A vowel is a sound produced by making the vocal chords vibrate and letting the air pass through the oral cavity without obstruction. Vowels are always part of syllables. The position of the tongue determines the production of the different vowels. The position of the tongue is governed by two factors: first, vocal height, its position with respect to the roof of the mouth; second, the vocal backness, its position with respect of the mouth as measured from front to back. The height of the tongue may range from open, as in [a], to close, as in [i]. In general, there are three distinctive positions, namely, open, mid and close positions, and also other in-between, more subtle positions, such as near-open, open-mid, close-mid and near-close positions. Notice that vocal height is somewhat associated to jaw opening.
The tongue is a very flexible and quick muscle that may be positioned at several places in the mouth. Its position within the mouth defines the vocal backness. The tongue may be at the back, almost touching the soft palate or velum, as in the sounds [ʌ] and [u]; it may be at a central position, as in [ə]; or it may be at the front, almost reaching the teeth, as in [i].
The chart below represents all the English vowels as a function of vocal height and vocal backness. A third feature that affects the quality of a vowel is whether the lips are rounded or not. This is called the roundness of the vowel. For example, [u] is pronounced by rounding the lips, but [a] is not (it is an unrounded vowel). In places where vowels are paired, the right represents a rounded vowel (in which the lips are rounded) while the left is its unrounded counterpart.
The vowels within the squares in Figure 1 are dialectal variants. For example, the sound [o] is more closed than [ɔ]. The sound [o] is the Spanish o, too.
Besides dialectal variants, there are roughly 12 vowel sounds in English. We strongly recommend the reader to check out the web page Phonetics: The sounds of American English, built by the Department of Spanish of the University of Iowa [IOW01], where clear and graphical description and Flash animation of the production of English vowels is given. Next, we will describe the vowels sounds and give several examples.
The English vowels:
- Open front unrounded vowel [a], normally pronounced as a long vowel. For example: heart[ha:t] or palm[pa:m]. In this vowel the tongue is at the bottom of the mouth, as far as possible from the roof of the mouth. Also, the tongue is positioned as far forward as possible in the mouth, just below the teeth. The jaw is open; in fact, it is more open than the Spanish [a].
- Near-open front unrounded vowel [æ], a short vowel as in man[mæ n], hat[hæt], very frequently pronounced in monosyllabic words with a (as in bat, cat, fat, gap, hat, rat, sat, etc.). This vowel is similar to the previous one, except that the tongue is slightly raised.
- Open-mid front unrounded vowel [e], a short vowel more closed than the Spanish [e]. The tongue is still more raised. For example: bed[bed], red[red].
- Short close front unrounded vowel [i], a short sound as in it[it], hit[hit]. Now, the tongue is raised as much as possible.
- Long close front unrounded vowel [i:], a long i, as in eat[i:t], heat[hi:t].
- Mid central vowel [ə], a short sound as in rare[reə], so[səʊ]. The tongue is placed halfway between the front and back position.
- Open-mid central unrounded vowel [ɜ:], a long sound as in fur[fɜ:], bird[bɜ:d]. It is pronounced as in the previous vowel, but slightly more open.
- Open-mid back unrounded vowel [ʌ], a short sound as in hut[hʌt], but[bʌt]. The tongue is positioned as far back as possible in the mouth, almost touching the soft palate. This sound does not exist in Spanish.
- Short open-mid back rounded vowel [ɔ], a short sound as in hot[hɔ t], dog[dɔg]. This is a rounded vowel. The only difference between this vowel and [ʌ] is roundedness.
- Long open-mid back rounded vowel [ɔ:], a long sound as in thought[θɔ:t], caught[kɔ:t]. This is long version of [ɔ].
- Near-close near-back vowel [ʊ], a short sound as in put[pʊt], book[bʊk].
- Close back rounded vowel [u:], a short sound as in moon[mu:n], use[ju:z]. Note that when the long version of [ʊ] becomes a close vowel.
- The length of a vowel is a quality that distinguishes between words, as the following examples show:
- It[it] ⇒ eat[i:t].
- Shit[ʃ it]⇒ sheet[ʃi:t].
- Hill[hil]⇒ heel[hi:l].
- Vocal backness and vocal height also discriminate between sounds.
- Heart[ha:t], hut[hʌt] and hat[hæt] are three different words.
- Vocal backness only also discriminates sounds: were[wɜ:(r)]⇒war[wɔ:(r)].
- Vocal height by itself distinguishes sounds, too: man[mæn]⇒men[men].
- Roundness also discriminate between sounds.
- Gut[gʌ t]⇒ got[gɔt].
- Hut[hʌ t]⇒ hot[hɔt].
A consonant is a sound produced by a partial or complete obstruction of the air stream. That obstruction may be accomplished by several means. Here there is a classification of consonants.
- By manner of articulation, that is, the method to articulate the consonant: nasal (the air gets out through the mouth and the nose), stop (complete obstruction of air; also called plosive consonants), or approximant (vowel-like consonants).
- By place of articulation, that is, where in the vocal tract the obstruction of the consonant takes place, and which speech organs are involved. Places include, among others, bilabial (both lips), alveolar (tongue against the gum ridge), and velar (tongue against soft palate).
- By voicing, that is, by taking into account whether the vocal cords vibrate during the articulation. When the vocal cords vibrate fully, the consonant is called voiced; when they do not vibrate at all, it is voiceless.
We will not go into further details about consonant production, but we refer the reader to the comprehensible and demystifying book of Roach (see the bibliography below). The following table shows the consonant phonemes found in English. When consonants are shown in pairs, voiceless consonants appear on the left and voiced consonants on the right.
The distinction between voiceless and voiced consonants is crucial in English. For example, such distinction regulates the pronunciation of the endings in the Past Simple; see the section below. The following table shows the English consonants paired by voice (voiceless are on the left and voiced on the right).
Sounds [m], [n], [ŋ], [l], [j], [w] and [r] are all also voiced. Sound [h] is voiceless.
- The voicing of a consonant is more important in English than in other languages.
- Often, it determines the grammatical function: advice[ə d'vais] is a noun and its corresponding verb is advise[ə d'vaiz].
- It may distinguish between words: rice[rais]⇒rise[raiz].
- The pronunciation of Past Simple is based on the voicing of the final sounds of verbs, as we will see below.
- The pronunciation of plurals, possessives and third person of Present Simple are also formed according to voicing.
Semi-consonants are not considered as vowels because the passage through which the air passes is very narrow. The semi-consonants are [j], as in yes[jes], and [w], as in wood[wu:d]. They are always followed by a vowel.
- The semi-consonant [j]. It is pronounced as an [i], but by bringing the tongue close to the palate very much. This sound is, therefore, approximant and palatal. It appears in words like union['ju:niə n], you[ju:], student['stju:də nt] (British English, but student['stu:də nt] in American English). In Spanish there exists this sound, as in ayer [a'jer] or hierba ['jerba].
- The semi-consonant [w]. This semi-consonant is a voiced labiovelar approximant sound. That means it is articulated with the back part of the tongue raised toward the soft palate and the lips rounded. It can be found in words like were[wɜ:(r)], water[wɔtɜ:(r)].
Diphthongs are sounds produced by pronouncing one vowel and then gradually changing to another, normally through a glide between them. The English diphthongs are the following.
- Diphthong [ai], as in rise[raiz], height[hait].
- Diphthong [ei], as in frame[freim], crane[crein].
- Diphthong [aʊ], as in low[lə ʊ], so[səʊ]
- Diphthong [aʊ], as in now[naʊ], cow[kaʊ].
- Diphthong [eə], as in rare[reə], fare[feə].
- Diphthong [iə], as in rear[riə], gear[giə].
- Diphthong [ɔi], as in boy[bɔ i], coy [kɔi].
- Diphthong [uə], as in sure[ʃuə], lure[luə].
PRONUNCIATION OF PLURALS
The pronunciation of plurals depends on the final sound of the noun, in particular, whether such sound is a sibilant consonant. Sibilant consonants produce the sound by forming a very narrow passage and letting the air pass through it. The sibilant consonants are showed in the following table.
Note that the sounds [f, v] are not sibilant because the air is stopped when passing through the teeth. Also, the affricate post-alveolar consonants [tʃ, dʒ] are sibilants since after pronouncing the [t, d], the narrow passage is formed.
Rules for the pronunciation of the plural of nouns:
- If the word ends by a vowel sound, then the plural is pronounced by adding the sound [z]. For example:
- If the word ends by a non-sibilant sound, then the plural is pronounced by adding the sound [s] when it is a voiceless consonant and the sound [s] when it is a voiced consonant. For example:
- Pet[pet]⇒pets[pets] (voiceless case).
- Dog[dɔg]⇒dogs[dɔgz] (voiced case).
- If the word ends by a sibilant sound, then the plural is pronounced by creating a new syllable [-iz]. For example:
- Garage[gæ'ra:ʒh]⇒garages[gæ'ra:ʒh iz].
- Bus[bʌ s]⇒buses['bʌsiz].
Note from the example that the stress of word in the plural does not change.
There are a few exceptions to the previous rule: house[jaʊs]⇒houses['jaʊziz], mouth[maʊθ]⇒mouth[maʊðz].
Moreover, the same pronunciation rules are applied to possessives (Saxon genitive):
PRONUNCIATION OF THE THIRD PERSON OF SINGULAR OF PRESENT SIMPLE
When writing the third person of singular of Present Simple takes either an -s or an -es. The pronunciation of the new added consonant follows the same rules as in the plural.
- I want[ai wɔ:nt]⇒He wants[hi wɔ:nts].
- I read[ai ri:d]⇒He reads[hi ri:dz].
- I bet[ai bet]⇒He bets[hi bets].
- I teach[ai ti:tʃ]⇒He teaches[hi 'ti:tʃiz].
PRONUNCIATION OF PAST SIMPLE
The pronunciation of Past Simple is based on the voicing (voiceless versus voiced) of the final sound of the verb. We recall the reader the voiceless consonants: [p, t, k, f, tʃ, θ, s, ʃ, h]; and the voiced consonants: [m, n, ŋ, b, d, g, v, ð, z, dʒ, ʒh, r, l, j, w].
Rules for the pronunciation of Past Simple (regular verbs):
- If the word ends by a voiced sound different from [d], then the Past Simple is pronounced by adding the sound [d]. For example:
- I explain[ai eksplein]⇒I explained[ai ekspleind]
- I file[ai fail]⇒I filed[ai faild].
- If the word ends by a voiceless sound different from [t], then the Past Simple is pronounced by adding the sound [t]. For example:
- I kiss[ai kis]⇒I kissed[ai kist].
- I risk[ai risk]⇒I risked[ai riskt].
- If the word ends by [d] or [t], then Past Simple is pronounced by adding [id]. For example:
- I need[ai ni:d]⇒I needed[ai 'ni:did].
- I want[ai wɔ:nt]⇒I wanted[ai 'wɔ:ntid].
Although largely disregarded in language teaching, phonetics is the only way to learn how to pronounce properly, except if the language is learnt at an early age. Spanish has only five vowels, whereas English, as seen above, has twelve vowels. How will a native Spanish speaker map his vowels onto the English ones? Many methods are purely based on repetition. However, that does not work in general and results in a deficient pronunciation, sometimes even on the verge of intelligibility, and often kept for many years. By learning phonetics, first of all, learners will be able to recognize what sound they are hearing and, therefore, they gain confidence in their understanding of English. Also, they will acquire accuracy in their pronunciation as the rules for producing the sound will be now clear.
Fortunately, there are many resources both online and in form of books to learn English phonetics. We already recommended the excellent web page of the University of Iowa [IOW01]. The encyclopedia Wikipedia has two well-written and enlightening articles on phonetics, one about the IPA [Wik09b] (the International Phonetics Alphabet), and the other about English phonology [Wik09a]. As an online dictionary including phonetics transcriptions we recommend Oxford Advanced Learner's Dictionary [OUP09]. As a comprehensive treatise on phonetics we propose the book of Roach [Roa09]. Lastly, for a work integrating phonetics and grammar in a straightforward way we advise the reader to look at the book of Swan [Swa05].