English phonetics and phonology. A theoretical overview

Term Paper (Advanced seminar), 2017
64 Pages, Grade: 100



Phonemes and allophones

Speech organs
Manner of Articulation

Vowel and consonants
Consonants and semi-vowels
Vowels and diphthongs







It is the scientific study of speech. It is a long history, going back certainly well over two thousand years ago. It was studied as early as the 4th century B.C: in the Indian subcontinent, with Panini’s account of the place and manner of articulation of consonants in his treatise of Sanskrit. The Phoenicians are credited as the first to create a phonetic writing system, from which all major modern phonetic alphabets are now derived[1].

The central concerns in phonetics are the discovery of how speech sounds are produced, how they are used in spoken language, how we can record speech sounds with written symbols and how we hear and recognize different sounds.

In the first of these areas, when we study the production of speech sounds we can observe what speakers do (articulatory observation) and we can try to feel what is going on inside our vocal tract (kinesthetic observation).

The second area is where phonetics overlaps with phonology: usually in phonetics we are only interested in sounds that are used in meaningful speech, and phoneticians are interested in discovering the range and variety of sounds used this way in all the languages of the world. This is sometimes known as linguistic phonetics.

Finally, the auditory aspect of speech is very important: the ear is capable of making fine discrimination between different sounds, and sometimes it is not possible to define in articulatory terms precisely what the difference is. A good example of this is in vowel sounds classification. While it is important to know the position and shape of the tongue and lips, it is often very important to have been trained in an agreed set of standard auditory qualities that vowels can be reliable related to[2].


It is the study of the sound system of languages. At one extreme, phonology is concerned with anatomy and physiology, the organs of speech and how we learn to use them. At another extreme, phonology shades into socio-linguistics as we consider social attitudes to features of sounds such as accent and intonation. And part of the subject is concerned with finding objective standard ways of recording speech, and representing this symbolically[3].

Phonology may seem to be a modern practice. It can be traced back to the 4th century BC when a grammar of the ancient Indian language ‘Sanskrit’ was composed. This was one of the first steps into phonological research, but there were many more developments to come before linguists reached the stage that we are today[4].

The most basic activity in phonology is phonemic analysis, in which the objective is to establish what the phonemes are and arrive at the phonemic inventory of the language. One can look at the suprasegmental phonology –the study of stress

, rhythm and intonation, which has led in recent years to new approaches to phonology such as metrical and auto-segmental theory; one can go beyond the phoneme and look into the detailed characteristics of each unit in terms of distinctive features; the way in which sounds can combine in a language is studied in phonotactics and in the analysis of syllable structure[5].


We can say that words are composed of discrete sounds or phonemes. Commonly, we learn words and store them in our linguistic memory, and we retrieve them by uttering a sequence of discrete sounds. Therefore, when uttering a word we actualize the sequence of discrete sounds stored in memory as a sequence of actions of our articulators. In sum, speech sounds are the constituents of words, and words are special in that only word are sequences of speech sounds[6].

Sounds can be voiced or unvoiced sometimes referred to as ‘voiceless’). Voiced sounds occur when the vocal cords in the larynx are vibrated. It is easy to tell whether a sound is voiced or not by placing one or two fingers on your Adam’s apple. If you are producing a voiced sound, you will feel vibration; if you are producing an unvoiced sound, you will not. The difference between /f/ and /v/, for example, can be heard by putting your top teeth on your bottom lip, breathing out in a continuous stream to produce /f/, then adding your voice to make /v/. Hold your Adam’s apple while doing this, and you will feel the vibration[7].

Phonemes and allophones

Phonemes are the different sounds within a language. Although there are slight differences in how individuals articulate sounds, we can still describe reasonably accurately how each sound is produced. When considering meaning we see how using one sound rather than another can change the meaning of the word. It is this principle which gives us the total number of phonemes in a particular language[8].

Central to the concept of the phoneme is the idea that it may be pronounced in many different ways. In English (e.g. BBC pronunciation) we take it for granted that the r sounds in ‘ray’ and ‘tray’ are ‘the same sound’ (i.e. the same phoneme),but in reality the two sounds are very different –the r in ‘ray’ is voiced and non-fricative, while the r sound in ‘tray’ is voiceless and fricative-. This example shows two different realizations of the phoneme, what can be called allophones[9]. In theory a phoneme can have an infinite number of allophones, but in practice for descriptive purposes we tend to concentrate on a small number that occur most regularly[10].


The concept of the articulation is a very important on in phonetics. We can only produce speech sounds by moving parts of our body, and this is done by the contraction of muscles. Most of the movements relevant to speech take place in the mouth and throat area, and the parts of the mouth and the throat area that we move when speaking are called articulators[11].


It can be roughly described as the relative strength of a syllable. It is consider as an aspect of speech rather than a unit of speech. The importance of speech lies on that many significant sounds contrasts are the result of stress. The following example will try to show what was said before: when the word ‘import’ is pronounced with the first syllable sounding stronger than the second, English speakers hear it as a noun, whereas when the second syllable is stronger the word is heard as a verb[12].

Furthermore, one of the most noticeable features of English pronunciation s that some of its syllables are strong while many others are weak. When we compare weak syllables with strong syllables, we find that vowel in a weak syllable tends to be shorter, of lower intensity (loudness) and different in quality. For example, in the word ‘data’ /deᵻtᶕ/ the second syllable, which is weak, is shorter than the first, is less loud and has a vowel that cannot occur in in strong syllables[13].


Speech organs

The muscles in the chest that we use for breathing produce the flow of air that is needed for almost all speech sounds; muscles in the larynx produce many different modifications in the flow of air from the chest to the mouth. After passing through the larynx, the air goes through what we call the vocal tract, which ends at the mouth and nostrils; we call the part comprising the mouth the oral cavity and the part that leads to the nostrils the nasal cavity. Here the air from the lungs escapes into the atmosphere. We have a large and complex set of muscles that can produce changes in the shape of the vocal tract, and in order to learn how the sounds of speech are produced it is necessary to become familiar with the different parts of the vocal tract. These different parts are called articulators, and the study of them is called articulatory phonetics[14].

Basically, when the human voice produces sounds in the following manner:

1. Air pressure from the lungs creates a steady flow of air through the trachea (windpipe), larynx (voice box) and pharynx (back of the throat).
2. The vocal folds in the larynx vibrate, creating fluctuations in air pressure that are known as sound waves.
3. Resonances in the vocal tract modify these waves according to the position and shape of the lips, jaw, tongue, soft palate, and other speech organs, creating formant regions and thus different qualities of sonorant (voiced) sound.
4. Mouth and nose openings radiate the sound waves into the environment[15].


The following diagram is frequently used in the study of phonetics. It represents the human head, seen from the side, displayed as though it had been cut in half. The articulators are shown and described in the following chart[16].

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Fig. 1.The articulators (Roach, 2009, p.8)

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Fig.2. Subdivisions of the tongue (Roach, 2009, p.9)

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Manner of Articulation

Manner of articulation –mainly for consonant sounds- describes the degree of narrowing in the oral tract (the degree of stricture). However, manner labels also specify the escape channel, the initiating source of the airflow involved, and certain acoustic or perceptual characteristics. The escape channel is either oral or nasal (or both – nasalized segments), and when it is oral it can be central or lateral. The airstream mechanism used for most speech articulations is pulmonic.

The degree of stricture can be complete closure, producing stops and nasals. Pulmonic stops made with outward-flowing air are called plosives, e.g. the phoneme /p/. The different manners of articulation heavily constrained by articulatory apparatus and the acoustic consequences of changes in the degree of constriction in the oral cavity. There are essentially four types of constrictions between articulators[17]:

1 Complete constriction (full closure): plosives or stops, e.g. [p]
2 Close constriction: fricatives, e.g. [f]
3 Open constriction: approximants, e.g. [j]
4 No constriction: vowels, e.g. [i]



The IPA was first published in 1888 by the Association Phonétique Internationale (International Phonetic Association), a group of French language teachers founded by Paul Passy. The aim of the organisation was to devise a system for transcribing the sounds of speech which was independent of any particular language and applicable to all languages.

A phonetic script for English created in 1847 by Isaac Pitman and Henry Ellis was used as a model for the IPA.


-The IPA is used in dictionaries to indicate the pronunciation of words.
-The IPA has often been used as a basis for creating new writing systems for previously unwritten languages.
-The IPA is used in some foreign language text books and phrase books to transcribe the sounds of languages which are written with non-latin alphabets. It is also used by non-native speakers of English when learning to speak English[18].

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Table 1. International Phonetic Alphabet (Anger, 2017)

Vowel and consonants

The most common view is that vowels are sounds in which there is no obstruction to the flow of the air as it passes from the larynx to the lips. But if we make a sound like /s/ it can be clearly felt that we are making it difficult or impossible for the air to pass through the mouth. Most people would have no doubt that sounds like /s/ or /d/ should be called consonants.

Therefore, it is possible to establish two distinct groups of sounds (vowels and consonants) in another way. Consider English words beginning with the sound /h/. We find that most of the sounds we normally think of as vowels can follow, but practically none of the sounds we class as consonants, with the possible exception of /j/ n a word such as ‘huge’ /hju:dᵹ/.What we are doing here is looking at the different contexts and positions in which particular sounds can occur; this is the study of the distribution of the sounds. Consequently, if we look at the vowel-consonant distinction in this way, we must say that the most important difference between vowel and consonant is not the way in which they are made, but their different distributions[19].

Consonants and semi-vowels

Consonant are formed by interrupting, restricting or diverting the airflow in a variety of ways. A general classification of consonants is according to the force which they are pronounced. Some phoneticians say that, for example, the sounds /p/, /t/ and /k/ are produced with more force than the sounds /b/, /d/ and /g/, and that it would therefore be better to give this two sets of plosives (and some other consonants) manes that indicate that fact; so the voiceless plosives /p/, /t/ and /k/ are sometimes called fortis (meaning ‘strong’) and the voiced plosives /b/, /d/ and /g/ are called lenis (meaning ‘weak’)[20]. In order you can check physically these principles, try holding a small slip of paper in front of your mouth and making both sounds; the paper should flap for /p/ and hardly move for /b/. Therefore, consonants can be called voiced or lenis, and unvoiced, voiceless or fortis. In addition to the presence or absence of voicing, consonants can be described in terms of the manner and place of articulation[21].

With regard to the manner of articulation, the vocal tract may be completely closed so that the air is temporarily unable to pass through. Alternatively there may be a closing movement of the lips, tongue or throat, so that it is possible to hear the sound made by air passing through. Or, as in the case of nasal sounds, the air is diverted through the nasal passages. The various terms used are explained in the following table[22]:

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Table 2. Manner of Articulation (Kelly, 2000)

With regard to the place of articulation, the following table summarizes the main movements of the various articulators[23]:

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Table 3. Place of Articulation (Ídem)

Voicing, manner and place of articulation are together summarized in the following table[24]:

illustration not visible in this excerpt

Table 4. English Consonants Phonemes (Íbíd.,p. 7)

It should be seen that unvoiced or fortis phonemes are on a shade background, whereas voiced or lenis ones are on a white background.

In the following charts it will be shown the positions taken by the various articulators when these sounds are produced. ‘Pairs’ of sounds are shown together. Fortis sounds like /p/ are shown on a grey background. Lenis sounds like /b/ are shown on a white background. Additionally, it will be highlighted which consonant sounds are difficult to produce for Spanish speakers denoted by Sp.


Plosives occur when a complete closure is made somewhere in the vocal tract. Air pressure increases behind the closure, and is then released ‘explosively’. Plosive sounds are also sometimes referred to as stops[25]. When producing a plosive, there are four phases in it[26]:

1) The first phase is when the articulator or articulators move to form the stricture for the plosive. We call this the closing phase.
2) The second phase is when the compressed air is stopped from escaping. We call this the compression phase.
3) The third phase is when the articulators used to form the stricture are moved so as to allow air to escape. This is the released phase.
4) The fourth phase is what happens immediately after (3), so we will call it the post-released phase.

illustration not visible in this excerpt

Table 5. Plosves (Íbíd.,pp. 48-49

All six plosives can occur at the beginning of a word (initial position), between other sounds (medial position) and at the end of a word (final position).To begin with we will look at plosives preceding vowels (which can be abbreviated as CV, where C stands for consonant and V stands for a vowel)., between vowels (VCV) and following vowels (VC)[27].

1) Initial position (CV). The closing phase for /p/, /t/, /k/ and /b/, /d/, /g/ takes place silently. During the compression phase there is no voicing in /p/, /t/, /k/; in /b/, /d/, /g/ there is normally very little voicing –it begins only just before the release. If the speaker pronounces an in initial /b/, /d/, /g/very slowly and carefully there may be voicing during the entire compression phase (the plosive is then fully voiced), while in rapid speech there may be no voicing at all.

The release of /p/, /t/, /k/ is followed by audible plosion –that is- a burst of noise. There is then, in the post-release phase, a period during which air escapes through the vocal folds, making a sound like /h/. This is called aspiration. Then the vocal folds come together and voicing happens.

2) Medial position (VCV): the pronunciation of /p/, /t/, /k/ and /b/, /d/, /g/ in medial position depends to some extent on whether the syllables preceding and following the plosive are stressed. In general we can say that a medial plosive may have the characteristics either of final or of initial plosives.

3) Final position (VC): Final /b/, /d/, /g/ normally have little voicing; if there is voicing, it is at the beginning of the compression phase; /p/, /t/, /k/ are always voiceless. The plosion following the release of /p/, /t/, /k/ and /b/, /d/, /g/ is very weak and often not audible. The difference between /p/, /t/, /k/ and /b/, /d/, /g/ is primarily the fact that vowels preceding /p/, /t/, /k/ are much shorter. The shortening effect of /p/, /t/, /k/ is most noticeable when the vowel is one of the long vowels or diphthongs. This effect is sometimes known as pre-fortis clipping.


Affricates occur when a complete closure is made somewhere in the mouth, and the soft palate is raised. Air pressure increases behind the closure, and is the released more slowly than in plosives.


[1] http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Phonetics#History

[2] www.cambridge.org/elt/peterroach/resources/Glossary.pdf

[3] www.teachit.co.uk/armoore/lang/phonology.pdf

[4] Htttp://sites.google.com/a/sheffield.ac.uk/all-about-linguistic/branches/phonology/history-of-phonology

[5] www.cambridge.org/elt/peterroach/resources/Glossary.pdf

[6] http://www.lingsticsocietey.org/resource/sounds-speech

[7] Kelly, G. (2000). How to teach pronunciation. Malaysia; Longman.

[8] Kelly, G. (2000). How to teach pronunciation. Malaysia; Longman, 1-2pp.

[9] Roach, P. (2009). English Phonetics and Phonology. A practical course, 4th ed. UK; Cambridge, 33p.

[10] www.cambridge.org/elt/peterroach/resources/Glossary.pdf

[11] www.cambridge.org/elt/peterroach/resources/Glossary.pdf

[12] Roach, P. (2009). English Phonetics and Phonology. A practical course, 4th ed. UK; Cambridge, 3, 36p.

[13] Ibíd., 64p.

[14] Roach, P. (2009). English Phonetics and Phonology. A practical course, 4th ed. UK; Cambridge, 8p.

[15] http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Place_of_articulation

[16] Roach, P. (2009). English Phonetics and Phonology. A practical course, 4th ed. UK; Cambridge, 8-10pp.

[17] http://www.haskins.yale.edu/staff/dicanio/pdf/Lect1.pdf

[18] http://www.omniglot.com/writing/ipa.htm

[19] Roach, P. (2009). English Phonetics and Phonology. A practical course, 4th ed. UK; Cambridge, 10-11pp.

[20] Ibíd., 28p.

[21] Kelly, G. (2000). How to teach pronunciation. Malaysia; Longman, 5p.

[22] Ibíd., 6p.

[23] Ídem.

[24] Ibíd., 7p.

[25] Ibíd., 48-53pp.

[26] Roach, P. (2009). English Phonetics and Phonology. A practical course, 4th ed. UK; Cambridge, 26p.

[27] Ibíd., 27-28pp.

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English phonetics and phonology. A theoretical overview
University of Veracruz
English Phonetics and Phonology
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Esteban Juan Bautista Zárate Mejía (Author), 2017, English phonetics and phonology. A theoretical overview, Munich, GRIN Verlag, https://www.grin.com/document/359361


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