Skip to main content

Phonetics Made Simple.. The Sounds of English

Learning to produce the sounds of English correctly is vital to improving your fluency of speech in English. In today's lesson, you will learn the sounds of English.
Phonetics is the term that refers to sounds of any language. The word 'phonetics' is derived from the Greek word 'phone' which means 'sound' or 'voice'. Phonetics is the systematic study of speech sounds and their production, audition and perception of any language. Each speech sound has its respective symbol which is called phonetic alphabet. International Phonetic Alphabet (IPA) has symbols that represent all the sounds that exist in the languages of the World. There are hundreds of symbols in the IPA. The symbols that are used for a particular language are called phonemic symbols. That is, if Telugu langauge has 56 sounds each sound is represented by a particualar symbol. These symbols are taken from the IPA. When the symbols are specifically taken for a particular language, they are called phonemic symbols. The main difference between the Indian languages and the English language is that in English, there is no phonemic correlation between the letters of the alphabet and the sounds. That is, there are only 26 letters in English but there are 44 sounds. If you look at Telugu language the number of sounds as well as the number of letters in Telugu alphabet is the same. This is the case with other Indian languages too. The major problem to Indian students in understanding the English sounds is that there is no correlation between its alphabet and sounds.

Look at the examples below:
canteen face, crèche, chemical... C in canteen is pronounced as k in kite whereas C in face is pronounced as s in sing. And ch in crèche is pronounced as sh in ship whereas ch in chemical is pronounced as k in kite.

Try these out:
Pronounce the following words correctly:

certain, chaos, fiancé, façade, restaurant, rendezvous, café, cafeteriacollege, schedule, laboratory, world

Use a dictionary to learn pronunciation:
You can learn the correct pronunciation of the above words by looking them up in a dictionary. In most dictionaries phonemic symbols are used to show the correct pronunciation of the word. In English there are 44 symbols which are used to show the pronunciation of the words. Each symbol stands for a particular sound. If you learn these 44 sounds/symbols correctly it is possible for you to speak English correctly and fluently.

In English there are 26 letters but the sounds are 44. The sounds in English are divided into two main categories- the vowel sounds and the consonant sounds. There are 20 vowel sounds which are subdivided into 12 monophthongs (or pure vowels) and 8 diphthongs (or vowel glides). Similarly, there are 24 consonant sounds.

Occurrence of Sounds in English:
Notice the occurrence of vowel sounds and consonant sounds in the words below. Most of the sounds occur in all the three positions (initial, medial and final) of words. However some sounds do not occur in some positions. For instance, the sound occurs word initially as in about / bat/, word medially as in taboo and word finally as in mother whereas the sound /e/ occurs only word initially as in end /end/ and medially as in pen /pen/ but not finally. That is why you see a blank under the final position of this sound below.

Phonemic Transcription:
Phonemic transcription refers to using phonemic symbols to represent the different sounds of a word.

Example: cat /k æ t/
You can see the phonemic symbols used for the correct pronunciation of the word 'cat'.

Try this out: Write phonemic transcription of the following words.
hit - heat, hot - hut, hurt - heart, height - hate, like - lake, look - lock, lick - leak, lock - luck, park - perk, pick - pack, sack - soak, seek - sick sake - sock, win - when, won - wean, ship - sheep, shape - sharp, fill - feel, fail - fall

Published date : 25 Jan 2011 07:04PM

Photo Stories