English Phonology II


Phonology (from Ancient Greek: φωνή, phōn, "voice, sound" and λόγος, lógos, "word, speech, subject of discussion") is the systematic use of sound to encode meaning in any spoken human language, or the field of linguistics studying this use. Just as a language has syntax and vocabulary, it also has a phonology in the sense of a sound system. When describing the formal area of study, the term typically describes linguistic analysis either beneath the word (e.g., syllable, onset and rhyme, phoneme, articulatory gestures, articulatory feature, mora, etc.) or to units at all levels of language that are thought to structure sound for conveying linguistic meaning. It is viewed as the subfield of linguistics that deals with the sound systems of languages. Whereas phonetics is about the physical production, acoustic transmission and perception of the sounds of speech, phonology describes the way sounds function within a given language or across languages to encode meaning. The term "phonology" was used in the linguistics of a greater part of the 20th century as a cover term uniting phonemics and phonetics. Current phonology can interface with disciplines such as psycholinguistics and speech perception, resulting in specific areas like articulatory or laboratory phonology.


An important part of traditional forms of phonology has been studying which sounds can be grouped into distinctive units within a language; these units are known as phonemes. For example, in English, the [p] sound in pot is aspirated (pronounced [pʰ]), while the word- and syllable-final [p] in soup is not aspirated (indeed, it might be realized as a glottal stop). However, English speakers intuitively treat both sounds as variations (allophones) of the same phonological category, that is, of the phoneme /p/. Traditionally, it would be argued that if a word-initial aspirated [p] were interchanged with the word-final unaspirated [p] in soup, they would still be perceived by native speakers of English as "the same" /p/. (However, speech perception findings now put this theory in doubt.) Although some sort of "sameness" of these two sounds holds in English, it is not universal and may be absent in other languages. For example, in Thai, Hindi, and Quechua, aspiration and non-aspiration differentiates phonemes: that is, there are word pairs that differ only in this feature (there are minimal pairs differing only in aspiration).
In addition to the minimal units that can serve the purpose of differentiating meaning (the phonemes), phonology studies how sounds alternate, i.e. replace one another in different forms of the same morpheme (allomorphs), as well as, e.g., syllable structure, stress, accent, and intonation.
The principles of phonological theory have also been applied to the analysis of sign languages, even though the sub-lexical units are not instantiated as speech sounds. The principles of phonological analysis can be applied independently of modality because they are designed to serve as general analytical tools, not language-specific ones. On the other hand, it must be noted, it is difficult to analyze phonologically a language one does not speak, and most phonological analysis takes place with recourse to phonetic information.

Representing phonemes

A diagram of the vocal tract
The vowels of modern (Standard) Arabic and (Israeli) Hebrew from the phonemic point of view. Note the intersection of the two circles—the distinction between short a, i and u is made by both speakers, but Arabic lacks the mid articulation of short vowels, while Hebrew lacks the distinction of vowel length.
The writing systems of some languages are based on the phonemic principle of having one letter (or combination of letters) per phoneme and vice-versa. Ideally, speakers can correctly write whatever they can say, and can correctly read anything that is written. However in English, different spellings can be used for the same phoneme (e.g., rude and food have the same vowel sounds), and the same letter (or combination of letters) can represent different phonemes (e.g., the "th" consonant sounds of thin and this are different). In order to avoid this confusion based on orthography, phonologists represent phonemes by writing them between two slashes: " / / ". On the other hand, reference to variations of phonemes or attempts at representing actual speech sounds are usually enclosed by square brackets: " [ ] ". While the letters between slashes may be based on spelling conventions, the letters between square brackets are usually the International Phonetic Alphabet (IPA) or some other phonetic transcription system. Additionally, angled brackets " ⟨ ⟩ " can be used to isolate the graphemes of an alphabetic writing system.

Phoneme inventories

Doing a phoneme inventory

The vowels of modern (Standard) Arabic and (Israeli) Hebrew from the phonetic point of view. Note that the two circles are totally separate—none of the vowel-sounds made by speakers of one language are made by speakers of the other. One modern theory is that Israeli Hebrew's phonology reflects Yiddish elements, not Semitic ones.
Part of the phonological study of a language involves looking at data (phonetic transcriptions of the speech of native speakers) and trying to deduce what the underlying phonemes are and what the sound inventory of the language is. Even though a language may make distinctions between a small number of phonemes, speakers actually produce many more phonetic sounds. Thus, a phoneme in a particular language can be instantiated in many ways.
Traditionally, looking for minimal pairs forms part of the research in studying the phoneme inventory of a language. A minimal pair is a pair of words from the same language, that differ by only a single categorical sound, and that are recognized by speakers as being two different words. When there is a minimal pair, the two sounds are said to be examples of realizations of distinct phonemes. However, since it is often impossible to detect or agree to the existence of all the possible phonemes of a language with this method, other approaches are used as well.

Phonemic distinctions or allophones

If two similar sounds do not belong to separate phonemes, they are called allophones of the same underlying phoneme. For instance, voiceless stops (/p/, /t/, /k/) can be aspirated. In English, voiceless stops at the beginning of a stressed syllable (but not after /s/) are aspirated, whereas after /s/ they are not aspirated. This can be seen by putting the fingers right in front of the lips and noticing the difference in breathiness in saying pin versus spin. There is no English word pin that starts with an unaspirated p, therefore in English, aspirated [pʰ] (the [ʰ] means aspirated) and unaspirated [p] are allophones of the same phoneme /p/. This is an example of a complementary distribution.
The /t/ sounds in the words tub, stub, but, butter, and button are all pronounced differently in American English, yet are all intuited to be of "the same sound", therefore they constitute another example of allophones of the same phoneme in English. However, an intuition such as this could be interpreted as a function of post-lexical recognition of the sounds. That is, all are seen as examples of English /t/ once the word itself has been recognized.
The findings and insights of speech perception and articulation research complicates this idea of interchangeable allophones being perceived as the same phoneme, no matter how attractive it might be for linguists who wish to rely on the intuitions of native speakers. First, interchanged allophones of the same phoneme can result in unrecognizable words. Second, actual speech, even at a word level, is highly co-articulated, so it is problematic to think that one can splice words into simple segments without affecting speech perception. In other words, interchanging allophones is a nice idea for intuitive linguistics, but it turns out that this idea can not transcend what co-articulation actually does to spoken sounds. Yet human speech perception is so robust and versatile (happening under various conditions) because, in part, it can deal with such co-articulation.
There are different methods for determining why allophones should fall categorically under a specified phoneme. Counter-intuitively, the principle of phonetic similarity is not always used. This tends to make the phoneme seem abstracted away from the phonetic realities of speech. It should be remembered that, just because allophones can be grouped under phonemes for the purpose of linguistic analysis, this does not necessarily mean that this is an actual process in the way the human brain processes a language. On the other hand, it could be pointed out that some sort of analytic notion of a language beneath the word level is usual if the language is written alphabetically. So one could also speak of a phonology of reading and writing.

Change of a phoneme inventory over time

The particular sounds which are phonemic in a language can change over time. At one time, [f] and [v] were allophones in English, but these later changed into separate phonemes. This is one of the main factors of historical change of languages as described in historical linguistics.

Other topics in phonology

Phonology also includes topics such as phonotactics (the phonological constraints on what sounds can appear in what positions in a given language) and phonological alternation (how the pronunciation of a sound changes through the application of phonological rules, sometimes in a given order which can be feeding or bleeding,[1] as well as prosody, the study of suprasegmentals and topics such as stress and intonation.

Development of the field

In ancient India, the Sanskrit grammarian ini (c. 520–460 BC) in his text of Sanskrit phonology, the Shiva Sutras, discusses something like the concepts of the phoneme, the morpheme and the root. The Shiva Sutras describe a phonemic notational system in the fourteen initial lines of the Aṣṭādhyāyī. The notational system introduces different clusters of phonemes that serve special roles in the morphology of Sanskrit, and are referred to throughout the text. Panini's grammar of Sanskrit had a significant influence on Ferdinand de Saussure[citation needed], the father of modern structuralism, who was a professor of Sanskrit.
The Polish scholar Jan Baudouin de Courtenay, (together with his former student Mikołaj Kruszewski) coined the word phoneme in 1876, and his work, though often unacknowledged, is considered to be the starting point of modern phonology. He worked not only on the theory of the phoneme but also on phonetic alternations (i.e., what is now called allophony and morphophonology). His influence on Ferdinand de Saussure was also significant.
Prince Nikolai Trubetzkoy's posthumously published work, the Principles of Phonology (1939), is considered the foundation of the Prague School of phonology. Directly influenced by Baudouin de Courtenay, Trubetzkoy is considered the founder of morphophonology, though morphophonology was first recognized by Baudouin de Courtenay. Trubetzkoy split phonology into phonemics and archiphonemics; the former has had more influence than the latter. Another important figure in the Prague School was Roman Jakobson, who was one of the most prominent linguists of the twentieth century.
In 1968 Noam Chomsky and Morris Halle published The Sound Pattern of English (SPE), the basis for Generative Phonology. In this view, phonological representations are sequences of segments made up of distinctive features. These features were an expansion of earlier work by Roman Jakobson, Gunnar Fant, and Morris Halle. The features describe aspects of articulation and perception, are from a universally fixed set, and have the binary values + or −. There are at least two levels of representation: underlying representation and surface phonetic representation. Ordered phonological rules govern how underlying representation is transformed into the actual pronunciation (the so called surface form). An important consequence of the influence SPE had on phonological theory was the downplaying of the syllable and the emphasis on segments. Furthermore, the Generativists folded morphophonology into phonology, which both solved and created problems.
Natural Phonology was a theory based on the publications of its proponent David Stampe in 1969 and (more explicitly) in 1979. In this view, phonology is based on a set of universal phonological processes which interact with one another; which ones are active and which are suppressed are language-specific. Rather than acting on segments, phonological processes act on distinctive features within prosodic groups. Prosodic groups can be as small as a part of a syllable or as large as an entire utterance. Phonological processes are unordered with respect to each other and apply simultaneously (though the output of one process may be the input to another). The second-most prominent Natural Phonologist is Stampe's wife, Patricia Donegan; there are many Natural Phonologists in Europe, though also a few others in the U.S., such as Geoffrey Nathan. The principles of Natural Phonology were extended to morphology by Wolfgang U. Dressler, who founded Natural Morphology.
In 1976 John Goldsmith introduced autosegmental phonology. Phonological phenomena are no longer seen as operating on one linear sequence of segments, called phonemes or feature combinations, but rather as involving some parallel sequences of features which reside on multiple tiers. Autosegmental phonology later evolved into Feature Geometry, which became the standard theory of representation for the theories of the organization of phonology as different as Lexical Phonology and Optimality Theory.
Government Phonology, which originated in the early 1980s as an attempt to unify theoretical notions of syntactic and phonological structures, is based on the notion that all languages necessarily follow a small set of principles and vary according to their selection of certain binary parameters. That is, all languages' phonological structures are essentially the same, but there is restricted variation that accounts for differences in surface realizations. Principles are held to be inviolable, though parameters may sometimes come into conflict. Prominent figures include Jonathan Kaye, Jean Lowenstamm, Jean-Roger Vergnaud, Monik Charette, John Harris, and many others.
In a course at the LSA summer institute in 1991, Alan Prince and Paul Smolensky developed Optimality Theory — an overall architecture for phonology according to which languages choose a pronunciation of a word that best satisfies a list of constraints which is ordered by importance: a lower-ranked constraint can be violated when the violation is necessary in order to obey a higher-ranked constraint. The approach was soon extended to morphology by John McCarthy and Alan Prince, and has become the dominant trend in phonology. Though this usually goes unacknowledged, Optimality Theory was strongly influenced by Natural Phonology; both view phonology in terms of constraints on speakers and their production, though these constraints are formalized in very different ways.
Broadly speaking government phonology (or its descendant, strict-CV phonology) has a greater following in the United Kingdom, whereas optimality theory is predominant in North America.


See IPA chart for English dialects for concise charts of the English phonemes.
The number of speech sounds in English varies from dialect to dialect, and any actual tally depends greatly on the interpretation of the researcher doing the counting. The Longman Pronunciation Dictionary by John C. Wells, for example, using symbols of the International Phonetic Alphabet, denotes 24 consonants and 23 vowels used in Received Pronunciation, plus two additional consonants and four additional vowels used in foreign words only. For General American, it provides for 25 consonants and 19 vowels, with one additional consonant and three additional vowels for foreign words. The American Heritage Dictionary, on the other hand, suggests 25 consonants and 18 vowels (including r-colored vowels) for American English, plus one consonant and five vowels for non-English terms [1].


The following table shows the consonant phonemes found in most dialects of English. When consonants appear in pairs, fortis consonants (i.e., aspirated or voiceless) appear on the left and lenis consonants (i.e., lightly voiced or voiced) appear on the right:
Consonant phonemes of English




p  b

t  d

k  ɡ

tʃ  dʒ

f  v
θ  ð
s  z
ʃ  ʒ


ɹ1, 2, 5

l1, 6

Nasals and liquids may be syllabic in unstressed syllables, though these may be analyzed phonemically as C/.
Postalveolar consonants are usually labialized (e.g., [ʃʷ]), as is word-initial or pre-tonic /r/, though this is rarely transcribed.
The voiceless velar fricative /x/ is dialectal, occurring largely in Scottish English. In other dialects, words with these sounds are pronounced with /k/. It may appear in recently-domiciled words such as chutzpah.
The sequence /hw/, a voiceless labiovelar approximant [hw̥], is sometimes considered an additional phoneme. For most speakers, words that historically used to have these sounds are now pronounced with /w/; the phoneme /hw/ is retained, for example, in much of the American South, Scotland, and Ireland.
Depending on dialect, /r/ may be an alveolar approximant [ɹ], postalveolar approximant, or labiodental approximant.
Many dialects have two allophones of /l/—the "clear" L and the "dark" or velarized L. In some dialects, /l/ may be always clear (e.g. Wales, Ireland, the Caribbean) or always dark (e.g. Scotland, most of North America, the middle-north of England).

run (also /r/, /ɻ/)


Although regional variation is very great across English dialects, some generalizations can be made about pronunciation in all (or at least the vast majority) of English accents:
The voiceless stops /p t k/ are aspirated at the beginnings of words (for example tomato) and at the beginnings of word-internal stressed syllables (for example potato). They are unaspirated after /s/ (stan, span, scan) and at the ends of syllables.
For many people, /r/ is somewhat labialized in some environments, as in reed [ɹʷiːd] and tree [tɹʷiː]. In the latter case, the [t] may be slightly labialized as well.[1]
/h/ becomes [ç] before [j], as in human [ˈçjuːmən].


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, no specific phonemic symbols are chosen over others; instead, lexical sets are used, each named by a word containing the vowel in question. For example, the vowel of the LOT set ("short o") is transcribed /ɒ/ in Received Pronunciation, /ɔ/ in Australian English, and /ɑ/ in General American. For an overview of these diaphonemic correspondences, see IPA chart for English dialects.
Monophthongs of Received Pronunciation[2]







Monophthongs of Australian English






^* The vowel of strut is closer to a Near-open central vowel ([ɐ]) in RP, though ‹ʌ› is still used for tradition (it was historically a back vowel) and because it is still back in other varieties.[3]
The monophthong phonemes of General American differ in a number of ways from Received Pronunciation:
The central vowel of nurse is rhotic [ɝ] (also transcribed as a a syllabic [ɹ̩].
Speakers make a phonemic distinction between rhotic /ɚ/ and non-rhotic /ə/.
No distinction is made between /ɒ/ and /ɑː/, nor for many speakers between these vowels and /ɔː/.
Reduced vowels occur in some unstressed syllables. (Other unstressed syllables may have full vowels, which some dictionaries mark as secondary stress.) The number of distinctions made among reduced vowels varies by dialect. In some dialects vowels are centralized but otherwise kept mostly distinct, while in Australia, New Zealand and many US dialects all reduced vowels collapse to a schwa [ə]. In Received Pronunciation, there is a distinct high reduced vowel, which the OED writes ɪ.
[ɪ]: roses (merged with [ə] in Australian and New Zealand English)
[ə]: Rosa’s, runner
[l̩]: bottle
[n̩]: button
[m̩]: rhythm
English diphthongs









/eː/ ²


Canadian English exhibits allophony of /aʊ/ and /aɪ/ called Canadian raising. This phenomenon is also realized (especially for /aɪ/) by many US speakers, notably in the Northeast, as well as in South Atlantic English and the Fens of eastern England. In some areas, especially the Northeast US, /aɪ/) actually shifts to /ʌɪ/.
In Received Pronunciation, the vowels in lair and lure may be monophthongized to [ɛː] and [oː] respectively.[4] Australian English speakers more readily monophthongize the former but it is listed here anyway.
In rhotic dialects, words like pair, poor, and peer can be analyzed as diphthongs, although other descriptions analyze them as vowels with /r/ in the coda.[5]

Reduced vowels

Linguists such as Ladefoged[6] and Bolinger[7] argue that vowel reduction is phonemic in English, and that there are two "tiers" of vowels in English, full and reduced; traditionally many English dictionaries have attempted to mark the distinction by transcribing unstressed full vowels as having "secondary" stress, though this was later abandoned by the Oxford English Dictionary. Though full unstressed vowels may derive historically from stressed vowels, either because stress shifted over time (such as stress shifting away from the final syllable of French loan words in British English) or because of loss or shift of stress in compound words or phrases (óverseas vóyage from overséas or óverséas plus vóyage), the distinction is not one of stress but of vowel quality (Bolinger 1989:351), and over time, if the word is frequent enough, the vowel will tend to reduce.
English has up to five reduced vowels, though this varies with dialect and speaker. Schwa /ə/ is found in all dialects, and a rhotic schwa ("schwer") /ɚ/ is found in rhotic dialects. Less common is a high reduced vowel ("schwi") /ɪ̈/ (also "/ɪ/"); the two are distinguished by many people in Rosa's /ˈroʊzəz/ vs roses /ˈroʊzɪ̈z/. More unstable is a rounded schwa, /ö/ (also /ɵ/); this contrasts for some speakers in a mission /əˈmɪʃən/, emission /ɪ̈ˈmɪʃən/, and omission /ɵˈmɪʃən/. In words like following, the following vowel is preceded by a [w] even in dialects which do not otherwise have a rounded schwa: [ˈfɒlɵwɪŋ, ˈfɒləwɪŋ]. A high rounded schwa /ʊ̈/ (also "/ʊ/") may be found in words such as into ɪntʊ̈/, though in many dialects this is not be distinguished from /ɵ/.
Though speakers vary, full and reduced unstressed vowels may contrast in pairs of words like Shogun ʃoʊɡʌn/ and slogan /ˈsloʊɡən/, chickaree /ˈtʃɪkəriː/ and chicory /ˈtʃɪkərɪ̈/, Pharaoh /ˈfɛəroʊ/ and farrow /ˈfæroʊ/ (Bolinger 1989:348), Bantu /ˈbæntuː/ and into ɪntʊ̈/ (OED).


A distinction is made between tense and lax vowels in pairs like beet/bit and bait/bet, although the exact phonetic implementation of the distinction varies from accent to accent. However, this distinction collapses before [ŋ].
Wherever /r/ originally followed a tense vowel or diphthong (in Early Modern English) a schwa offglide was inserted, resulting in centering diphthongs like [iə] in beer [biəɹ], [uə] in poor [puəɹ], [aɪə] in fire [faɪəɹ], [aʊə] in sour [saʊəɹ], and so forth. This phenomenon is known as breaking. The subsequent history depends on whether the accent in question is rhotic or not: In non-rhotic accents like RP the postvocalic [ɹ] was dropped, leaving [biə, puə, faɪə, saʊə] and the like (now usually transcribed [bɪə, pʊə] and so forth). In rhotic accents like General American, on the other hand, the ɹ] sequence was coalesced into a single sound, a non-syllabic [ɚ], giving [biɚ, puɚ, faɪɚ, saʊɚ] and the like (now usually transcribed [bɪɹ, pʊɹ, faɪɹ, saʊɹ] and so forth). As a result, originally monosyllabic words like those just mentioned came to rhyme with originally disyllabic words like seer, doer, higher, power.
In many (but not all) accents of English, a similar breaking happens to tense vowels before /l/, resulting in pronunciations like [piəɫ] for peel, [puəɫ] for pool, [peəɫ] for pail, and [poəɫ] for pole.

Transcription variants

The choice of which symbols to use for phonemic transcriptions may reveal theoretical assumptions or claims on the part of the transcriber. English "lax" and "tense" vowels are distinguished by a synergy of features, such as height, length, and contour (monophthong vs. diphthong); different traditions in the linguistic literature emphasize different features. For example, if the primary feature is thought to be vowel height, then the non-reduced vowels of General American English may be represented according to the table to the left and below. If, on the other hand, vowel length is considered to be the deciding factor, the symbols in the table to the below and center may be chosen (this convention has sometimes been used because the publisher did not have IPA fonts available, though that is seldom an issue any longer.) The rightmost table lists the corresponding lexical sets.
General American full vowels,
vowel height distinctive




General American full vowels,
vowel length distinctive



Lexical sets representing
General American full vowels



If vowel transition is taken to be paramount, then the chart may look like one of these:
General American full vowels,
vowel contour distinctive



General American full vowels,
vowel contour distinctive








(The transcriber at left assumes that there is no phonemic distinction between semivowels and approximants, so that /ej/ is equivalent to /eɪ̯/.)
Many linguists combine more than one of these features in their transcriptions, suggesting they consider the phonemic differences to be more complex than a single feature.
General American full vowels,
height & length distinctive





Stress is phonemic in English. For example, the words desert and dessert are distinguished by stress, as are the noun a record and the verb to record. Stressed syllables in English are louder than non-stressed syllables, as well as being longer and having a higher pitch. They also tend to have a fuller realization than unstressed syllables.
Examples of stress in English words, using boldface to represent stressed syllables, are holiday, alone, admiration, confidential, degree, and weaker. Ordinarily, grammatical words (auxiliary verbs, prepositions, pronouns, and the like) do not receive stress, whereas lexical words (nouns, verbs, adjectives, etc.) must have at least one stressed syllable.
English is a stress-timed language. That is, stressed syllables appear at a roughly steady tempo, and non-stressed syllables are shortened to accommodate this.
Traditional approaches describe English as having three degrees of stress: Primary, secondary, and unstressed. However, if stress is defined as relative respiratory force (that is, it involves greater pressure from the lungs than unstressed syllables), as most phoneticians argue, and is inherent in the word rather than the sentence (that is, it is lexical rather than prosodic), then these traditional approaches conflate two distinct processes: Stress on the one hand, and vowel reduction on the other. In this case, primary stress is actually prosodic stress, whereas secondary stress is simple stress in some positions, and an unstressed but not reduced vowel in others. Either way, there is a three-way phonemic distinction: Either three degrees of stress, or else stressed, unstressed, and reduced. The two approaches are sometimes conflated into a four-way 'stress' classification: primary (tonic stress), secondary (lexical stress), tertiary (unstressed full vowel), and quaternary (reduced vowel). See secondary stress for details.
Initial-stress-derived nouns mean that stress changes in many English words came about between noun and verb senses of a word. For example, a rebel ɹɛb.ɫ̩] (stress on the first syllable) is inclined to rebel [ɹɨ.ˈbɛɫ] (stress on the second syllable) against the powers that be. The number of words using this pattern as opposed to only stressing the second syllable in all circumstances doubled every century or so, now including the English words object, convict, and addict.


Prosodic stress is extra stress given to words when they appear in certain positions in an utterance, or when they receive special emphasis. It normally appears on the final stressed syllable in an intonation unit. So, for example, when the word admiration is said in isolation, or at the end of a sentence, the syllable ra is pronounced with greater force than the syllable ad. (This is traditionally transcribed as /ˌædmɨˈreɪʃən/.) This is the origin of the primary stress-secondary stress distinction. However, the difference disappears when the word is not pronounced with this final intonation.
Prosodic stress can shift for various pragmatic functions, such as focus or contrast. For instance, consider the dialogue
"Is it brunch tomorrow?"
"No, it's dinner tomorrow."
In this case, the extra stress shifts from the last stressed syllable of the sentence, tomorrow, to the last stressed syllable of the emphasized word, dinner. Compare
"I'm going tomorrow." /aɪm ˈɡoʊɪŋ təˈˈmɒroʊ/
"It's dinner tomorrow." /ɪts ˈˈdɪnɚ təˈmɒroʊ/
Although grammatical words generally do not have lexical stress, they do acquire prosodic stress when emphasized. Compare ordinary
"Come in"! /ˈˈkʌm ɪn/
with more emphatic
"Oh, do come in!" /oʊ ˈˈduː kʌm ˈɪn/
Wiki letter w.svg
This section requires expansion.


Most languages of the world syllabify CVCV and CVCCV sequences as /CV.CV/ and /CVC.CV/ or /CV.CCV/, with consonants preferentially acting as the onset of a syllable containing the following vowel. According to one view, English is unusual in this regard, in that stressed syllables attract following consonants, so that ˈCVCV and ˈCVCCV syllabify as /ˈCVC.V/ and /ˈCVCC.V/, as long as the consonant cluster CC is a possible syllable coda.[8] In addition, according to this view, /r/ preferentially syllabifies with the preceding vowel even when both syllables are unstressed, so that CVrV occurs as /CVr.V/.[8] However, many scholars do not agree with this view.[8]

Syllable structure

The syllable structure in English is (C)3V(C)5, with a near maximal example being strengths (/ˈstrɛŋkθs/, although it can be pronounced /ˈstrɛŋθs/).[9] Because of an extensive pattern of articulatory overlap, English speakers rarely produce an audible release in consonant clusters.[10] This can lead to cross-articulations that seem very much like deletions or complete assimilations. For example, hundred pounds may sound like [hʌndɹɛb pʰaʊndz] but X-ray[11] and electropalatographic[12][13] studies demonstrate that inaudible and possibly weakened contacts may still be made so that the second /d/ in hundred pounds does not entirely assimilate a labial place of articulation, rather the labial co-occurs with the alveolar one.
When a stressed syllable contains a pure vowel (rather than a diphthong), followed by a single consonant and then another vowel, as in holiday, many native speakers feel that the consonant belongs to the preceding stressed syllable, /ˈhɒl.ɨ.deɪ/. However, when the stressed vowel is a long vowel or diphthong, as in admiration or pekoe, speakers agree that the consonant belongs to the following syllable: /ˈæd.mɨ.ˈreɪ.ʃən/, /ˈpiː.koʊ/. Wells (1990)[8] notes that consonants syllabify with the preceding rather than following vowel when the preceding vowel is the nucleus of a more salient syllable, with stressed syllables being the most salient, reduced syllables the least, and secondary stress / full unstressed vowels intermediate. But there are lexical differences as well, frequently with compound words but not exclusively. For example, in dolphin and selfish, he argues that the stressed syllable ends in /lf/; in shellfish, the /f/ belongs with the following syllable: /ˈdɒlf.ɪn/, /ˈsɛlf.ɪʃ/[ˈdɒlfɨn], [ˈsɛlfɨʃ] vs ʃɛl.fɪʃ/ʃɛlˑfɪʃ], where the /l/ is a little longer and the /ɪ/ not reduced. Similarly, in toe-strap the /t/ is a full plosive, as usual in syllable onset, whereas in toast-rack the /t/ is in many dialects reduced to the unreleased allophone it takes in syllable codas, or even elided: /ˈtoʊ.stræp/, /ˈtoʊst.ræk/[ˈtʰʊstɹæp], [ˈtoʊs(t̚)ɹʷæk]; likewise nitrate /ˈnaɪ.treɪt/[ˈnʌɪtɹ̥ʷeɪt] with a voiceless /r/, vs night-rate /ˈnaɪt.reɪt/[ˈnʌɪt̚ɹʷeɪt] with a voiced /r/. Cues of syllable boundaries include aspiration of syllable onsets and (in the US) flapping of coda /t, d/ (a tease /ə.ˈtiːz/[əˈtʰiːz] vs. at ease /æt.ˈiːz/ɾˈiːz]), epenthetic plosives like [t] in syllable codas (fence /ˈfɛns/[ˈfɛnts] but inside /ɪn.ˈsaɪd/[ɪnˈsaɪd]), and r-colored vowels when the /r/ is in the coda vs. labialization when it is in the onset (key-ring /ˈkiː.rɪŋ/[ˈkʰɹʷɪŋ] but fearing /ˈfiːr.ɪŋ/[ˈfɪəɹɪŋ]).


There is an on-going sound change (yod-dropping) by which /j/ as the final consonant in a cluster is being lost. In RP, words with /sj/ and /lj/ can usually be pronounced with or without this sound, e.g., [suːt] or [sjuːt]. For some speakers of English, including some British speakers, the sound change is more advanced and so, for example, in General American /j/ is also not present after /n/, /l/, /s/, /z/, /θ/, /t/ and /d/. In Welsh English it can occur in more combinations, for example in /tʃj/.
The following can occur as the onset:
All single consonant phonemes except /ŋ/

Plosive plus approximant other than /j/:
/pl/, /bl/, /kl/, /ɡl/,
/pr/, /br/, /tr/,[1] /dr/,[1] /kr/, /
/tw/, /dw/, /
ɡw/, /kw/
play, blood, clean, glove, prize, bring, tree,[1] dream,[1] crowd, green, twin, dwarf, language, quick
Voiceless fricative plus approximant other than /j/:
/fl/, /sl/,
/fr/, /θr/, /
/sw/, /θw/, /hw/
floor, sleep, friend, three, shrimp, swing, thwart, which
Consonant plus /j/:
/pj/, /bj/, /tj/, /dj/, /kj/, /ɡj/,
/mj/, /nj/, /fj/, /vj/, /θj/,
/sj/, /zj/, /hj/, /lj/
pure, beautiful, tube, during, cute, argue, music, new, few, view, thew, suit, Zeus, huge, lurid
/s/ plus voiceless plosive:[3]
/sp/, /st/, /sk/
speak, stop, skill
/s/ plus nasal:[3]
/sm/, /sn/
smile, snow
/s/ plus voiceless plosive plus approximant:[3][4]
/spr/, /str/, /skr/,
/skw/, /smj/, /spj/, /stj/, /skj/
split, spring, street, scream, square, smew, spew, student, skewer
In some American dialects, /tr/ and /dr/ tend to affricate, so that tree resembles "chree", and dream resembles "jream".[14][15][16] This is sometimes transcribed as [tʃr] and [dʒr] respectively, but the pronunciation varies and may, for example, be closer to [tʂ] and [dʐ][17] or with a fricative release similar in quality to the rhotic, ie. [tɹ̝̊ɹ̥], [dɹ̝ɹ], or [tʂɻ], [dʐɻ].
In some dialects, /wr/ (rather than /r/) occurs in words beginning in wr- (write, wrong, wren, etc.).
Many clusters beginning with /ʃ/ and paralleling native clusters beginning with /s/ are found initially in German and Yiddish loanwords, such as /ʃl/, /ʃp/, /ʃt/, /ʃm/, /ʃn/, /ʃpr/, /ʃtr/ (in words such as schlep, spiel, shtick, schmuck, schnapps, Shprintzen's, strudel). /ʃw/ is found initially in the Hebrew loanword schwa. Before /r/ however, the native cluster is /ʃr/. The opposite cluster /sr/ is found in loanwords such as Sri Lanka, but this can be nativized by changing it to /ʃr/.
/skl/ occurs in the Greek loanword sclerosis; there is also /sf/ (sphere), /sfr/ (sphragistics), /sθ/ (sthenics), and /θl/ (thlipsis).
Other onsets
Certain English onsets appear only in contractions: e.g., /zbl/ ('sblood), /zd/ (sdein), and /zw/ or /dzw/ ('swounds or 'dswounds). Some, such as /pʃ/ (pshaw) or /fw/ (fwoosh), can occur in interjections. An archaic voiceless fricative plus nasal exists, /fn/ (fnese).
A few other onsets occur in further (anglicized) loan words, including /bw/ (bwana), /mw/ (moiré), /nw/ (noire), /pw/ (pueblo), /zw/ (zwieback), /vw/ (voilà), /kv/ (kvetch), /ʃv/ (schvartze), /tv/ (Tver), /vl/ (Vladimir), and /zl/ (zloty).
Some clusters of this type can be converted to regular English phonotactics by simplifying the cluster: e.g. /(d)z/ (dziggetai), /(h)r/ (Hrolf), /kr(w)/ (croissant), /(p)f/ (pfennig), /(f)θ/ (phthalic), and /(t)s/ (tsunami).
Others can be substituted by native clusters differing only in voice: /zb ~ sp/ (sbirro), and /zɡr ~ skr/ (sgraffito).


The following can occur as the nucleus:
All vowel sounds
/m/, /n/ and /l/ in certain situations (see below under word-level rules)
/r/ in rhotic varieties of English (eg General American) in certain situations (see below under word-level rules)


Most, and in theory all, of the following except those which end with /s/, /z/, /ʃ/, /ʒ/, /tʃ/ or /dʒ/ can be extended with /s/ or /z/ representing the morpheme -s/z-. Similarly most, and in theory all, of the following except those which end with /t/ or /d/ can be extended with /t/ or /d/ representing the morpheme -t/d-.
Wells (1990) argues that a variety of syllable codas are possible in English, even /ntr, ndr/ in words like entry ɛntr.ɪ/ and sundry /ˈsʌndr.ɪ/, with /tr, dr/ being treated as affricates along the lines of /tʃ, dʒ/. He argues that the traditional assumption that pre-vocalic consonants form a syllable with the following vowel is due to the influence of languages like French and Latin, where syllable structure is CVC.CVC regardless of stress placement. Disregarding such contentious cases, which do not occur at the ends of words, the following sequences can occur as the coda:
The single consonant phonemes except /h/, /w/, /j/ and, in non-rhotic varieties, /r/

Lateral approximant + plosive or affricate: /lp/, /lb/, /lt/, /ld/, /ltʃ/, /ldʒ/, /lk/
help, bulb, belt, hold, belch, indulge, milk
In rhotic varieties, /r/ + plosive or affricate: /rp/, /rb/, /rt/, /rd/, /rtʃ/, /rdʒ/, /rk/, /rɡ/
harp, orb, fort, beard, arch, large, mark, morgue
Lateral approximant + fricative: /lf/, /lv/, /lθ/, /ls/, /lʃ/
golf, solve, wealth, else, Welsh
In rhotic varieties, /r/ + fricative: /rf/, /rv/, /rθ/, /rs/, /rʃ/
dwarf, carve, north, force, marsh
Lateral approximant + nasal: /lm/, /ln/
film, kiln
In rhotic varieties, /r/ + nasal or lateral: /rm/, /rn/, /rl/
arm, born, snarl
Nasal + homorganic plosive or affricate: /mp/, /nt/, /nd/, /ntʃ/, /ndʒ/, /ŋk/
jump, tent, end, lunch, lounge, pink
Nasal + fricative: /mf/, /mθ/ in non-rhotic varieties, /nθ/, /ns/, /nz/, /ŋθ/ in some varieties
triumph, warmth, month, prince, bronze, length
Voiceless fricative + voiceless plosive: /ft/, /sp/, /st/, /sk/
left, crisp, lost, ask
Two voiceless fricatives: /fθ/
Two voiceless plosives: /pt/, /kt/
opt, act
Plosive + voiceless fricative: /pθ/, /ps/, /tθ/, /ts/, /dθ/, /dz/, /ks/
depth, lapse, eighth, klutz, width, adze, box
Lateral approximant + two consonants: /lpt/, /lfθ/, /lts/, /lst/, /lkt/, /lks/
sculpt, twelfth, waltz, whilst, mulct, calx
In rhotic varieties, /r/ + two consonants: /rmθ/, /rpt/, /rps/, /rts/, /rst/, /rkt/
warmth, excerpt, corpse, quartz, horst, infarct
Nasal + homorganic plosive + plosive or fricative: /mpt/, /mps/, /ndθ/, /ŋkt/, /ŋks/, /ŋkθ/ in some varieties
prompt, glimpse, thousandth, distinct, jinx, length
Three obstruents: /ksθ/, /kst/
sixth, next
Note: For some speakers, a fricative before /θ/ is elided so that these never appear phonetically: /ˈfɪfθ/ becomes [ˈfɪθ], /ˈsiksθ/ becomes [ˈsikθ], /ˈtwelfθ/ becomes [ˈtwelθ].

Syllable-level rules

Both the onset and the coda are optional
/j/ at the end of an onset cluster (/pj/, /bj/, /tj/, /dj/, /kj/, /fj/, /vj/, /θj/, /sj/, /zj/, /hj/, /mj/, /nj/, /lj/, /spj/, /stj/, /skj/) must be followed by /uː/ or /ʊə/
Long vowels and diphthongs are not found before /ŋ/ except for the mimetic word boing![18]
/ʊ/ is rare in syllable-initial position[19]
Stop + /w/ before /uː, ʊ, ʌ, aʊ/ (all presently or historically /u(ː)/) are excluded[20]
Sequences of /s/ + C1 + V̆ + C1, where C1 is a consonant other that /t/ and V̆ is a short vowel, are virtually nonexistent[20]

Word-level rules

/ə/ does not occur in stressed syllables
/ʒ/ does not occur in word-initial position in native English words although it can occur syllable-initial, e.g., luxurious /lʌɡˈʒʊəriəs/
/m/, /n/, /l/ and, in rhotic varieties, /r/ can be the syllable nucleus (ie a syllabic consonant) in an unstressed syllable following another consonant, especially /t/, /d/, /s/ or /z/
Certain short vowel sounds, called checked vowels, cannot occur without a coda in a single syllable word. In RP, the following short vowel sounds are checked: /ɪ/, /ɛ/, /æ/, /ɒ/, /ʌ/, and /ʊ/.

History of English pronunciation

Around the late 14th century, English began to undergo the Great Vowel Shift, in which
the high long vowels [iː] and [uː] in words like price and mouth became diphthongized, first to ɪ] and ʊ] (where they remain today in some environments in some accents such as Canadian English) and later to their modern values [aɪ] and [aʊ]. This is not unique to English, as this also happened in Dutch (first shift only) and German (both shifts).
The other long vowels became higher:
[eː] became [iː] (for example meet),
[aː] became [eː] (later diphthongized to [eɪ], for example name),
[oː] became [uː] (for example goose), and
[ɔː] become [oː] (later diphthongized to [oʊ], for example bone).
Later developments complicate the picture: whereas in Geoffrey Chaucer's time food, good, and blood all had the vowel [oː] and in William Shakespeare's time they all had the vowel [uː], in modern pronunciation good has shortened its vowel to [ʊ] and blood has shortened and lowered its vowel to [ʌ] in most accents. In Shakespeare's day (late 16th-early 17th century), many rhymes were possible that no longer hold today. For example, in his play The Taming of the Shrew, shrew rhymed with woe.[21]


æ-tensing is a phenomenon found in many varieties of American English by which the vowel /æ/ has a longer, higher, and usually diphthongal pronunciation in some environments, usually to something like [eə]. Some American accents, for example that of New York City, Philadelphia, or Baltimore make a marginal phonemic distinction between /æ/ and /eə/ although the two occur largely in mutually exclusive environments.

Bad-lad split

The bad-lad split refers to the situation in some varieties of southern British English and Australian English, where a long phoneme /æː/ in words like bad contrasts with a short /æ/ in words like lad.

Cot-caught merger

The cot-caught merger is a sound change by which the vowel of words like caught, talk, and tall (/ɔ/), is pronounced the same as the vowel of words like cot, rock, and doll (/ɒ/ in New England /ɑː/ elsewhere). This merger is widespread in North American English, being found in approximately 40% of American speakers and virtually all Canadian speakers.

Father-bother merger

The father-bother merger is the pronunciation of the short O /ɒ/ in words such as "bother" identically to the broad A /ɑː/ of words such as "father", nearly universal in all of the United States and Canada save New England and the Maritime provinces; many American dictionaries use the same symbol for these vowels in pronunciation guides.
Phonology is the study of sounds and speech patterns in language. The root "phone" in phonology relates to sounds and originates from the Greek word phonema which means sound. Phonology seeks to discern the sounds made in all human languages. The identification of universal and non-universal qualities of sounds is a crucial component in phonology as all languages use syllables and forms of vowels and consonants.
Syllables are involved in the timing of spoken language since speaking each word takes a portion of time. Syllables are units of measurement in language. Vowels allow air to escape from the mouth and nose unblocked, while consonants create more covering of the vocal tract by the tongue. The heard friction that is a consonant is made from the air that cannot escape as the mouth utters the consonant.
Phonemes are units of sound in a language that convey meaning. For example, changing a syllable in a word will change its meaning, such as changing the "a" in "mad" to an "o" to produce "mod". A phoneme can also achieve no meaning by creating non-existent words such as by changing the "m" in "mad" or "mod" to a "j" to produce "jad" or "jod". Phonemes differ from morphemes and graphemes. A morpheme refers to main grammar units, while a grapheme is the main unit of written language.
Ensuring that the proper pronunciation is used in a language is a practical application of phonology. For example, phonology uses symbols to differentiate the sounds of a particular vowel. The vowels are classified into "front", "central", and "back" depending on the positioning of the jaw and tongue when the vowel sounds are made. Phonology also notes lip position such as if the lips are spread out or rounded as well as if the vowel sound is long or short.
The symbol for the vowel sound in words such as "chilly" or "tin" in phonology is /i/ and refers to a front, short vowel spoken with a tongue in high position and spread lips. Contrastingly, the symbol for the vowel sound in words such as "moon" or "blue" in phonology is /u:/ and refers to a back, long vowel spoken with a tongue in high position still, but with rounded lips.


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