Linguistish: English Phonetics 101

Welcome one, welcome all. Last time I wrote about the smallest meaningful units that make up words (morphemes), but this post is all about sounds.

Part I: More like pho-NO-logy
The area of linguistics known as phonology looks at how speech sounds are organised in a language and across languages. To look more at the production of sounds, you want to be in phonetics.

To produce speech, we modify the air flow from our lungs. The shape of the vocal tract as the air passes through it alters the sound produced.

The main sound classes are:

  • consonants: sounds made by bringing an articulator close to or in contact with another, causing total or substantial obstruction in the vocal tract
  • vowels: sounds made with little or no obstruction in the vocal tract
  • semi-vowels or glides: sounds made by gliding between articulators, combining elements of vowels and consonants

If those definitions are making you jackiechanwtfmeme.jpg, don’t worry. It’s easier than it seems.

Articulators – also known as speech organs – are what we use to help us make language. They can be active (moveable) or passive (stationary):

  • active articulators: tongue, bottom lip
  • passive articulators: teeth, alveolar ridge (a part of the roof of your mouth), upper lip

Part II: A consonant, please, Rachel
When describing consonant sounds, linguists talk about voice, place and manner.

voice: whether a sound is voiced or voiceless, that is to say with vibration of the vocal folds, or without.

place: the part of the vocal tract at which obstruction occurs e.g. alveolar sounds have obstruction at the alveolar ridge.

manner: the type of air flow used in producing the sound.

Consonant sounds come in voiced/voiceless pairs. Saving IPA (the International Phonetic Alphabet, a way of writing down sounds) for another day, an example pair is /p/ and /b/, as in the phonemes at the start of pat and bat respectively. /b/ is voiced (with vibration) and /p/ is voiceless. Other pairs include (voiced on the right):

  • /t/ and /d/ e.g. tog and dog
  • /k/ and /g/ e.g. come and gum
  • /s/ and /z/ e.g. sue and zoo
  • /f/ and /v/ e.g. fan and van


Putting my Art GCSE to good use

Putting my Art GCSE to good use (click to enlarge).

Place is pretty self-explanatory, but some of the terms are scary Latin-looking things, so here’s an explanation anyway:

  • bilabial sounds: created using the upper and lower lips, e.g. /p/ in put
  • labiodental sounds: created using lower lip and top teeth, e.g. /f/ in flip
  • dental sounds: created using tongue and top teeth, e.g. /θ/ in thin (/θ/ roughly corresponds to written <th> in many English words)
  • alveolar sounds: created using tongue and alveolar ridge, e.g. /t/ in top
  • post-alveolar sounds: created using tongue and post-alveolar ridge, e.g. /ʃ/ in shop (/ʃ/ = <sh>)
  • velar sounds: created using tongue and velum, e.g. /g/ in go
  • glottal sounds: created with constriction at the glottis, e.g. bottle ‘without the ts’, a stigmatised feature of many English dialects


  • plosive sounds: the active articulator obstructs air from being released from the oral cavity and so pressure builds up, resulting in plosion when the articulator moves e.g. /p/ in place
  • fricative sounds: articulators come close together but don’t touch, so the air flow between them is turbulent e.g. /f/ in flake
  • nasal: air in the nasal cavity e.g. /n/ in now
  • approximant: articulators come close together, but not so close as fricatives, so there is no turbulent air flow e.g. /j/ in you (/j/ confusingly corresponds to the sound associated with the letter <y>)

Part III: And a vowel, please
Vowels all have an open manner of articulation and are considered to be voiced, so the consonant labels don’t really apply to them. Instead, vowels can be talked about in terms of height and frontness-backness, as well as whether the lips are rounded during production.

While consonants in the IPA are represented often by symbols that fit with their English alphabet counterparts (e.g. the sound /p/ and the letter <p>), vowels are a bit more tricky. As a result, the vowel quadrilateral below uses words that the sounds come in, rather than actual IPA notation. Vowels are also quite variant depending on accent, and the following examples are based on an RP British accent, so it may not fit for everyone.

A sexy (yet simplified) vowel quadrilateral

A sexy (yet simplified) vowel quadrilateral (click to enlarge).

So, in the lingo, the vowel in lark (technically /ɑ:/ in IPA), which is the same as the vowel in bath and path and glass of many Southerners (but not Northerners), is a low back vowel. Leek, sporting a lovely /i:/ vowel, is a high front vowel. Luck and law form an unrounded/rounded lips pair. They’re the same vowel sound, except luck uses unrounded lips and law rounded.

One thong or two?
You may have noticed that not all the vowels in English (of which there are considerably more sounds than letters) are represented in the diagram above. That’s because some vowels are monophthongs, in that the tongue stays in one position during production of the sound. Others are diphthongs, where the tongue moves during production – a fusion of vowel sounds, if you like. Diphthongs come in words like facefinefoam and fear, and coycow, care and core. Of course, pronunciation again depends on your accent.

Part IV: Schwat?
There’s a cheeky little fellow missing from the discussion, known as schwa. Written as /ə/ in IPA and found in the middle of the quadrilateral (Pages wouldn’t let me put it there without messing up the formatting of the whole thing), this vowel sound is the most frequent in English. It can form the vocal representation of all vowel letters, but actually has no direct letter correspondent. When spoken with natural pronunciation (as opposed to hyper-correct), schwa is the ‘uh’ in about, every, decimal, phonology, medium, syringe.

This leads me onto my final point: English spelling and English pronunciation are not always the same, for various reasons. Words that look like they should be said one way are said another, and it can be confusing at times. But never fear: there is order in chaos, so next time someone posts one of those poems about English to their Facebook, you can very firmly click on the dislike button. Or you could, if Facebook had one.


2 thoughts on “Linguistish: English Phonetics 101

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