Phonemes: The Sounds of English

The English alphabet has 26 letters, made up of consonants and vowels. There are five vowels (a, e, i, o, u) and the rest are all consonants. In English, pronunciation of words centres upon syllables: a syllable is a unit of pronunciation which has one vowel sound (sometimes, more than one vowels making just one vowel sound), with or without surrounding consonants, forming the whole or a part of a word.  For example, there are two syllables in wa/ter and three in beau/ti/ful.

Alphabet is the set of letters used when writing in English. They are the basic units that construct the written form of English. The English alphabet made up of the 26 letters is called the orthographic alphabet.

However, when we speak English – or any language, so to speak – we find that the same letter sounds differently in different words. The letter ‘k’ in “kill” and “skill” sounds different. Go ahead and try to pronounce ‘k’ in "skill" in the same way you would pronounce it in “Kill”. It sounds a bit strange; doesn’t it?

As letters (in the alphabet) are in written English; so are phonemes in spoken English. Each sound that you hear in a word is a phoneme. It’s the smallest unit of sound that makes up a complete word. This is not to be confused with the letter itself; phonemes are only the sounds made. It's important to understand that phonemes can be made of more than one letter.

Take the word “dog for example. There are three phonemes involved: the “d” sound, a short “aw” sound, and a “g” sound;

The word “hope” is a three Phoneme word, too: the “h” sound, the long “oo” sound, and the “p” sound.

And for something a little more difficult, the word “school” has four Phonemes: the “s” sound, a “k” sound, a long “uu” sound, and an “l” sound.

There are 44 Phonemes in the English language, consisting of 24 consonant sounds and 20 vowel sounds. Think of the different combinations of consonants and vowels (like “ch” or “ea”) that make unique sounds.

 In English, the written equivalents of sounds or phonemes are known as graphemes. A grapheme is a letter or group of letters representing the sound. You use the letter names to identify graphemes, like the “c” in car where the hard “c” sound is represented by the letter “c.”

In order to study the sounds of English, linguists devised an alphabet which contains symbols to capture all possible sounds in English, called the International Phonetic Alphabet. The standard form of spoken English or the reference accent for English is known as Received Pronunciation (RP), and it is this accent of English upon which IPA is based. RP is also called variously: BBC English, the Queen’s English or ‘Correct English’ and is the spoken form to which many learners of English as an additional language aspire. However, the idea of RP is wide ranging and encompassing, and the IPA tries to capture how people actually speak. The English language, as a living language, is also subject to change, including the ways in which words are pronounced and IPA acts as a useful reference against which variation, including variation in RP, can be identified.   

Table 1: Consonants 

consonant grapheme

IPA phoneme

representative words

consonant grapheme

IPA

phoneme

representative words

/b/

 

b

baby

/r/

r

rabbit, wrong

/d/

 

d

dog

/s/

 

s

sun, mouse, city, science

/f/

f

field, photo

/t/

t

tap

/g/

g

game

/v/

v

van

/h/

h

hat

/w/

w

was

/j/

ʤ

judge, giant, barge

/y/

j

yes

/k/

k

cook, quick, mix, Chris

/z/

z

zebra, please, is

/l/

l

lamb

/th/

ð

then

/m/

 

m

monkey, comb

/th/

θ

thin

/n/

 

n

nut, knife, gnat

/ch/

ʧ

chip, watch

/ng/

 

ŋ

ring, sink

/sh/

ʃ

ship, mission, chef

/p/

p

paper

zh/

ʒ

treasure

  

Table 2: Vowels 

vowel phonemes

IPA

representative words

vowel phonemes

IPA

representative words

/a/

æ

cat

/oo/

ʊ

look, would, put

/e/

e

peg, bread

/ar/

ɑ:

cart, fast (regional)

/i/

 

ɪ

pig, give

/ur/

ɜ:

burn, first, term, heard, work

/o/

ɒ

log, want

/au/

ɔ:

torn, door, warn, haul, law, call

/u/

ʌ

plug, love

/er/

ə

wooden, circus, sister

/ae/

pain, day, gate, station

/ow/

down, shout

/ee/

i:

sweet, heat, thief, these

/oi/

ɔɪ

coin, boy

/ie/

tried, light, my, shine, mind

/air/

stairs, bear, hare

/oe/

road, blow, bone, cold

/ear/

ɪə

fear, beer, here

/ue/

 

u:

moon, blue, grew, tune

/ure/

ʊə

pure, cure

 
 

 

 

Last modified: Tuesday, 12 May 2020, 11:18 PM