is a unit of pronunciation which has one vowel sound, with or without surrounding consonants, forming the whole or a part of a word. For example, there are two syllables in wa/ter and three in in/fer/no.
The sounds of spoken language are known as phonemes. Thus, /water/ has two syllables but four phonemes: w/a/t/er; /inferno/ has three syllables but seven phonemes: i/n/f/e/r/n/o. Do not be fooled into thinking that the each letter has a corresponding phoneme, as in these two examples. A word like /tough/ has two syllables: t/ough and two phonemes: t/ough.
In English, the written equivalent of sounds or phonemes are known as graphemes, and the English alphabet made up of the 26 letters is called the orthographic alphabet. In a language such as English, not all words have a phoneme/grapheme match. For example, the words bough, through and trough all end –ough but each is pronounced differently. English is thus classified as a semi-phonetic language: that is, sometimes graphemes correspond to phonemes, and sometimes they do not. The reason for this is historical, going back to the 17th century and the ways in which written English was standardised. In order to study the sounds of English, linguists devised an alphabet which contains symbols to capture all possible sounds in English, called the International Phonetic Alphabet.
The International Phonetic Alphabet (IPA) is an alphabet of phonetic notation designed to capture all the different ways words in English can be pronounced, based on the Latin alphabet. It was designed by the International Phonetic Association (1999) as a standardised system for representing sounds of oral language. The IPA font most widely used is Doulos Sil, downloadable at:http://scripts.sil.org/cms/scripts/page.php?site_id=nrsi&id=doulossil_download
The IPA is particularly useful when it comes to describing individual sounds of spoken English. This is because in English there can be more way of pronouncing the same graphemes. For example, in English, there are two main ways of producing the <a> sound: bath or grass with a long or short <a>. People from the south of England tend to pronounce the long <a> and people from the North the short <a>. In the West Midlands region of the UK, people tend to say Birmingum instead of Birmingham, missing out the <h> and over articulating or over pronouncing the <g>.
The standard form of spoken English or the reference accent for English is known as Received Pronunciation (RP), and it is this accent of English upon which IPA is based. RP is also called variously: BBC English, the Queen’s English or ‘Correct English’ and is the spoken form to which many learners of English as an additional language aspire. However, the idea of RP is wide ranging and encompassing, and the IPA tries to capture how people actually speak. The English language, as a living language, is also subject to change, including the ways in which words are pronounced. The BBC English we have today is very different from that of fifty years ago when presenters were required to take elocution lessons in RP. Today, the BBC has presenters from a wide range of backgrounds and no longer requires them to take elocution lessons. Similarly, the speech of the British Royal Family is different with each generation, so that the accent of the younger generation of the Royal Family is very different from that of older ones. Even so, IPA acts as a useful reference against which variation, including variation in RP, can be identified.
The tables below illustrates the equivalence of each grapheme (or letter) in the orthographic alphabet to a phoneme in IPA. Table 1 gives consonant grapheme-phoneme correspondence, and Table 2, vowel grapheme-phoneme correspondence.
sun, mouse, city, science
judge, giant, barge
cook, quick, mix, Chris
zebra, please, is
nut, knife, gnat
ship, mission, chef
look, would, put
cart, fast (regional)
burn, first, term, heard, work
torn, door, warn, haul, law, call
wooden, circus, sister
pain, day, gate, station
sweet, heat, thief, these
tried, light, my, shine, mind
stairs, bear, hare
road, blow, bone, cold
fear, beer, here
moon, blue, grew, tune
It is useful to consider the pronunciation of vowel sounds in English through the idea of Standard Lexical Sets, introduced by the linguist John C. Wells in 1982. Wells defined one lexical set on the basis of the pronunciation of words in the reference accent Received Pronunciation (RP) for the English spoken in England. English has five vowels in its alphabet: a, e, i ,o u. However, there are many more ways of pronouncing the vowels than the five sounds given by a,e,i,o,u. /a/ can be pronounced as a ‘short’ sound as in the word <bad>, or pronunciations common in the North of England, such as <grass> and <bath>. It can also represent a ‘long’ sound, as in the word <laugh>, or <bath>, and <grass>. The sound represented by /o/ can also be spelt in different ways, such as in the word <off> or in <cough>.
Wells classified vowel sounds of the English language into 24 lexical sets based on the pronunciation of the vowel within the first stressed syllable of a word. Each lexical set is named after a representative keyword, as shown below. Click on each key word and the example words to hear them spoken: