Basic Revision for EFL Students
The Human Speech Apparatus and The GB
Consonants & Vowels
The sounds of speech are produced by organs whose primary functions
enable us to breathe and take in food. Almost all of them are made by
the passage of a stream of air form the lungs up through the windpipe,
through the valve called the larynx popularly known as the voice-box.
The bulge at the front men's throats indicative of the presence of the
larynx is traditionally called the Adam's apple. The airstream passes
on out through the mouth and/or the nose. The larynx contains the vocal
folds formerly usually called much less appropriately the vocal cords.
Any sound to which the vibrations of the vocal folds contribute is
known as voiced: thirty-five of the forty-four phonemes or
word-distinguishing sounds of the analysis adopted of the General
British pronunciation of English ('GB') in this book are canonically
(ie ideally or characteristically though not necessarily most
frequently) voiced; nine are normally voiceless. The pitch of speech
sounds is controlled mainly by varying the tension of the vocal folds
as they vibrate. The part of the larynx where they are situated and/or
the space between them is known as the glottis: when they are brought
together and then 'snapped' apart the resultant sound is known as the
glottal plosive or glottal stop. This last expression has to an amazing
degree, for what is after all a technical term from the vocabulary of
the science of phonetics, gained wide popular currency since its first
appearance in Henry Sweet's History
of English Sounds in 1888. A strong form
of this plosive occurs in coughing. The glottal stop is not a phoneme
in English but nevertheless a common sound in emphatic speech and in a
variety of other ways. Its use to replace a / t / between a vowel and
a following unstressed further vowel eg as in [beʔə] for better, though very
common in British dialects (eg at Bristol, London, Leeds and Glasgow)
is very unfashionable when used as in such words. Non-native learners
of English may often prefix it excessively frequently to words
with vowels, producing an unpleasantly jerky effect. This is
particularly noticeable where native English speakers would use a
linking /r/. When a part of the glottis is vibrating much more slowly
than the rest an effect is produced called 'creaky' voice. This is
heard from many speakers at the lowest range of their voices or as a
hesitation signal (especially when straining to come out with the next
When air passes audibly through the glottis without subsequent stronger
friction or vibration of the vocal folds we hear the usual form of /h/
which is widely referred to, though not entirely satisfactorily, as the
English glottal fricative consonant. It is also sometimes known by the
term voiceless vocoid and by some authorities classified as a voiceless
approximant. In English it invariably precedes a vowel and its
articulation takes the form of a voiceless version of that following
The space above the larynx at the back of the mouth is called
the pharynx: the walls of the pharynx can be contracted to produce the
tense, tight 'pharyngeal' voice quality which is sometimes to be heard
accompanying the English vowel / ӕ /. After passing through the pharynx
the air can pass either through the mouth or through the nasal cavity
or through both of these. Only three English phonemes are nasals /m, n,
ŋ/. The others are all prevented from being so because to articulate
them we shut off the nasal cavity by raising the soft palate, ie the
movable back part of the roof of the mouth. The soft palate, with which
only the back of the tongue can make contact, has the less usual Latin
name 'velum': sounds made there are referred to by the corresponding
adjective 'velar'. There are only three English phonemes with
tongue-to-velum contact: /k, g, ŋ /, though for the closer back vowels
/ u: /
and / ʊ /, and for /w/ the back part of the tongue is raised towards
the soft palate, as it is also for the so-called 'dark' varieties of /
The middle of the soft palate ends in a small tip of flesh
called the uvula. This is not used in articulating the general forms of
English, but it is heard from some dialect speakers in the far
northeast of England and from other speakers in various places as an
In front of the soft palate is the hard palate: no English
phoneme is characterised by contact of the tongue here but the tongue
is raised near to the hard palate in making the palatal approximant /j/
and the four post-alveolar (also called palato-alveolar) phonemes / ʧ,
ʤ, ʃ, ʒ/. These last four phonemes, besides involving a general raising
of the middle of the tongue towards the hard palate, have contact of
the forepart of the tongue with the ridge which lies to the front of
the palate and immediately behind the upper teeth. This is known as the
alveolar ridge (or simply the teeth-ridge). It is the part of the roof
mouth to which the forepart of the tongue lies opposite when the whole
tongue is at rest. It is therefore the easiest and not surprisingly the
most frequent place for the tongue to approach or touch in making
consonants. Almost half (eleven) of the English consonant phonemes are
alveolar, viz /t, d, ʧ, ʤ, s, z, ʃ, ʒ, n, l, r/. Frequency counts of
speech sounds in samples of GB have shown more alveolar
consonant occurrences than for all the other kinds taken together.
The final pair of English lingual phonemes /θ/ and /ð/ are made by
with the tip of the tongue brought forward to the upper front teeth.
These are the English dental fricative consonants They may take stop
(plosive and affricate) allophones in certain prosodic situations, eg
in thanks and there pronounced emphatically, when
they are perfectly
distinct from English /t/ and /d/. Sequences of two identical
non-affricate consonants do occur occasionally in English but always
either involve two morphemes eg in words like night-time, guide-dog,
pen-name, plainness or result from an assimilation which would
shock purists if they became aware of its existence as in eg
/`ӕbbətaɪz/ advertise (with
labiodental b's) or / rɪ`zemml/ resemble.
Of the English phonemes articulated essentially at the lips one
pair is labiodental, ie made canonically by raising the lower lip to
the upper teeth: /f, v/. This may well be blended with a bilabial
articulatory posture without sounding abnormal especially in bilabial
The way the lips are held is an important element in the
formation of many speech sounds. There are two main types of posture of
the lips that we must take into account — rounded and neutral or
unrounded. When the lips are rounded the corners of the mouth are
usually drawn inward to some extent. Various degrees of rounding are
characteristic of English back vowels — in general the closer the
tighter the rounding. However, many if not most speakers have less than
tight rounding of their /uː/ and / ʊ / leaving them with usually less
vigorous rounding than they use for their opener back vowel / ɔː / and
the consonants / ʃ, ʒ, ʧ & ʤ /. Rounding also characterises the
bilabial approximant consonant /w/ which is always velarised, ie
involves raising of the back of the tongue. Considerable degrees of
rounding also normally accompany the five alveolar phonemes whose
location of articulation is strictly speaking to the rear or the
alveolar ridge viz / ʧ, ʤ, ʃ, ʒ & r/. In the case of this last
consonant there is very frequently strong lip action in emphatic
articulation but by no means invariably involving lip-rounding. Such
articulations are clearly best described as labialised. It's
unfortunate that writers on phonetics so often use this term as a mere
synonym for rounding.
This completes our list of articulatory manners and locations.
As well as by manner and position of articulation, speech sounds
may be classified by the effect of their articulation upon the
airstream which is utilised in their production. Among the types found
in English are eight stops /p, b, t, d, k, g, ʧ , ʤ /. When a stop
consonant is made the airstream is held up by a closure which is
complete, firm and long enough for pressure to build up behind it. Each
stop has the three stages: approach, hold and release. If the
release is rapid a sort of explosive effect is produced and the stop is
termed a 'plosive'. Taps and trills have closures which are relatively
firm but too
brief to produce compression. If a stop is released with a
noticeable puff of air, ie is followed by a sort of [h] it is termed
aspirated. GB voiceless stops (including /ʧ/) are usually markedly so
articulated when they begin stressed syllables. If the release is so
slow that the organs producing the stop are retained close enough to
each other for some sustained friction to be heard as the air rushes
out between them the resultant sound is termed an affricate. There are
two such English phonemes viz / ʧ & ʤ /. Affricated sequences (not
usually classed as phonemes) are produced when /t/ or /d/ are followed
immediately in the same syllable by /r/ or /j/ in try, dry, tune, due.
Most General British speakers no longer regularly differentiate dune and June etc
nowadays. (Most GA speakers have no /j/ in dune.)
The most numerous type of consonant in English is produced by
close narrowing of the airstream so that audible friction is heard.
These, /f, v; θ, ð; s, z; ʃ, ʒ & h/, belong to the fricative
division of the general class of continuant speech sounds. The most
important difference between the fricative pairs / θ, ð/ and /s, z/ is
that whereas the dentals have a somewhat (laterally) contracted and
protracted general tongue posture, the forepart being rather flat, the
alveolars have a less contracted etc posture, the forepart having a
shallow groove running down the centre from back to front. The
post-alveolar fricatives /ʃ, ʒ/ are produced like the alveolars except
for raising of the middle part of the tongue and more extensive
To refer collectively to the alveolar and post-alveolar
fricatives and the post-alveolar affricates the term sibilants is
sometimes useful. These are / ʧ, ʤ; s z; ʃ, ʒ/.
The phonemes called the plosives, the fricatives and the
affricates are often termed collectively the 'obstruents'. The seven
characteristically-voiced consonantal phonemes /m, n, ŋ, l, r, j, w/
together with the vocalics (vowels and diphthongs) may be collectively
termed the 'resonants'. The group of five consonants which can most
readily become syllabic, viz /m, n, ŋ, l/ and /r/ are sometimes
referred to as the 'sonorants'.
Three of these sonorants are made in ways exactly corresponding
to our three pairs of plosives /p, b; t, d; k, g/ but differ from them
in that the airstream is never held up (and so there is certainly no
compression) but is allowed, by the lowering of the soft palate, to
make its way out through the nasal cavity. These are the bilabial,
alveolar and velar nasal consonants /m, n, ŋ/.
We have noted that a fricative consonant is produced by
approximating two articulating organs so closely that when air passes
between them with average force it produces audible friction. When
either this approximation or the breath-force is reduced, vibration of
the vocal folds produces a series of resonants that are termed
'approximants'. Physically this category overlaps with the closer
but approximant is applied to relatively unsustained sounds which are
not central to their syllable whereas a vowel is essentially at the
centre of its syllable. The terms semivowel and vowel glide have been
applied to some of them but the expression approximant is preferable if
only as being more comprehensive. There is an approximant corresponding
to every fricative except the non-buccal (not made at the mouth)
fricative [h]: phonemes
characterised as voiced fricatives can be expected to have approximant
allophones in some of their weakest realisations. This is certainly
true of English /v/ and /ð/. The three English approximants are /r, j/
and /w/. The term 'vocoid' may be used to refer collectively to those
sounds which are vowel-like in that they involve no central oral
obstruction of the passage of the airstream viz vowels, approximants
There are two consonantal phonemes /l/ and /r/ in English which
owe their characteristic qualities principally to the fact that the
tongue is very considerably contracted in their articulation. It can be
convenient to call them collectively 'contractives'. They both involve
narrowing of the airstream at the dental/alveolar range. The first of
them /l/ is contracted mainly from side to side hence its label
(which word alone is very often used to identify it). The forepart of
the tongue makes (light or firm, momentary or prolonged) contact
usually with the alveolar ridge, and may often be plainly seen to have
assumed a rather wedge-shaped configuration. The lateral contractive is
usually a resonant but if the air is expelled with considerable force,
as for instance after stressed voiceless plosives, a fricative
allophone may be heard. The other English contractive consonant /r/ has
its main contraction from back to front so it can be termed the
'longitudinal contractive'. The tip and edges of the tongue are
curled up to produce a rather cupped or spoon-shaped posture. It too
has closest narrowing of the airstream usually at the alveolar ridge
and rather more to the rear of the ridge as an effect of the drawing
back of the forepart of the tongue to produce the contraction. For this
reason it is often labelled 'post-alveolar'. It is characteristically
an approximant but is invariably fricative when it follows /t/ or /d/
in the same syllable. It is also quite often fricative after other
obstruents. It is usually voiced but loses its voicing if influenced by
a preceding voiceless obstruent. It is often syllabic eg in temporary
/temprri/. Occasionally, when a GB speaker uses a specially vigorous
enunciation he may possibly trill or more often make what is called a
alternatively a tap articulation for an /r/ but these variants — which
are not used by all speakers in any case — need not be cultivated by
the EFL learner. This tapped allophone of /r/ is often heard when /r/
intervenes between a short stressed vowel and another vowel eg in the
word 'very': here its
effect is to sound rather 'vigorous'. In such situations and as a very
common allophone immediately after /θ/ or /ð/ it sounds fairly
unremarkable. However, if a tapped articulation is used in situations
where a specially vigorous manner is not appropriate, the effect
produced is either of affectation (the actor Noel Coward provided a
example of this) or dialect influence. In Scotland and over a good deal
of the north of England strongly tapped types of /r/ are very common
articulations, notably in Liverpool and much of Yorkshire. If the
tongue-tip is curved further back than is usual in GB a
characteristically hollow sound is heard which is termed retroflex.
Many people in southwest England have such an /r/ and many Americans
use varieties of it.
The remaining two consonants of GB are also approximants. For
the palatal approximant /j/ the middle of the tongue makes a brief
movement towards the hard palate. It thus passes through the area of
/ɪ/ or of /eɪ/ and /i/. In the same way the rounded velar approximant
usually passes through the area of /ɔ/ or of /ʊ/ and /u/.
Of the twenty-four English consonantal phonemes sixteen are
members of the eight pairs distinguished from each other by being what
we may very conveniently call soft and sharp though in the phonetic
literature they are generally termed rather unsatisfactorily voiced or
lenis (ie weakly articulated) for /b, d, g, ʤ, v, ð, z, ʒ/ on the one
hand, and similarly voiceless or fortis (ie strongly articulated) for
/p, t, k, ʧ, f, θ, s, ʃ/ on the other. These common terms are also
unsatisfactory because so-called fortis consonants may well often be
quite weakly articulated and lenis ones may receive quite strong
We may summarise the English system of consonants as follows
The English Consonant Phonemes
1. /p/ as in pen. A
generally sharp bilabial plosive (aspirated when syllable-initial and
2. /b/ as in bad. A
generally soft bilabial plosive.
3. /t/ as in it tea. A
generally sharp alveolar plosive (aspirated when syllable-initial and
4. /d/ as in it did. A
generally soft alveolar plosive.
5. /k/ as in it cat. A
generally sharp velar plosive (aspirated when syllable-initial and
6. /g/ as in it get. A
generally soft velar plosive.
7. / ʧ / as in chin. A
generally sharp palato-alveolar affricate
(aspirated when syllable-initial and stressed).
8. / ʤ / as in it June. A
generally soft palato-alveolar affricate.
9. /f/ as in four. A
generally sharp labio-dental fricative.
10. /v/ as in very. A
generally soft labio-dental fricative.
11. /θ/ as in thin. A
generally sharp dental fricative.
12. /ð/ as in then. A
generally soft dental fricative.
13. /s/ as in see. A
generally sharp alveolar fricative.
14. /z/ as in zoo. A
generally soft alveolar fricative.
15. /ʃ/ as in she. A
generally sharp palato-alveolar fricative.
16. /ʒ/ as in vision. A
generally soft palato-alveolar fricative.
17. /h/ as in how. A
18. /m/ as in map. A
19. /n/ as in new. An
20. /ŋ/ as in sing. A
21. /l/ as in leg. An
(alveolar) lateral contractive. A
rather velarised allophone is used before consonants, except /j/), at
the ends of syllables, and especially when it is syllabic.)
22. /r/ as in red. An
(alveolar) longitudinal contractive.
(Usually an approximant but sometimes syllabic and often fricative,
voiced, notably after /d/, and voiceless, notably after /t/, when both
consonants belong to the same syllable.)
23. /j/ as in you. A
24. /w/ as in wet. A
rounded velar approximant.
GB Vowels and Diphthongs
Fig. 2 The True Limits of the Vowel Area
Fig. 3 Primary and Secondary Cardinal Vowels
Vocalic Sounds aka Vowels and Diphthongs etc
The vowel system of any other language one studies will hardly ever be
the same as one’s native vowel system and will often differ from it
greatly. For most of those who study English as an additional language
the vowels will constitute one of their greatest pronunciation problems
because English has a much more complex system of vowels than most
The study of vowel diagrams in language learning is very simple
but very important. They visualise for the student the contrasts which
must be maintained within the vowel system of the target language and
the points of danger where the target language contains a vowel
contrast not present in the mother tongue. Compared with listeners who
can recognise the basic vowel contrasts of English, those whose ears
are under-trained in this respect are working very much harder —
subconsciously most of the time — sorting out the messages from the
‘scrambled’ versions of the signals which are the only ones they are
capable of perceiving. These speakers are also tiresome to talk with at
length because their listeners have constantly to unscramble the
inefficient signals they give out.
The Nature of Vowel Sounds
When we recognise and distinguish vowel sounds what we are doing
is very similar to recognising a note, or better a chord, being played
on one musical instrument rather than another. In the case of musical
instruments their characteristic timbres are mainly due to the shape of
the cavity in which a column of air has been set in vibration. Much the
same goes for the continuous cavity which is known as the vocal tract,
extending from the larynx to the lips and, when the soft palate is
lowered, including the nasal cavity. The change from one vowel to
another is effected by changing the shape of this tract, principally by
altering the position of the tongue — whose great mobility allows us to
do so very quickly.
The reason for there being two-note chords is
that the mouth and throat cavities function to some degree separately.
When the back of the tongue is raised highest the middle and forepart
are automatically held lower than the back and there is therefore a
maximum-volume mouth cavity. If the forepart of the tongue is raised
highest the cavity in front of it has minimum volume and the throat
cavity now extends up over the lowered back of tongue. If the middle of
the tongue is raised highest there is usually of course lowering of the
forepart and of the back of the tongue. Since these adjustments of one
part of the tongue relative to the rest may be taken to be fairly
automatic we only need to know which of its three main divisions is
highest to know also the posture of the other two and therefore of the
configuration of the whole tongue. This circumstance makes it feasible
for us to treat the position of the highest part of the tongue as an
index to the shapes of the front and back cavities and consequently of
the quality of the vowel produced. We can thus with excellent effect
use two-dimensional diagrams to represent vowel qualities to
considerable degrees of precision.
The Cardinal Vowels
II.2 The usual type of vowel diagram employed is that of the IPA
(the International Phonetic Association). It was devised in the second
decade of the last century by the late Daniel Jones (1881-1967). He
based it on x-ray photographs of the positions of his tongue taken
during the articulation of four selected vowels. The two most
fundamental of these were the ones which could be produced with the
greatest precision without reliance upon auditory memory or comparison.
One was obtained by raising the tongue so high and so far forward that
(with average breath-pressure) any further movement would produce a
consonant. The other was obtained by lowering and retracting the tongue
as far as possible without producing a consonant. Starting from these
two he produced, by auditory judgement alone, two further sets of three
vowels. The first set, cardinals 2 to 4, were made by lowering the
front of the tongue through what he perceived to be three equal
successive intervals; the others, cardinals 6 to 8, were arrived at by
raising the back of the tongue three successive stages which he judged
to maintain the same auditory intervals as for cardinal vowels 1 to 4.
The x-ray photographs on which the diagram was based were of the basic
pair (1 and 5) and the lowest of the front series (4) and highest of
the back series (8). When the highest points of the tongue for these
four vowels were plotted a figure could be drawn to show their
relationships: on this were placed the remaining four cardinal vowels
in positions to conform with their auditory relationships. As such a
curve-sided figure was difficult to draw, a form of diagram was adopted
with straight sides. Diagrams of this shape featured notably in Jones’s
influential An Outline of English Phonetics in 1932.
The cardinal vowels were chosen ‘upon the principle that no two of them
are so near to each other as to be incapable of distinguishing words’
(IPA Principles 1949 p.4). Conversely to represent vowel phonemes to a
very much greater degree of precision than the interval between
adjacent cardinals is undesirable. Even a highly trained phonetician
cannot pinpoint a vowel more precisely than within for example
one-twenty-fifth of the distance from open to close. The untrained
listener is generally not likely to notice vowel variation involving
less than about a sixth of this distance.
In 1932 in his Outline of English Phonetics Jones included side
by side with his schematised (straight-sided) allegedly more ‘accurate’
diagram a ‘Simplified Chart of English Vowels for use in practical
teaching of the language’. In his later works such as the ‘re-written’
edition of The Pronunciation of English (1950 etc) and even in his
theoretical treatise The Phoneme (1950) Jones himself used this further
simplified shape in preference to the earlier one. It is virtually the
only shape now in use and was ultimately made the official
International Phonetic Association version in the 1989 revision of the
International Phonetic Association’s chart of authorised symbols
The relationships of the vowel positions to each other and to the
whole diagram are much more easily grasped and remembered if they are
submitted to a high degree of schematisation. For present purposes the
choice of size for the vowel position indicator implies an area of
range, (‘Dots’ in the manner of geometrical drawings, which imply
position but no dimension, have been consciously avoided).
We employ a ‘grid’ within the diagram containing about 30
‘slots’ most of them of approximately the same area as the 11 regular
square interstices on its right-hand side. Besides tongue position,
lip-posture (rounded or unrounded) is shown by placing the vowel symbol
within a square or circle. Squares are also used to indicate diphthongs
which begin and end unrounded, circles those which begin and end
rounded. A D-shape indicates a diphthong beginning unrounded but ending
rounded, its reverse one beginning rounded and ending
These diagrams are designed to bring out the broad differences
between mother tongue and target language and to avoid unrealistically
minute distinctions which may cause learners to underestimate the
adequacy of their powers of discrimination and so discourage
Because the diagram is designed to suggest the greater
advancement of the front of the tongue for closer than for open vowels
only eleven of the thirty-four interstices are regular squares. The
number of vowel indicator centrings available if we choose to centre
vowel indicators (squares or circles) only midway between sets of
parallel lines (except in so far as the lines on the left of the
diagram are not parallel) is about 100. This does not mean that this
system suggests a hundred absolute vowel contrasts because all areas
with adjacent indicator areas overlap, laterally adjacent 50%,
diagonally adjacent 25%. In fact about 30 basic vowel types are
suggested by such a diagram.
We have standardised the size of all the squares and circles on
that of each of the completely regular squares on the right hand side
of the diagram. The vowel areas indicated by our squares and circles
may be taken as representing a moderate proportion of the range of
variation of the phoneme in the ordinary speech of an individual
The amount of further variation possible is still considerable
but differs in degree and direction for each phoneme and would
necessitate inconveniently complex diagrams. Particularly in syllables
with least prominence, it is possible for phonemic oppositions to
become completely neutralised, though it should be remembered that
tongue-position coincidence alone may not be sufficient to produce
neutralisation: other features including lip-posture and length
regularly preserve phonemic distinctions.
The choice between representing any particular vowel phoneme
articulation range by either of two adjacent indicators at least along
the vertical axes can safely be made on the basis of convenience. The
three articulations e , ɜː and ɔ on Fig. 1 could be made one degree
lower without representing at all unsuitable targets for the learner.
The indicator positions in this diagram of the English simple vowels
could be shifted one degree in any direction possible within the
diagram without representing a totally unacceptable quality for the
phoneme in question. Vowel areas of at least twice the present size
might have been employed in most cases. Only a bout ten of the thirty
possible two-degree shifts would coincide with other vowels.
We may summarise the GB system of simple vowels as follows
The Characteristically Monophthongal GB Vowel Phonemes
1. / i: / as in see.
When relatively short, a semi-half-close front-centralised simple
vowel: otherwise often realised as a very narrow front-closing
diphthong [ij]. See Fig 1. A rhythmically distinct typically
short and never diphthongal weak allophone is represented as /i/.
2. / ɪ / as in six. A half-close, front-central simple vowel. Usually relatively short. Always checked in mainstream GB usage.
3. / e / as in ten. A
mid front simple vowel. Usually relatively short. Always
checked ie followed in its syllable by a consonant.
4. / ӕ / as in hat. A
retracted and/or lowered semi-half-open front simple vowel. Usually
short before sharp consonants (though not always so so in eg that) but
otherwise often fully long (eg in bad, etc).
5. / ɑː / as in arm. An open back-centralised-to-central simple vowel. Usually relatively long.
6. / ɒ / as in got. An open back slightly-rounded simple vowel. Usually relatively short. Always checked
7. / ɔː / as in law. A mid back medium-rounded simple vowel. Usually relatively long.
8. / ʊ / as in put. A
half-close back-central fairly well rounded simple vowel. Usually
relatively short. Always checked in mainstream GB usage. Among many
speakers, especially younger people, this vowel tends increasingly to
be considerably centred and almost or entirely unrounded.
9. / u: / as in too. When
relatively short, an approximately semi-half-close back-centralised
moderately rounded simple vowel. Otherwise, very often, realised as a
very narrow back-closing diphthong [uw]. See Fig 1. Usually more
central after / ʧ , ʤ / and /j/.
10. / ᴧ / as in cup. A semi-half-open front centralised-to-central simple vowel. Usually relatively short. Always checked.
11. / ɜː / as in fur. A mid-central simple vowel. Usually relatively long.
12. / ə / as in banana. A mid-central simple vowel. Usually relatively – often very – short. Slightly more open in final unchecked syllables.
The classification of /iː/ and /uː/ along with
the simple long vowels, although they are diphthongal probably in the
majority of their occurrences, is justifiable on two counts. Firstly,
they are certainly much more often monophthongal than the other two
narrow closing diphthongs /eɪ/ and /əʊ/. Secondly, native speakers of
English without phonetic training are usually quite unconscious of any
movement involved in making / i: / and / u: / though they very possibly
may be so in the case of / eɪ / and / əʊ /.
The American phonetician Kenneth L. Pike preferred to transcribe
/eɪ/ and /əʊ/ with the single symbols /e/ and /o/ for American English
chiefly because he found that very many of his beginning students were
not conscious of these sounds as diphthongal. The Kenyon and Knott
Pronouncing Dictionary of American English (1944) showed the same
preference. Others, beginning with Henry Sweet, have preferred
such symbolisations as /ij, uw, ej, ow/ etc.
The twelve vowel phonemes described above are referred to as
simple vowels because in their characteristic forms they have no
obviously noticeable change of quality such as is produced if there is
considerable movement of the tongue during their
Complex vowels or diphthongs, on the other hand, have in their
characteristic forms such movement and quality change taking place
within the limits of a single syllable. Syllables are constituents of
words uttered with a single effort of articulation. There are in GB
five closing and three centring traditionally recognised diphthongs.
They are as follows:
The Characteristically Diphthongal GB Vocalic Phonemes
13. / eɪ / as in day. A narrow front-closing diphthong starting about mid front.
14. / əʊ / as in old. A narrow back-closing diphthong starting about mid central.
15. / aɪ / as in five. A
fairly wide front-closing diphthong starting about semi-half-open front
centralised-to-central. Very often narrow or monophthongal before
16. / aʊ / as in now. A fairly
wide back-closing diphthong starting about semi-half-open back
centralised-to-central. Very often narrow or monophthongal before /ə/.
17. / ɔɪ / as in boy. A fairly
wide front-closing diphthong starting about semi-half-open back. It
begins slightly rounded. Often narrow or monophthongal before
18. / ɪə / as in near. Earlier
a centring diphthong starting approximately semi-half-close to
half-close front centralised-to-central. In the last century often
narrowed to a long simple vowel at least before consonants and when
unstressed, but now increasingly monophthongal in any situation
especially among younger speakers.
19. / eə / as in hair. A
centring diphthong starting about half-open front. In the last century
it was latterly generally realised as a long simple vowel before
consonants, when unstressed, and when stressed but in a structural
word. At present the monophthongal version has become so nearly
universal among middle-aged and young speakers that it is arguably more
suitable to re-classify the phoneme as a GB simple vowel. The ODP
(Oxford Dictionary of Pronunciation for Current English 2001) uses the
notation /ɛː/ for it as does the leading EFL textbook Practical
Phonetics and Phonology by B. S. Collins and I. Mees.
20. / ʊə / as in pure.
In the last century this phoneme was mainly a centring diphthong
starting about semi-half-close to half-close with back-
centralised-to-central medium rounding but often narrowed to a long
simple vowel before consonants and when unstressed. In the present
century among younger speakers it has begun to be widely
monophthongised in all situations also among a monority losing its
rounding and becoming so open as to resemble so much the mainly
unstressable schwa phoneme /ə/ as to merge with it.
It is quite an adequate description of a GB diphthong to say where it
begins, whether narrow or wide, and in which of the four areas
close-front, close-central, close-back and central it terminates by
referring to it as front-closing etc or centring. Diphthongs generally
begin in approximately the same place as one or other of the simple
vowels of the language is to be found.
The diphthongs of any language generally constitute a much less
complicated and less stable system than its simple vowels. The exact
number of diphthongs a language may be said to possess is, as we see in
respect of English, often open to debate. One reason for this is that
some phonemes may as we have seen be equally validly designated as long
vowels or as diphthongs. Another is that there may be doubt as to
whether two successive vowel sounds should be considered as separate
phonemes or as constituting a diphthong. The sequence in the English
word ruin is a case in point. A third important reason for lack of
certainty in classifying diphthongs is that the number of words in
which a particular diphthong occurs may be so very limited as to make
it difficult to come to a decision on its status. Also the words may be
so rarely used or so exclusively learnèd in character that it is
doubtful whether they can properly be recognised as
The most useful purpose for studying diagrams of the English
diphthongs is to appreciate the relationships especially of their
starting-points and lip-conditions relative to the positions and
lip-conditions of the English simple vowels.
Only /oʊ/ of the General American diphthongs differs noticeably
from the usual GB value in having for many speakers a rounded and more
back beginning. The most common GB type is, however quite common among
Americans; a version beginning front of centre is very rare there and
becoming increasingly conspicuous in the UK. The diphthongs
traditionally represented in GB as /ɪə/ and /ʊə/ are by American
phoneticians usually analysed as the sequences /iːə / and /uːə/ when
they do not correspond to r-spellings as in /ɪr/, /ʊr/. Such an
analysis would be perfectly reasonable for GB. Since in GA pairs of
words like Mary and merry are not usually distinct, GA /er/ corresponds
to both /eər/ and /er/ of GB.
Lip Conditions and Phonetic Correction
II.12 Although the characteristic lip-posture for a target vowel
may be rounded, a teacher should be careful never to let the appearance
of students’ lips prompt comment. The sound quality alone should be the
criterion. There are compensating adjustments possible within the vocal
tract by which many speakers are able with visibly unrounded lips to
produce rounded sound quality. The Japanese high back vowel seems by
many speakers to be made somewhat auditorily rounded without being
obviously visibly so.
Vowel Practice Sentences
1. 'Each of 'these| is 'equally 'easy to re`peat.
2. It’s in `ink, `isn’t it?
3. 'Fred gets his `head wet.
4. He 'has that bad `back of his.
5. Father was `calm at the `ˏstart.
6. Tom’s got a 'lot of 'long `jobs to do to`ˏmorrow.
7. `George| poured `water all over it.
8. He 'wouldn’t even `look at a good `ˏbook.
9. We `soon `ˏknew | it was our `duty to do it.
10. `Someone up a`ˏbove | 'must be having `fun.
11 `ˏShirley | was Herbert’s 'first `girl-friend.
12. They `had ba`nanas about a `ˏminute or so a˚go.
13. They’d 'waited and `waited |for 'days and `days.
14. `Oh, `no. `Don’t go home by `ˏboat, Joe.
15. 'Why is it 'tied `quite so `tight?
16. 'How had they 'found `out about it?
17. `ˏJoyce 'coyly a 'voids | employing `boys.
18. It’s not `nearly as `serious as they `ˏfear.
19. I `daresay `ˏpears | are 'fairly `scarce `ˏthere.
20. `During a `European `ˏtour, | he di'scovered the `cure.