LING150/University of Oregon

Web Lecture 2.4
English Sounds

2.4.1. English Consonants

2.4.2. English Vowels

2.4.3. Natural Classes

2.4.4. Weakening, again


In the reading assignment, you have been introduced to the symbols and the features of consonants, vowels, and diphthongs (or "double vowels"). Remember that IPA symbols are always give in square brackets; so [k] indicates that the sound that is spelled with the letter with k in karate (kərɑɾi]), c in cat ([kæt]), and ch in chaos ([keɑs]). Also, note that the affricates are each represented by two different characters. The [č] and [ǰ] are older symbols, while [tʃ] and [dʒ] are preferred in recent years.  However, both sets are still in common usage, so it doesn’t hurt to learn them all.

For your convenience, this page, as well as Unit 2 Exercises B, are linked to a Consonant Chart and a Vowel Chart. Both charts give the symbols and sample words.

2.4.1. English Consonants

Each English consonant can be described using a voicing feature, a place feature, and a manner feature, in that order. For example,

voicing

place

manner

[p] is a

voiceless

bilabial

stop

(Bi)Labial (Bilabial and labial are often use interchangeably).

            [p], [b], [m], [w]

Labio-dental

            [f], [v]

Interdental

            [θ], [ð]

Alveolar

            [t], [d], [n], [ɾ], [s], [z], [r]*, [l]

Alveo-palatal (Palatal-alveolar, Postalveolar)

            [ʃ], [ʒ], [tʃ], [dʒ]

Palatal

            [y]*

Velar

            [k], [g], [ŋ]

Glottal

            [h], [ʔ]

Stop

            [p], [b], [t], [d], [k], [g], [ʔ]

Fricative

            [f], [v], [θ], [ð], [s], [z], [ʃ], [ʒ], [h]

Affricate

            [tʃ], [dʒ]

Tap/Flap

            [ɾ]

Nasal

            [m], [n], [ŋ]

Approximant

            [w], [y]*, [r]*, [l]

Voiceless

            [p], [t], [k], [ʔ], [ɾ], [f], [θ], [s], [ʃ], [tʃ], [h]

Voiced

            [b], [d], [g], [m], [n], [ŋ], [v], [ð], [z], [ʒ], [dʒ], [r]*, [l], [w], [y]*

* In the most recent IPA descriptions, the characters [ɹ] and [j] are used to represent the English sounds usually spelled 'r' and 'j' respectively. However, for our purposes, the older, more familiar forms shown above will be sufficient.

2.4.2. English Vowels

Each English vowel can be described using a height feature and a backness feature, in that order. For example,

height

backness

[e] is a

mid

front

vowel

High

            [i], [ɪ], [u], [ʊ]

Mid

            [e], [ɛ], [ʌ], [ə], [o], [ɔ]

Low

            [æ], [ɑ]

Front

            [i], [ɪ], [e], [ɛ], [æ]

Central

            [ʌ], [ə]

Back

            [u], [ʊ], [o], [ɔ], [ɑ]

Features such as tenseness (of the tongue muscles) and rounding (of the lips) are also important in describing vowels, but for the purpose of describing the vowels of English, the two tongue position features are the most critical.

Dialect differences are common with vowels. For example, most native West Coast speakers say the words cot and caught the same way: [kɑt], i.e. with a low back vowel. Many East Coast speakers make a distinction between the vowels of these words: they say [kɑt] and [kɔt], respectively. Also, many American English speakers do not hear any difference between the u in upon and the one in cut; they pronounce them both as schwa [ə] (although there is a convention where [ʌ] is often used with single-syllable words, while [ə] is used with longer words). In this course, we will usually avoid words with these dialectal differences.

2.4.3. Natural Classes

A natural class is a group of two or more sounds that share one or more features. For example,

[ p, t, k ] is the natural class of voiceless stops.

All the sounds in this group share the feature stop and the feature voiceless.

           [ æ, ɑ ] is the natural class of low vowels.

All the sounds in this group share the feature low on the vowel chart.

However, the following group does not form a natural class:

            [ t, ʃ, m, ŋ, ʊ ]

Notice that the sounds that appear in either a row or a column of the vowel chart and the consonant chart share one feature, and form natural classes.

2.4.4. Weakening, again

Earlier in this unit, we discussed the unpredictable allomorphy process of vowel weakening. Notice that weakening only affects the vowels [æ], [ɛ] and [ɪ]. These are all front vowels. Weakening affects the low front vowel [æ] which is usually spelled a in words borrowed from Latin. The weakening processes involves raising the vowel from low to mid to high; when a vowel is weakened, speakers don't have to open their mouths as wide (thus making the words a little easier to say).

Vowel Position

Pronunciation

Spelling

High

[ɪ]

i

Mid

[ɛ]

e

Low

[æ]

a

So to look again at the examples from page 51 in the textbook (but here written with IPA symbols), you can see how the vowels “rise” in the mouth:

fac > fect  'do, make':  [fæk]  >  [fɛkt]

tag > teg > tig  'touch, feel':  [tæg]  >  [tɛg]  >  [tɪg]

Weakening, then, is a process quite distinct from ablaut, which involves alternating between a front, back, or no vowel.

The next exercises are designed to help you learn the features of each sound and give you practice in reading symbols and transcribing words into symbols.


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