1. Phonology

Like many languages, English has wide variation in pronunciation, both historically and from dialect to dialect. In general, however, the regional dialects of English share a largely similar (though not identical) phonological system.

Phonological analysis of English often concentrates on, or uses as a reference point, one or more of the prestige or standard accents, such as Received Pronunciation for England, General American for the United States, and General Australian for Australia. Nevertheless, many other dialects of English are spoken, which do not necessarily descend from any of these standardised accents. Information about these standardised accents functions only as a limited guide to all of English phonology, which one can later expand upon once one becomes more familiar with some of the many other dialects of English that are spoken.

2. Phonemes

phoneme of a language or dialect is an abstraction of a speech sound or of a group of different sounds which are all perceived to have the same function by speakers of that particular language or dialect. For example, the English word "through" consists of three phonemes: the initial "th" sound, the "r" sound, and an "oo" vowel sound. Notice that the phonemes in this and many other English words do not always correspond directly to the letters used to spell them (English orthography is not as strongly phonemic as that of certain other languages).

The number and distribution of phonemes in English vary from dialect to dialect, and also depend on the interpretation of the individual researcher. The number of consonant phonemes is generally put at 24 (or slightly more). The number of vowels is subject to greater variation; in the system presented on this page there are 20 vowel phonemes in Received Pronunciation, 14–16 in General American and 20–21 in Australian English. The pronunciation keys used in dictionaries generally contain a slightly greater number of symbols than this, to take account of certain sounds used in foreign words and certain noticeable distinctions that may not be—strictly speaking—phonemic.

A. Consonants - the following table shows the 24 consonant phonemes found in most dialects of English, in addition to /x/, whose distribution is more limited. When consonants appear in pairs, the first is fortis (strong) and the second is lenis (weak). Fortis consonants are always voiceless, while lenis consonants are generally partially or fully voiced. Fortis stops are sometimes aspirated (pronounce a sound with an exhalation of breath) or glottalized, while lenis consonants never are.

Most varieties of English have syllabic consonants in some words, principally [l̩, m̩, n̩], for example at the end of bottlerhythm and button. In such cases, no phonetic vowel is pronounced between the last two consonants. It is common for syllabic consonants to be transcribed with a subscript mark, so that phonetic transcription of bottle would be [ˈbɒtl̩] and for button [ˈbʌtn̩]. In theory, such consonants could be analysed as individual phonemes. However, this would add several extra consonant phonemes to the inventory for English, and phonologists prefer to identify syllabic nasals and liquids phonemically as /əC/. Thus button is phonemically /ˈbʌtən/ and 'bottle' is phonemically /ˈbɒtəl/.

The voiceless velar fricative /x/ is mainly used in Scottish and Hiberno-English; words with /x/ in Scottish accents tend to be pronounced with /k/ in other dialects. The velar fricative sometimes appears in recent loan words such as chutzpah. Many speakers of White South African English realize /x/ as uvular [χ].

In some conservative accents in Scotland, Ireland, the southern United States, and New England, the digraph wh in words like which and whine represents a voiceless w sound [ʍ], a voiceless labiovelar fricative or approximant, which contrasts with the voiced w of witch and wine. In most dialects, this sound is lost, and is pronounced as a voiced w (the winewhine merger). Phonemically this sound is analysed as a consonant cluster /hw/, rather than as a separate phoneme */ʍ/. Thus which and whine are transcribed phonemically as /hwɪtʃ/ and /hwaɪn/. This does not mean that such speakers actually pronounce [h] followed by [w]: the phonemic transcription /hw/ is simply a convenient way of representing a single sound [ʍ] without analysing such dialects as having an extra phoneme.  

Similarly, the sound at the beginning of huge in most accents is a voiceless palatal fricative [ç], but this is analysed phonemically as the consonant cluster /hj/ so that huge is transcribed /hjuːdʒ/. As with /hw/, this does not mean that speakers pronounce [h] followed by [j]; the phonemic transcription /hj/ is simply a convenient way of representing the single sound [ç]. The yod-dropping found in Norfolk dialect means that the traditional Norfolk pronunciation of huge is [hʊudʒ] and not [çuːdʒ].
This phoneme is conventionally transcribed with the basic Latin letter r (the IPA symbol for the alveolar trill), even though its pronunciation is rarely a trill and is usually a postalveolar approximant [ɹ̠].

The postalveolar consonants /tʃ, dʒ, ʃ, ʒ/ are also often slightly labialized: [tʃʷ dʒʷ ʃʷ ʒʷ].

Consonant examples - the following table shows typical examples of the occurrence of the above consonant phonemes in words.


Sonorants - Received Pronunciation has two main allophones of /l/: the clear or plain [l], and the dark or velarized [ɫ]. The clear variant is used before vowels when they are in the same syllable, and the dark variant when the /l/ precedes a consonant or is in syllable-final position before silence. In Wales, Ireland, and the Caribbean, /l/ is always clear, and in Scotland, Australia, New Zealand and Canada it is always dark. In General American, /l/ is generally dark, but to varying degrees: before stressed vowels it is neutral or only slightly velarized. In southern U.S. accents it is noticeably clear between vowels, and in some other positions. In urban accents across England and Scotland, as well as New Zealand and some parts of the United States,/l/ can be pronounced as an approximant or semivowel ([w], [o], [ʊ]) at the end of a syllable (l-vocalization).

Depending on dialect, /r/ has at least the following allophones in varieties of English around the world:
alveolar flap [ɾ]

In most dialects /r/ is labialized [ɹ̠ʷ] in many positions, as in reed [ɹʷiːd] and tree [tɹ̥ʷiː]; in the latter case, the/t/ may be slightly labialized as well. In General American, it is labialized at the beginning of a word but not at the end. There are two primary articulations of the approximant /r/: apical (with the tip of the tongue approaching the alveolar ridge or even curled back slightly) and domal (with a centralized bunching of the tongue known as "molar r" or sometimes "bunched r" or "braced r"). Ladefoged wrote "Many BBC English speakers have the tip of the tongue raised towards the roof of the mouth in the general location of the alveolar ridge, but many American english speakers simply bunch the body of the tongue up so that it is hard to say where the articulation is". The distinction is transcribed ɹ̺ vs ɹ̈ in the extensions to the IPA but has little or no acoustic or auditory consequence, and may vary idiosyncratically between individuals. For other realizations of /r/, see below. In non-rhotic accents, such as Received Pronunciation and Australian English,/r/ is subject to the phonotactic constraint that it can only appear before a vowel.
In some rhotic accents, such as General American, /r/ when not followed by a vowel is realized as an r-coloring of the preceding vowel or its coda: nurse [ˈnɝs], butter [ˈbʌtɚ].
The distinctions between the nasals are neutralized in some environments. For example, before a final /p/,/t/ or /k/ there is nearly always only one nasal sound that can appear in each case: [m], [n] or [ŋ] respectively (as in the words limplintlink – note that the n of link is pronounced [ŋ]). This effect can even occur across syllable or word boundaries, particularly in stressed syllables: synchrony is pronounced [ˈsɪŋkɹəni] where assynchronic may be pronounced either as [sɪŋˈkɹɒnɨk] or as [sɪnˈkɹɒnɨk]. For other possible syllable-final combinations, see Coda in the Phonotactics section below.

Obstruents - in most dialects, the fortis stops and affricate /p, t, tʃ, k/ have various different allophones, and are distinguished from the lenis stops and affricate /b, d, dʒ, ɡ/ by several phonetic features.

The allophones of the fortes /p, t, tʃ, k/ include:
aspirated [pʰ, tʰ, kʰ] when they occur at the beginning of a word, as in tomatotrip, or at the beginning of a stressed syllable in the middle of a word, as in potato. They are unaspirated [p, t, k] after /s/ within the same syllable, as in stan, span, scan, and at the ends of syllables, as in matmapmac. The voiceless fricatives are always unaspirated, but a notable exception to this are Welsh-speaking areas of Wales, where they are often aspirated.

In many accents of English, fortis stops /p, t, k, tʃ/ are glottalized in some positions. This may be heard either as a glottal stop preceding the oral closure ("pre-glottalization" or "glottal reinforcement") or as a substitution of the glottal stop [ʔ] for the oral stop (glottal replacement). /tʃ/ can only be pre-glottalized. Pre-glottalization normally occurs in British and American English when the fortis consonant phoneme is followed by another consonant or when the consonant is in final position. Thus football and catching are often pronounced [ˈfʊʔtbɔːɫ] and [ˈkʰæʔtʃɪŋ], respectively. Glottal replacement often happens in cases such as those just given, so that football is frequently pronounced [ˈfʊʔbɔːɫ]. In addition, however, glottal replacement is increasingly common in British English when /t/ occurs between vowels if the preceding vowel is stressed; thus getting better is often pronounced by younger speakers as [ˈɡeʔɪŋ ˌbeʔə]. Such t-glottalization also occurs in many British regional accents, including Cockney, where it can also occur at the end of words, and where /p/ and /k/ are sometimes treated the same way.

Among stops, both fortes and lenes: мay have no audible release [p̚, b̚, t̚, d̚, k̚, ɡ̚] in the word-final position. These allophones are more common in North America than Great Britain.
Always have a 'masked release' before another plosive or affricate (as in rubbed [ˈrʌˑb̚d̥]), i.e. the release of the first stop is made after the closure of the second stop. This also applies when the following stop is homorganic (articulated in the same place), as in top player. A notable exception to this is Welsh English, where stops are usually released in this environment.

The affricates /tʃ, dʒ/ have a mandatory fricative release in all environments. Very often in the United States and Canada, and less frequently in Australia and New Zealand, both /t/ and /d/ can be pronounced as a voiced flap [ɾ] in certain positions: when they come between a preceding stressed vowel (possibly with intervening /r/) and precede an unstressed vowel or syllabic /l/. Examples include waterbottlepetalpeddle (the last two words sound alike when flapped). The flap may even appear at word boundaries, as in put it on. When the combination /nt/ appears in such positions, some American speakers pronounce it as a nasalized flap that may become indistinguishable from /n/, so winter [ˈwɪɾ̃ɚ] may be pronounced similarly or identically to winner [ˈwɪnɚ].

B. VowelsEnglish has a particularly large number of vowel phonemes, and on top of that the vowels of English differ considerably between dialects. Because of this, corresponding vowels may be transcribed with various symbols depending on the dialect under consideration. When considering English as a whole, lexical sets are often used, each named by a word containing the vowel or vowels in question. For example, the LOT set consists of words which, like lot, have /ɒ/ in Received Pronunciation and /ɑ/ in General American. The "LOT vowel" then refers to the vowel that appears in those words in whichever dialect is being considered, or (at a greater level of abstraction) to a diaphoneme which transcends all dialects. A commonly used system of lexical sets, due to John C. Wells, is presented below; for each set, the corresponding phonemes are given for RP (first column) and General American (second column), using the notation that will be used on this page.

ɔːr, oʊr

For a table that shows the pronunciations of these vowels in a wider range of English dialects, see IPA chart for English dialects.

The following tables show the vowel phonemes of three standard varieties of English. The notation system used here for Received Pronunciation (RP) is fairly standard; the others less so. For different ways of transcribing General American, see Transcription variants below. The feature descriptions given here (front, close, etc.) are abstracted somewhat; the actual pronunciations of these vowels are somewhat more accurately conveyed by the IPA symbols used (see Vowel for a chart indicating the meanings of these symbols; though note also the points listed below the following tables).

                    Received Pronunciation



eɪ   aɪ   ɔɪ   aʊ   əʊ
ɪə   eə   ʊə

(eɪə   aɪə   ɔɪə   aʊə   əʊə)

                General American




eɪ   aɪ   ɔɪ   aʊ   oʊ
(ɪə)   (eə)

The differences between these tables can be explained as followsRP transcriptions use /e/ rather than /ɛ/ largely for convenience and historical tradition; it does not necessarily represent a different sound from the General American phoneme, although the RP vowel may be described as somewhat less open than the American one. In General American, the vowels [ə], [ʌ] and [ɜː] may be considered a single phoneme.
General American lacks a phoneme corresponding to RP /ɒ/ (LOTCLOTH), instead using /ɑː/ in the LOT words and generally /ɔː/ in the CLOTH words. In a few North American accents, namely in New England and the Canadian Maritime provincesLOT words do not have the vowel of PALM (the father–bother merger has not occurred) but instead merge with CLOTH/THOUGHT.
In certain American English dialects, the diphthongs /ɪə/ and /eə/ can be found in words such as ideas and rail, respectively. The different notations used for the vowel of GOAT in RP and General American (/əʊ/ and /oʊ/) reflect a difference in the most common phonetic realizations of that vowel.
The triphthongs given in the RP table are usually regarded as sequences of two phonemes (a diphthong plus/ə/); however, in RP, these sequences frequently undergo smoothing into single diphthongs or even monophthongs.

Although the notation /ʌ/ is used for the vowel of STRUT in RP, the actual pronunciation is closer to a near-open central vowel [ɐ]. The symbol ʌ continues to be used for reasons of tradition (it was historically a back vowel) and because it is still back in other varieties.
The vowel /æ/ is coming to be pronounced more open (approaching [a]) by many modern RP speakers. In American speech, however, there is a tendency for it to become more closed, tenser and even diphthongized (to something like [eə]), particularly in certain environments, such as before a nasal consonant. Some American accents, for example those of New York CityPhiladelphia and Baltimore, make a marginal phonemic distinction between /æ/ and /eə/, although the two occur largely in mutually exclusive environments. See æ-tensing.

A significant number of words (the BATH group) have /æ/ in General American, but /ɑː/ in RP (and mostly/aː/ in Australian). Most speakers in Canada outside of the Maritime Provinces, and some speakers in the United States, do not distinguish /ɑː/ from /ɔː/, except before /r/ (see cotcaught merger).
In General American and Canadian (which are rhotic accents, where /r/ is pronounced in positions where it does not precede a vowel), many of the vowels can be r-colored by way of realization of a following /r/. This is often transcribed phonetically using a vowel symbol with an added retroflexion diacritic [˞]; thus the symbol [ɚ] has been created for an r-colored schwa (sometimes called schwar) as in LETTER, and the vowel of START can be modified to make [ɑ˞] so that the word 'start' may be transcribed [stɑ˞t]. Alternatively, the START vowel might be written [stɑɚt] to indicate an r-colored off glide. The vowel /ɜː/ (as in NURSE) is generally always r-colored in these dialects, and this can be written [ɝ] (or as a syllabic [ɹ̩]).

In RP and other dialects, many words from the CURE group are coming to be pronounced by an increasing number of speakers with the NORTH vowel (so sure is often pronounced like shore). Also the RP vowels /ɛə/ and /ʊə/ may be monophthongized to [ɛː] and [oː] respectively.

The vowels of FLEECE and GOOSE are commonly pronounced as narrow diphthongs, approaching [ɪi] and [ʊu], in both General American and RP; near-RP speakers may have particularly marked diphthongization of the type [əi] and [əu ~ əʉ], respectively.

Allophones of vowels - listed here are some of the significant cases of allophony of vowels found within standard English dialects. There is a tendency for many vowels to be pronounced with greater length in open syllables than closed syllables, and with greater length in syllables ending with a voiced consonant than with a voiceless one. For example, the /aɪ/ in advise is longer than that in advice.
In many accents of English, tense vowels undergo breaking before /l/, resulting in pronunciations like [pʰiəɫ]for peel, [pʰuəɫ] for pool, [pʰeəɫ] for pail, and [pʰoəɫ] for pole.
In RP, the vowel /əʊ/ may be pronounced more back, as [ɒʊ], before syllable-final /l/, as in goal. In Australian English the vowel /əʉ/ is similarly backed to [ɔʊ] before /l/.
The vowel /ə/ is often pronounced [ɐ] in open syllables.
The PRICE and MOUTH diphthongs may be pronounced with a less open starting point when followed by a voiceless consonant; this is chiefly a feature of Canadian speech (Canadian raising), but is also found in parts of the United States.  Thus writer may be distinguished from rider even when flapping causes the /t/ and/d/ to be pronounced identically.

Unstressed syllables unstressed syllables in English may contain almost any vowel, but there are certain sounds—characterized by central position and weakness—that are particularly often found as the nuclei of syllables of this type. These include:

schwa, [ə], as in COMMA and (in non-rhotic dialects) LETTER (pandapander merger); also in many other positions such as aboutphotographpaddock, etc. This sound is essentially restricted to unstressed syllables exclusively. In the approach presented here it is identified as a phoneme /ə/, although other analyses do not have a separate phoneme for schwa and regard it as a reduction or neutralization of other vowels in syllables with the lowest degree of stress.

r-colored schwa, [ɚ], as in LETTER in General American and some other rhotic dialects, which can be identified with the underlying sequence /ər/.

syllabic consonants: [l̩] as in bottle, [n̩] as in button, [m̩] as in rhythm. These may be phonemized either as a plain consonant or as a schwa followed by a consonant; for example button may be represented as /ˈbʌtn̩/ or /ˈbʌtən/ (see above under Consonants).

- [ɪ], as in rosesmakingexpect. This can be identified with the phoneme /ɪ/, although in unstressed syllables it may be pronounced more centrally (in American tradition the barred i symbol ɨ is used here), and for some speakers (particularly in Australian and New Zealand and some American English) it is merged with /ə/ in these syllables (weak vowel merger). Among speakers who retain the distinction there are many cases where free variation between /ɪ/ and /ə/ is found, as in the second syllable of typical. (The OED has recently adopted the symbol  to indicate such cases.)

- [ʊ], as in argumenttoday, for which similar considerations apply as in the case of [ɪ]. (The symbol ᵿ is sometimes used in these cases, similarly to /ᵻ/.) Some speakers may also have a rounded schwa, [ɵ], used in words like omission [ɵˈmɪʃən].

- [i], as in happycoffee, in many dialects (others have [ɪ] in this position). The phonemic status of this [i] is not easy to establish. Some authors consider it to correspond phonemically with a close front vowel that is neither the vowel of KIT nor that of FLEECE; it occurs chiefly in contexts where the contrast between these vowels is neutralized, implying that it represents an archiphoneme, which may be written /i/. Many speakers, however, do have a contrast in pairs of words like studied and studded or taxis and taxes; the contrast may be [i] vs. [ɪ], [ɪ] vs. [ə] or [i] vs. [ə], hence some authors consider that the happY-vowel should be identified phonemically either with the vowel of KIT or that of FLEECE, depending on speaker. See also happy-tensing.

- [u], as in influenceto each. This is the back rounded counterpart to [i] described above; its phonemic status is treated in the same works as cited there.

Vowel reduction in unstressed syllables is a significant feature of English. Syllables of the types listed above often correspond to a syllable containing a different vowel ("full vowel") used in other forms of the same morpheme where that syllable is stressed. For example, the first o in photograph, being stressed, is pronounced with the GOAT vowel, but in photography, where it is unstressed, it is reduced to schwa. Also, certain common words (aanoffor, etc.) are pronounced with a schwa when they are unstressed, although they have different vowels when they are in a stressed position (see Weak and strong forms in English).

Some unstressed syllables, however, retain full (unreduced) vowels, i.e. vowels other than those listed above. Examples are the /æ/ in ambition and the /aɪ/ in finite. Some phonologists regard such syllables as not being fully unstressed (they may describe them as having tertiary stress); some dictionaries have marked such syllables as having secondary stress. However linguists such as Ladefoged and Bolinger (1986) regard this as a difference purely of vowel quality and not of stress, and thus argue that vowel reduction itself is phonemic in English. Examples of words where vowel reduction seems to be distinctive for some speakers include chickaree vs.chicory (the latter has the reduced vowel of HAPPY, whereas the former has the FLEECE vowel without reduction), and Pharaoh vs. farrow (both have the GOAT vowel, but in the latter word it may reduce to [ɵ]).

3. Rhoticity in English 

A. Definition of rhoticity in English - refers to the situations in which English speakers pronounce the historical rhotic consonant /r/, and is one of the most prominent distinctions by which varieties of English can be classified. In rhotic varieties of English, speakers pronounce /r/ in all instances, while in non-rhotic varieties, speakers no longer pronounce /r/ in postvocalic environments – that is, when it is immediately after a vowel and not followed by another vowel. For example, a rhotic English speaker pronounces the words hard and butter as /ˈhɑːrd/ and /ˈbʌtər/, whereas a non-rhotic speaker "drops" or "deletes" the /r/sound, pronouncing them as /ˈhɑːd/ and /ˈbʌtə/. A non-rhotic speaker would still pronounce the /r/ in the words run, tree andvery, and usually in the continuously spoken phrase butter and jam (the linking R), since in these cases the /r/ is followed by a vowel.

B. Rhotic and non-rhotic dialects - the English dialects of Scotland, Ireland, and most of the United States and Canada preserve historical /r/, and are thus termed the rhotic varieties. The non-rhotic varieties, in which historical /r/ has been lost except before vowels, include most dialects of England—except the South West, the southern West Midlands, and parts of Lancashire—as well as the English dialects of Australia, New Zealand, and some parts of the southern and eastern coastal United States.

Loss of postvocalic /r/ began sporadically in informal speech in the 15th century, and by the 17th century postvocalic /r/ was weakened but still universally present. In the mid-18th century it was still pronounced in most environments, but may occasionally have been deleted entirely, especially after low vowels. By the 1790s, postvocalic /r/-less pronunciation had become common in London and surrounding areas, and was increasing in use. By the early 19th century, the southern British standard was fully transformed into a non-rhotic variety.

                                         Red areas are where English dialects of the late 20th century 
                                     were rhotic. Based on P. Trudgill, The Dialects of England.

The red dots show major U.S. cities where Labov, Ash, and Boberg (2006:48) found 50% or higher non-rhotic speech among at least one white resident. African American Vernacular English's non-rhotic speech may be found among working- and middle-class African Americans throughout the country.

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