Centre for Applied Linguistics & Language Education

Sounds of English

Sounds of English provides an introduction to the attributes of the sound system of the language.  It provides information on phonetics, phonology, and orthography.  It also explains how to produce the sounds of English with particular focus on the bio-mechanics of articulation.  Sounds of English provides background knowledge and understanding which will enable the reader to understand the system of spelling and pronunciation of modern English and its historical roots.  The series consists of the following individual posts:


  1. Introduction
  2. Articulation
  3. Phonetics
    1. Plosives & Stops
    2. Fricatives
    3. Affricates
    4. Nasals, Liquids, & Glides

    It is recommended that posts be read in the order above.  Additional links will be made active as posts are updated.

Continue reading Part 1: Introduction


January 11, 2010 Posted by | English Linguistics | , , , , , , , , , , , , , | 6 Comments

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.

Continue reading Part 2: Articulation

January 11, 2010 Posted by | English Linguistics | , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , | 9 Comments

Sounds of English: Articulation

The term articulation refers to the bio-mechanical process of altering the flow of air through the vocal tract to produce sounds.

Sounds are described not by how they sound to the ear, but rather how they are produced in the vocal tract.  In the posts below dealing with the different sounds in English, they are so named, and each sound is described based on how the vocal organs interact with each other in producing each specific sound.  In fact, the word articulate actually means move.  Sounds are produced my moving the articulators (things that can be moved) within the vocal tract (lips, tongue, etc).  Terminology relating to the vocal organs, articulators, and points of articulation is defined below.  Click the head diagram to the right for an interactive map showing the locations and shapes discussed.


Alveolar refers to the alveolar ridge (purple in diagram), which is flat area just behind the front upper teeth but before the edge of the roof of the mouth. When pronouncing these sounds the tongue touches (/t/, /d/, /n/), or nearly touches (/s/, /z/) the alveolar ridge.


Dental refers to the teeth, particularly the front upper teeth.  The tongue touches these teeth when producing the sounds  (/θ/as in three, and /ð/ as in there). These teeth touch the bottom lip when producing /f/as in fair and /v/as in very.


Glottal refers to sounds in which the airway is constricted by tightening the airway in the back of the throat.  The primary glottal sounds in English are /h/ as in happy, and the vowels.


labial refers to the lips.  Sounds produced with the lips include /f/as in fair and /v/as in very, in which the bottom lip touches the upper front teeth; /b/ as in boy and /p/ as in pop, in which both lips are pressed together to interrupt the airflow; and /m/ as in my, in which the lips come together to fully blow the airflow, directing it instead out through the nose.


Lengual refers to the tongue.  Most consonants are produced by touching the tongue to another part of the mouth.  Vowels are formed by changing the shape of the tongue within the mouth (it’s really a big muscle).


Nasal refers to the nose.  Three sounds /m/ as in mom, /n/ as in nice, and /ŋ/ as in ring are nasal, meaning that the flow of air out of the body passes through the nose rather than through the mouth.


Palatal refers to the roof of the mouth (flat purple area in the diagram) behind the alveolar ridge but in front of the velum (see below).  The tongue touches the palate in producing the sounds /∫/ as in shoe, /ʒ/ as in pleasure, /t∫/ as in church/dʒ/ as in jelly.  It almost touches the palate in /r/ as in read and /ɝ/ as in dinner.


Velar refers to the velum (green in the diagram) which is the soft portion of the roof of the mouth at the very rear of the mouth.  It is generally the farthest point the tongue can reach by curling backward.  Velar sounds are produced when the rear portion of the tongue is brought near the velum  (/w/ as in wait), or contacts the velum (/k/ as in cat and /g/ as in good).

Continue reading Part 3.1: Plosives

January 11, 2010 Posted by | English Linguistics | , , , , , , , , , | 7 Comments