Phonological analysis of English often concentrates on or uses, as a reference point, one or more of the prestige or standard accents, such as Received Pronunciation for England, General American for the United States, and General Australian for Australia. Nevertheless, many other dialects of English are spoken, which have developed independently from these standardized accents, particularly regional dialects. Information about these standardized accents functions only as a limited guide to all of English phonology, which one can later expand upon once one becomes more familiar with some of the many other dialects of English that are spoken.
A phoneme of a language or dialect is an abstraction of a speech sound or of a group of different sounds which are all perceived to have the same function by speakers of that particular language or dialect. For example, the English word through consists of three phonemes: the initial "th" sound, the "r" sound, and a vowel sound. The phonemes in this and many other English words do not always correspond directly to the letters used to spell them (English orthography is not as strongly phonemic as that of many other languages).
The number and distribution of phonemes in English vary from dialect to dialect, and also depend on the interpretation of the individual researcher. The number of consonant phonemes is generally put at 24 (or slightly more). The number of vowels is subject to greater variation; in the system presented on this page there are 20 vowel phonemes in Received Pronunciation, 14–16 in General American and 20–21 in Australian English. The pronunciation keys used in dictionaries generally contain a slightly greater number of symbols than this, to take account of certain sounds used in foreign words and certain noticeable distinctions that may not be—strictly speaking—phonemic.
The following table shows the 24 consonant phonemes found in most dialects of English, in addition to /x/, whose distribution is more limited. Fortis consonants are always voiceless, aspirated in syllable onset (except in clusters beginning with /s/), and sometimes also glottalized to an extent in syllable coda (most likely to occur with /t/, see T-glottalization), while lenis consonants are always unaspirated and un-glottalized, and generally partially or fully voiced. The alveolars are usually apical, i.e. pronounced with the tip of the tongue touching or approaching the roof of the mouth, though some speakers produce them laminally, i.e. with the blade of the tongue.
Most varieties of English have syllabic consonants in some words, principally [l̩, m̩, n̩], for example at the end of bottle, rhythm and button. In such cases, no phonetic vowel is pronounced between the last two consonants, and the last consonant forms a syllable on its own. Syllabic consonants are generally transcribed with a vertical line under the consonant letter, so that phonetic transcription of bottle would be [ˈbɒtl̩], [ˈbɑɾl̩], or [ˈbɔɾl̩] in RP, GA, and Australian respectively, and for button[ˈbʌʔn̩]. In theory, such consonants could be analyzed as individual phonemes. However, this would add several extra consonant phonemes to the inventory for English, and phonologists prefer to identify syllabic nasals and liquids phonemically as /əC/. Thus button is phonemically /ˈbʌtən/ or /ˈbɐtən/ and bottle is phonemically /ˈbɒtəl/, /ˈbɑtəl/, or /ˈbɔtəl/.
The voiceless velar fricative/x/ is mainly used in Hiberno-, Scottish, South African and Welsh English; words with /x/ in Scottish accents tend to be pronounced with /k/ in other dialects. The velar fricative sometimes appears in recent loanwords such as chutzpah. Under the influence of Welsh and Afrikaans, the actual phonetic realization of /x/ in Welsh English and White South African English is uvular [χ], rather than velar [x]. Dialects do not necessarily agree on the exact words in which /x/ appears; for instance, in Welsh English it appears in loanwords from Welsh (such as Amlwch/ˈæmlʊx/), whereas in White South African English it appears only in loanwords from Afrikaans or Xhosa (such as gogga/ˈxɒxə/ 'insect').
In some conservative accents in Scotland, Ireland, the southern United States, and New England, the digraph ⟨wh⟩ in words like which and whine represents a voiceless w sound [ʍ], a voiceless labiovelar fricative or approximant, which contrasts with the voiced w of witch and wine. In most dialects, this sound is lost, and is pronounced as a voiced w (the wine–whine merger). Phonemically this sound is analysed as a consonant cluster /hw/, rather than as a separate phoneme */ʍ/. Thus which and whine are transcribed phonemically as /hwɪtʃ/ and /hwaɪn/. This does not mean that such speakers actually pronounce [h] followed by [w]: the phonemic transcription /hw/ is simply a convenient way of representing a single sound [ʍ] without analysing such dialects as having an extra phoneme.
Similarly, the sound at the beginning of huge in most accents[verification needed] is a voiceless palatal fricative[ç], but this is analysed phonemically as the consonant cluster /hj/ so that huge is transcribed /hjuːdʒ/. As with /hw/, this does not mean that speakers pronounce [h] followed by [j]; the phonemic transcription /hj/ is simply a convenient way of representing the single sound [ç]. The yod-dropping found in Norfolk dialect means that the traditional Norfolk pronunciation of huge is [hʊudʒ] and not [çuːdʒ].
Received Pronunciation has two main allophones of /l/: the clear or plain [l], and the dark or velarized[ɫ]. The clear variant is used before vowels when they are in the same syllable, and the dark variant when the /l/ precedes a consonant or is in syllable-final position before silence.
In South Wales, Ireland, and the Caribbean, /l/ is often always clear, and in North Wales, Scotland, Australia, and New Zealand it is always dark.
In General American and Canada, /l/ is generally dark, but to varying degrees: before stressed vowels it is neutral or only slightly velarized. In southern U.S. accents it is noticeably clear between vowels, and in some other positions.
In urban accents of Southern England, as well as New Zealand and some parts of the United States, /l/ can be pronounced as an approximant or semivowel ([w], [o], [ʊ]) at the end of a syllable (l-vocalization).
Depending on dialect, /r/ has at least the following allophones in varieties of English around the world:
postalveolar approximant[ɹ̠] (the most common realization of the /r/ phoneme, occurring in most dialects, RP and General American included)
In most dialects /r/ is labialized[ɹ̠ʷ] in many positions, as in reed[ɹ̠ʷiːd] and tree[tɹ̠̊ʷiː]; in the latter case, the /t/ may be slightly labialized as well.
In some rhotic accents, such as General American, /r/ when not followed by a vowel is realized as an r-coloring of the preceding vowel or its coda: nurse[ˈnɚs], butter[ˈbʌtɚ].
The distinctions between the nasals are neutralized in some environments. For example, before a final /p/, /t/ or /k/ there is nearly always only one nasal sound that can appear in each case: [m], [n] or [ŋ] respectively (as in the words limp, lint, link – note that the n of link is pronounced [ŋ]). This effect can even occur across syllable or word boundaries, particularly in stressed syllables: synchrony is pronounced [ˈsɪŋkɹəni] whereas synchronic may be pronounced either as [sɪŋˈkɹɒnɪk] or as [sɪnˈkɹɒnɪk]. For other possible syllable-final combinations, see § Coda in the Phonotactics section below.
In most dialects, the fortis stops and affricate /p, t, tʃ, k/ have various different allophones, and are distinguished from the lenis stops and affricate /b, d, dʒ, ɡ/ by several phonetic features.
The allophones of the fortes /p, t, tʃ, k/ include:
aspirated[pʰ, tʰ, kʰ] when they occur at the beginning of a word, as in tomato, trip, or at the beginning of a stressed syllable in the middle of a word, as in potato. They are unaspirated [p, t, k] after /s/ within the same syllable, as in stan, span, scan, and at the ends of syllables, as in mat, map, mac. The voiceless fricatives are always unaspirated, but a notable exception to this are English-speaking areas of Wales, where they are often aspirated.
In many accents of English, fortis stops /p, t, k, tʃ/ are glottalized in some positions. This may be heard either as a glottal stop preceding the oral closure ("pre-glottalization" or "glottal reinforcement") or as a substitution of the glottal stop [ʔ] for the oral stop (glottal replacement). /tʃ/ can only be pre-glottalized. Pre-glottalization normally occurs in British and American English when the fortis consonant phoneme is followed by another consonant or when the consonant is in final position. Thus football and catching are often pronounced [ˈfʊʔtbɔːl] and [ˈkæʔtʃɪŋ], respectively. Glottal replacement often happens in cases such as those just given, so that football is frequently pronounced [ˈfʊʔbɔːl]. In addition, however, glottal replacement is increasingly common in British English when /t/ occurs between vowels if the preceding vowel is stressed; thus getting better is often pronounced by younger speakers as [ˈɡeʔɪŋ ˌbeʔə]. Such t-glottalization also occurs in many British regional accents, including Cockney, where it can also occur at the end of words, and where /p/ and /k/ are sometimes treated the same way.
Among stops, both fortes and lenes:
May have no audible release[p̚, b̚, t̚, d̚, k̚, ɡ̚] in the word-final position. These allophones are more common in North America than Great Britain.
Always have a 'masked release' before another plosive or affricate (as in rubbed[ˈrʌˑb̚d̥]), i.e. the release of the first stop is made after the closure of the second stop. This also applies when the following stop is homorganic (articulated in the same place), as in top player. A notable exception to this is Welsh English, where stops are usually released in this environment.
The affricates /tʃ, dʒ/ have a mandatory fricative release in all environments.
Very often in the United States and Canada, and less frequently in Australia and New Zealand, both /t/ and /d/ can be pronounced as a voiced flap[ɾ] in certain positions: when they come between a preceding stressed vowel (possibly with intervening /r/) and precede an unstressed vowel or syllabic/l/. Examples include water, bottle, petal, peddle (the last two words sound alike when flapped). The flap may even appear at word boundaries, as in put it on. When the combination /nt/ appears in such positions, some American speakers pronounce it as a nasalized flap that may become indistinguishable from /n/, so winter[ˈwɪɾ̃ɚ] may be pronounced similarly or identically to winner[ˈwɪnɚ].
Yod-coalescence is a process that palatalizes the clusters/dj/, /tj/, /sj/ and /zj/ into [dʒ], [tʃ], [ʃ] and [ʒ] respectively, frequently occurring with clusters that would be considered to span a syllable boundary.
In certain varieties—such as Australian English, South African English, and New Zealand English—/sj/ and /zj/ in stressed syllables can coalesce into [ʃ] and [ʒ], respectively. In Australian English for example, assume is pronounced [əˈʃʉːm] by some speakers. Furthermore, some British, Canadian, American, New Zealand and Australian speakers may change the /s/ sound to /ʃ/ before /tr/, so that a word having a cluster of "str" like in strewed would be pronounced [ʃtʃruːd]. According to author Wayne P. Lawrence, "this phonemic change seems to be neither dialectal nor regional."
English has a particularly large number of vowel phonemes, and on top of that the vowels of English differ considerably between dialects. Because of this, corresponding vowels may be transcribed with various symbols depending on the dialect under consideration. When considering English as a whole, lexical sets are often used, each named by a word containing the vowel or vowels in question. For example, the LOT set consists of words which, like lot, have /ɒ/ in Received Pronunciation and /ɑ/ in General American. The "LOT vowel" then refers to the vowel that appears in those words in whichever dialect is being considered, or (at a greater level of abstraction) to a diaphoneme, which represents this interdialectal correspondence. A commonly used system of lexical sets, devised by John C. Wells, is presented below; for each set, the corresponding phonemes are given for RP and General American, using the notation that will be used on this page.
The following tables show the vowel phonemes of three standard varieties of English. The notation system used here for Received Pronunciation (RP) is fairly standard; the others less so. The feature descriptions given here (front, close, etc.) are abstracted somewhat; the actual pronunciations of these vowels are somewhat more accurately conveyed by the IPA symbols used (see Vowel for a chart indicating the meanings of these symbols; though note also the points listed below the following tables).
Although the notation /ʌ/ is used for the vowel of STRUT in RP, the actual pronunciation is closer to a near-open central unrounded vowel[ɐ]. The symbol ⟨ʌ⟩ continues to be used for reasons of tradition (it was historically a back vowel) and because it is still back in other varieties.
General American lacks a truly contrastive NURSE vowel, so pairs like forward vs. foreword (distinguished in RP as /ˈfɔːwəd/ and /ˈfɔːwɜːd/, respectively) are most typically homophonous as [ˈfɔɹwɚd]. Also, [ʌ] (stressed) and [ə] (unstressed) may be considered allophones of a single phoneme in General American.
Although the notation /eɪ oʊ/ are used for the vowels of FACE and GOAT respectively in General American, they are analysed as phonemic monophthongs and frequently transcribed as /e o/ in the literature.
Many North American speakers do not distinguish /ɔ/ from /ɑ/ and merge them into /ɑ/, except before /r/ (see cot–caught merger).
The differences between these tables can be explained as follows:
RP transcriptions use /e/ rather than /ɛ/ largely for convenience and historical tradition; it does not necessarily represent a different sound from the General American phoneme, although the RP vowel may be described as somewhat less open than the American one.
The different notations used for the vowel of GOAT in RP and General American (/əʊ/ and /oʊ/) reflect a difference in the most common phonetic realizations of that vowel.
The triphthongs given in the RP table are usually regarded as sequences of two phonemes (a diphthong plus /ə/); however, in RP, these sequences frequently undergo smoothing into single diphthongs or even monophthongs.
The different notations used here for some of the Australian vowels reflect the phonetic realization of those vowels in Australian: a central [ʉː] rather than [uː] in GOOSE, a more closed [e] rather than [ɛ] in DRESS, an open-mid [ɔ] rather than traditional RP's [ɒ] in LOT and CLOTH, a close-mid [oː] rather than mid [ɔː] in THOUGHT, NORTH and FORCE (here the difference lies almost only in transcription rather than pronunciation), an opener [ɐ] rather than somewhat closer [ʌ] in STRUT, a fronted [ɐː] rather than [ɑː] in CALM and START, and somewhat different pronunciations of most of the diphthongs. Note that central [ʉː] in GOOSE and open-mid [ɔ] in LOT are possible realizations in modern RP; in the case of the latter vowel, it is even more common than the traditional open [ɒ].
The Australian monophthong /eː/ corresponds to the RP diphthong /eə/ (SQUARE).
Australian has the bad–lad split, with distinctive short and long variants in various words of the TRAP set: a long phoneme /æː/ in words like bad contrasts with a short /æ/ in words like lad. (A similar split is found in the accents of some speakers in southern England.)
The vowel /ʊə/ is often omitted from descriptions of Australian, as for most speakers it has split into the long monophthong /oː/ (e.g. poor, sure) or the sequence /ʉːə/ (e.g. cure, lure).
Other points to be noted are these:
The vowel /æ/ is coming to be pronounced more open (approaching [a]) by many modern RP speakers. In American speech, however, there is a tendency for it to become more closed, tenser and even diphthongized (to something like [eə]), particularly in certain environments, such as before a nasal consonant. Some American accents, for example those of New York City, Philadelphia and Baltimore, make a marginal phonemic distinction between /æ/ and /eə/, although the two occur largely in mutually exclusive environments. See /æ/ raising.
A significant number of words (the BATH group) have /æ/ in General American, but /ɑː/ in RP (and mostly /ɐː/ in Australian).
In General American and Canadian (which are rhotic accents, where /r/ is pronounced in positions where it does not precede a vowel), many of the vowels can be r-colored by way of realization of a following /r/. This is often transcribed phonetically using a vowel symbol with an added retroflexion diacritic[ ˞ ]; thus the symbol [ɚ] has been created for an r-colored schwa (sometimes called schwar) as in LETTER, and the vowel of START can be modified to make [ɑ˞] so that the word start may be transcribed [stɑ˞t]. Alternatively, the START vowel might be written [stɑɚt] to indicate an r-colored offglide. The vowel of NURSE is generally always r-colored in these dialects, and this can be written [ɚ] (or as a syllabic [ɹ̩]).
In modern RP and other dialects, many words from the CURE group are coming to be pronounced by an increasing number of speakers with the NORTH vowel (so sure is often pronounced like shore). Also the RP vowels /ɛə/ and /ʊə/ may be monophthongized to [ɛː] and [oː] respectively.
The vowels of FLEECE and GOOSE are commonly pronounced as narrow diphthongs, approaching [ɪi] and [ʊu], in RP. Near-RP speakers may have particularly marked diphthongization of the type [əi] and [əu ~ əʉ], respectively. In General American, the pronunciation varies between a monophthong and a diphthong.
Allophones of vowels
Listed here are some of the significant cases of allophony of vowels found within standard English dialects.
Vowels are shortened when followed in a syllable by a voiceless (fortis) consonant. This is known as pre-fortis clipping. Thus in the following word pairs the first item has a shortened vowel while the second has a normal length vowel: 'right' /raɪt/ - 'ride' /raɪd/; 'face' /feɪs/ - 'phase' /feɪz/; 'advice' /ədvaɪs/ - 'advise' /ədvaɪz/.
In many accents of English, tense vowels undergo breaking before /l/, resulting in pronunciations like [pʰiəɫ] for peel, [pʰuəɫ] for pool, [pʰeəɫ] for pail, and [pʰoəɫ] for pole.
In RP, the vowel /əʊ/ may be pronounced more back, as [ɒʊ], before syllable-final /l/, as in goal. In Australian English the vowel /əʉ/ is similarly backed to [ɔʊ] before /l/. A similar phenomenon may occur in Southern American English.
The vowel /ə/ is often pronounced [ɐ] in open syllables.
The PRICE and MOUTH diphthongs may be pronounced with a less open starting point when followed by a voiceless consonant; this is chiefly a feature of Canadian speech (Canadian raising), but is also found in parts of the United States. Thus writer may be distinguished from rider even when flapping causes the /t/ and /d/ to be pronounced identically.
Unstressed syllables in English may contain almost any vowel, but in practice vowels in stressed and unstressed syllables tend to use different inventories of phonemes. In particular, long vowels are used less often in unstressed syllables than stressed syllables. Additionally there are certain sounds—characterized by central position and weakness—that are particularly often found as the nuclei of unstressed syllables. These include:
schwa, [ə], as in COMMA and (in non-rhotic dialects) LETTER (
merger); also in many other positions such as about, photograph, paddock, etc. This sound is essentially restricted to unstressed syllables exclusively. In the approach presented here it is identified as a phoneme /ə/, although other analyses do not have a separate phoneme for schwa and regard it as a reduction or neutralization of other vowels in syllables with the lowest degree of stress.
r-colored schwa, [ɚ], as in LETTER in General American and some other rhotic dialects, which can be identified with the underlying sequence /ər/.
syllabic consonants: [l̩] as in bottle, [n̩] as in button, [m̩] as in rhythm. These may be phonemized either as a plain consonant or as a schwa followed by a consonant; for example button may be represented as /ˈbʌtn̩/ or /ˈbʌtən/ (see above under Consonants).
[ɨ̞], as in roses and making. This can be identified with the phoneme /ɪ/, although in unstressed syllables it may be pronounced more centrally, and for some speakers (particularly in Australian and New Zealand and some American English) it is merged with /ə/ in these syllables (weak vowel merger). Among speakers who retain the distinction there are many cases where free variation between /ɪ/ and /ə/ is found, as in the second syllable of typical. (The OED has recently adopted the symbol ⟨ᵻ⟩ to indicate such cases.)
[ʉ̞], as in argument, today, for which similar considerations apply as in the case of [ɨ̞]. (The symbol ⟨ᵿ⟩ is sometimes used in these cases, similarly to ⟨ᵻ⟩.) Some speakers may also have a rounded schwa, [ɵ], used in words like omission[ɵˈmɪʃən].
[i], as in happy, coffee, in many dialects (others have [ɪ] in this position). The phonemic status of this [i] is not easy to establish. Some authors consider it to correspond phonemically with a close front vowel that is neither the vowel of KIT nor that of FLEECE; it occurs chiefly in contexts where the contrast between these vowels is neutralized, implying that it represents an archiphoneme, which may be written /i/. Many speakers, however, do have a contrast in pairs of words like studied and studded or taxis and taxes; the contrast may be [i] vs. [ɪ], [ɪ] vs. [ə] or [i] vs. [ə], hence some authors consider that the happY-vowel should be identified phonemically either with the vowel of KIT or that of FLEECE, depending on speaker. See also happy-tensing.
[u], as in influence, to each. This is the back rounded counterpart to [i] described above; its phonemic status is treated in the same works as cited there.
Vowel reduction in unstressed syllables is a significant feature of English. Syllables of the types listed above often correspond to a syllable containing a different vowel ("full vowel") used in other forms of the same morpheme where that syllable is stressed. For example, the first o in photograph, being stressed, is pronounced with the GOAT vowel, but in photography, where it is unstressed, it is reduced to schwa. Also, certain common words (a, an, of, for, etc.) are pronounced with a schwa when they are unstressed, although they have different vowels when they are in a stressed position (see Weak and strong forms in English).
Some unstressed syllables, however, retain full (unreduced) vowels, i.e. vowels other than those listed above. Examples are the /æ/ in ambition and the /aɪ/ in finite. Some phonologists regard such syllables as not being fully unstressed (they may describe them as having tertiary stress); some dictionaries have marked such syllables as having secondary stress. However linguists such as Ladefoged and Bolinger (1986) regard this as a difference purely of vowel quality and not of stress, and thus argue that vowel reduction itself is phonemic in English. Examples of words where vowel reduction seems to be distinctive for some speakers include chickaree vs. chicory (the latter has the reduced vowel of HAPPY, whereas the former has the FLEECE vowel without reduction), and Pharaoh vs. farrow (both have the GOAT vowel, but in the latter word it may reduce to [ɵ]).