As we have discovered in previous posts, and as I have prefaced many times before that, the main problem with considering the sounds of language, is that not all people sound out language in the same way. There are many variations which may depend on regional dialects, first languages, social class or even speech impediments. It is a hugely complicated task to attempt to take account of all the variations of English which might exist. For this reason, when we talk about the sound qualities of particular phonemes we do so in relation to a standard form of English.
This standard form of English is known as Received Pronunciation. Leslie Jeffries writes:
Received Pronunciation (RP) is the name given to the prestigious accent of the British upper classes, and though the value judgement that RP is a 'better' accent is thoroughly rejected, some form of RP remains a focal point for those describing English phonology (Jeffries, 2006. p. 9).
Here is an exercise from Geoff Finch’s book How to Study Linguistics (2003, p. 55):
Say the following words to yourself carefully, and then circle round any letter or combination of letters which you think makes a separate sound within each word.
What is interesting in the sounds created by 'that', is the specific type of 'th' sound which is required. For example, if you think of the words 'thigh' and 'thy', you might notice that they are almost identical except for the fact that the 'th' is sounded differently in each of them.
In the phonetic alphabet, there are two different symbols to represent the two different pronunciations:
Click here to complete a short exercise in recognising the difference between /θ/ and /ð/.
In most regional dialects though, these sounds are rarely actually pronounced. In some London dialects, 'that' would be pronounced 'vat' or even 'vah'. In Caribbean dialects, it would be more likely to be pronounced as 'dat'. Both θ and ð are phonemes which some argue may be dying out of use in the English language altogether. They are vulnerable phonemes, because they appear to be disappearing from usage in English.
Interesting one this, because it would be easy to argue that there is a /t/ sound, a /ʊ/ sound to represent the 'u' and a /b/ at the end. But although this sounds fine it is not, in fact, how we pronounce the word in received pronunciation. There is a kind of sounded 'y' or /j/ which we tend to insert between the /t/ and the /ʊ/, so that we say 'tyube' or /tjʊb/, just as we might say 'tyune' or /tjʊn/ instead of 'tune'.
This hidden /j/ sound, which appears in pronunciation but not in the spelling, was named by the linguist John Wells as the yod (Wells, 1982). In some dialects, this yod is dropped. Someone from Norfolk, for example, might pronounce the word 'tube' as 'toob', or /tuːb/. Sometimes even the 't' is pronounced as 'ch'. Imagine Bruce Willis, for example, talking about a 'choob' or /tʃuːb/. This process of dropping the yod is (conveniently) known as yod dropping.
Click here to complete a short exercise on distinguishing the phonemes /ʃ/ , /ʧ/ and /ʤ/.
Click here to complete a short exercise on distinguishing the / g / , / j / and / ʤ /phonemes.
Finally, what about the silent 'e'? The function of the silent 'e' in the Roman spelling of the word 'tube' seems non-existent. Why is it there at all? Well, there is one function which it does perform, and this is in the way it informs us that the vowel sound for the 'u' is pronounced differently from the vowel-sound for the word 'tub'. The silent 'e' then, is informing us how to pronounce the vowel.
Another example in which we can see the silent 'e' at work. How, exactly, it shapes the vowel here is not altogether clear. However, the 'a' here is pronounced unusually. Again, it is not the single-sounded phoneme /æ/, as in the words 'cat' or 'had'. Instead, there is a kind of 'ai' sound, which makes the vowel sound the same as the combination of vowels in the word 'laid'. The sound of the 'a', if you like, slides into the sound of an 'I'. This is known as a diphthong, because the vowel sound glides from one shape into another shape. Think about the following words: 'ear', 'air', 'cure', 'late', 'time', 'voice' and 'home'. Say the words out loud, slowly, focusing on how you mouth and tongue change shape during the vowel sound. Hopefully, you will notice that in each instance, your mouth or tongue do change shape, and this is because the vowel sound for each of these words is a diphthong. If you were to contrast these words with others like 'cap', 'dog' and 'hit', you might notice the difference more clearly.
Click here to complete a short exercise in identifying vowel phonemes.
Click here to complete a short exercise in distinguishing the vowels / ɪ / , / i: / and / e .
Why is phonic transcription useful?
It this point it may be worth giving some consideration as to why it is important to be able to transcribe phonetic data. The strange symbols used, and the fact that they frequently bear little similarity to the written Roman variant means that learning how to use phonetic symbols can be difficult and frustrating – and this is not made any easier if you think that the whole process is merely a technical exercise.
As we mentioned last week, one of the big problems with the Roman alphabet is that it often bears little relation to the ways in which the words spelled are actually spoken. The English language in particular is, as John Wells neatly puts it, “blatantly irregular” (1996), but there are many others as well which are poorly suited to demonstrate the pronunciation of words. Chinese or Japanese, for example, are non-alphabetic and therefore deliberately disassociated with the speech sounds process. Even languages like Swahili, which were designed to be pronounced as they were spelled, can demonstrate “sporadic mismatches between the sound and the spelling of the words” (Wells, 1996).
Learning the Phonetic alphabet means that when you are learning languages, or even looking up words in a dictionary, you can read the phonetic transcriptions provided and learn not only how the word is spelled, but how it is pronounced. In Britain, most of the major dictionaries provide a phonetic transcription using the International Phonetic Alphabet. This alphabet is “unambiguous and systematic” (Wells, 1996) in that it becomes clear what the differences are between letters which look the same, but are pronounced differently (like the 'o' in 'plod' and 'women').
An example of the value of this system can be illustrated with a story of when I used to work in an office in London with colleagues from a range of different countries. The office was based not far from the London Borough of Southwark – which caused some confusion. In order to be able to pronounce these place-names correctly, users needed to know that the 'gh' in Borough was silent, as was the 'w' in Southwark. To pronounce the silent letters in either case would render the name unintelligible – as proved to be the case whenever one of my colleagues got lost trying to get there because nobody knew the place when they asked for directions.
A phonetic dictionary would spell the word 'Borough' and then provide the phonetic transcription of /bʌrə/ and a transcription of 'Southwark' as /sʌðɜːrk/.
Problems like this though, are not restricted to non-native speakers of English. As John Wells again notes: “there are many native speakers of English to whom facts such as this are not self-evident” (1996). This is hardly surprising when you consider the extraordinary range of ambiguous spellings in English. Think about the following words, for example:
bass, bow, buffet, does, gill, lead, live, minute, putting, read, resume, tear, tinged, wind, wound.
Each word has at least two possible pronunciations, and the different pronunciations completely change the meaning of the word.
Click here to complete a final exercise in identifying the correct phonic transcription of some simple words.
Finch, G. (2003). How to Study Linguistics, 2nd edn.. Basingstoke: Palgrave
Thorne, S. (2008). Mastering Advanced English Language. Basingstoke: Palgrave
Jeffries, L. (2006). Discovering Language: The Structure of Modern English. Basingstoke: Palgrave
Power, T. English phonemic transcription [Internet]. Available from:
<http://www.tedpower.co.uk/phonetics.htm> [Accessed 19 April 2013].
Wells, John C. (1982). Accents of English. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.
Wells, J. (1996). Why Phonetic Transcription is Important [online]. Available at: http://www.phon.ucl.ac.uk/home/wells/whytranscription.htm. Last Accessed: 07/03/2010