Sounds of English: Introduction
This post begins a series on the sounds of English. First, a brief discussion of phonetics, phonology, and orthography of English:
To begin with, let’s talk terminology. These concepts of phonetics, phonology, and orthography are all interrelated as they involve the sounds of languages and how those sounds are combined and represented in writing. Phonetics (from Greek phone, meaning sound or voice) is simply put, the study of sounds and how they are produced using the vocal organs (mouth, throat, vocal cords, etc). Phonology (from Greek phone, meaning sound, and logos meaning speech — the ‘sounds’ of ‘speech’), on the other hand, is not the study of sounds, but instead of the sound system of particular languages — how sounds are used within a given language, and the rules governing them. Orthography (from Greek orthos meaning correct, and graphein meaning to write — or, the way things are written) deals with the way in which a language uses combinations of letters or symbols to represent the sounds of that language. Another way to look at this is that in English, phonetics describes sounds and how they are produced, phonology establishes a set of rules for how to use those sounds (pronunciation), and orthography provides visual representation of those sounds (spellings that equate to those pronunciations).
Within English there are roughly 50 unique sounds(phonetics). These 50 sounds are represented by 26 letters, alone or in combination with one another (orthography). The sound system of English consists of about 2/3 consonants, which are either voiced or voiceless depending on which sounds surround them, and 1/3 vowels, which may be long or short depending on where they fall within a word (phonology).
Of these sounds, vowels are fairly well understood and will not be addressed too heavily in this series. Vowels are also more difficult to discuss definitively because many of them vary by dialect. Consonants shall be the focus of these discussions on English, and to understand consonants, it is necessary to be familiar with the organs of the vocal tract used to produce them. This is the focus of the next post.
The 30+ consonants in English, consist of the following types:
*Stops are technically the first two parts of a plosive, with the third part being a sudden expelling of air as a release. Without this ‘explosion‘ of air, a plosive is merely a stop.
The first three involve some type of halting or obstructing the flow of air. They always occur as voiced and voiceless pairs, with two sounds being produced in mechanically identical ways, but with the only difference between them being the vibration (or lack of vibration) of the vocal cords. The final three types of sounds involve redirection of the air exiting the body without halting or obstructing its flow. These sounds are always voiced, but often occur in more than one form depending on how they are combined with other sounds. Each category is discussed in separate posts later in this series.
Each language has its own orthography — its way of expressing sounds with letters or symbols. These systems vary by language from very similar systems (English, German, Latin) to different but similar systems (Russian, Arabic, Hebrew), to systems that have very little in common with the standard concept of alphabet (Chinese, Japanese, Egyptian hieroglyphs). Because sounds are present in all languages regardless of orthography, linguists needed a way to represent the same sounds in different languages, no matter in which language they occur. To represent the full spectrum of sounds without using different orthographic systems, a universal alphabet of sounds has been developed. The IPA, or International Phonetic Alphabet uses a single symbol for each specific sound. Sometimes these symbols match the letters in English which represent these sounds. Sometimes they do not. IPA symbols are used throughout this series, but don’t worry, they shall always be explained and examples of each sound shall be given with normal English spelling.