Phonetics Introduction - Why do spellings appear different from what we pronounce in English?

The study of linguistic sounds and symbols is called Phonetics.

The study of systems of sounds, often the sound system of a particular language is called Phonology


Linguistic sounds are produced by pushing air from the lungs out through the mouth, sometimes by way of the nasal cavity. The movement of the air can then be manipulated by the anatomy of the mouth and throat to produce different sounds. In the actual writing, the same sound may often be spelled in different ways.

Linguists use a phonetic alphabet called the International Phonetic Alphabet (IPA).

Many IPA letters are the same as those of the English alphabet, so we place IPA spellings in square brackets to indicate that they are phonetic spellings.

Consonants Sounds

Consonants are produced by restricting and then releasing the flow of air in three ways: vibrating the vocal cords, changing the part of the anatomy, which restricts the airflow, and changing the extent to which the airflow is restricted.

Consonants with relatively little vibration of the vocal cords are called voiceless consonants.

Consonants with relatively more vibration of the vocal cords are called voiced.

Consonants fall into the following categories, depending on what part of the anatomy is used to restrict the airflow:

Labial                   Airflow is restricted with the lips.

Dental                   Airflow is restricted with the teeth.

Labiodentals        Airflow is restricted with the top teeth on the bottom lip (if both lips are used the 

sound is called bilabial).

Alveolar                Airflow is restricted by placing the tongue on the hard plate (alveolus) behind the 

top front teeth.

Palatal                  Airflow is restricted by placing the tongue on the soft palate behind the alveolus.

Velar                     Airflow is restricted by placing the tongue far back in the mouth.

Glottal                  airflow is restricted by tightening the folds in the vocal cords (glottis).

Consonants can also be categorized by the extent to which the airflow is restricted:

1.      Stop                     Airflow is stopped and released quickly.

2.      Fricative              Airflow is released gradually.

3.      Affricate              Airflow is stopped and released gradually.

4.      Nasal                    Airflow is channeled through the nasal cavity.

5.      Liquid                  Air flow is channeled around the sides of the tongue.

6.      Glide                    Airflow is only partially restricted (these sounds are often called semi-vowels).


Vowels are produced by directing the flow of air into different parts of the mouth. They can be adjusted by changing the position of the tongue, by rounding of the lips, and by the degree of opening of the mouth.

All vowels are voiced.

The position of the tongue can be described in terms of how far forward the tongue is and how high it is.

Vowels are categorized as follows, depending on the position of the tongue:

1.      Front        The tongue is in the front of the mouth.

2.      Central     The tongue is further back in the mouth.

3.      Back         The tongue is in the back of the mouth.

4.      High          The tongue is high in the mouth.

5.      Mid           The tongue is lower in the mouth

6.      Low          The tongue is low in the mouth.

All vowels can be described in terms of their location on both vertical and horizontal axes.

1.      If you pronounce the High and Mid Back Vowels, you will find that you round your lips. These are called rounded vowels.

2.      When the mouth is relatively more open, the vowel is called lax.

3.      When the mouth is relatively more closed, the vowel is tense.


Transcription of English Consonants and Vowels


1.    Phonemic (or broad) transcription is indicated by slanted brackets: / / Phonetic (or narrow) transcription is indicated by sæuare brackets: [ ] unless otherwise indicated, you will be transcribing phonemically and should use slanted brackets around your transcriptions.

For example: Single phonemes:                     / k /

One word:                      / tIp /

Utterance:                     / kæn ju rid Is /


Do not use capital letters or punctuation marks. The IPA does not follow conventionally writing rules and makes use of some capitals and punctuation marks as symbols indicating specific sounds or properties of sounds.

For example,

A colon after a symbol indicates length                                                             / i: / / i;/

An apostrophe following a symbol indicates that the sound is an ejective.           / p’ /


Do not use the letters x, c, or q in the transcription of English. These are symbols for sounds that occur in other languages.


/ x / is a voiceless velar fricative,

/ c / is a voiceless palatal stop, and

/ q/ is a voiceless uvular stop.

The sounds that the letters represent in English are transcribed as follows:

X - For either                    / ks / or / gz /       as in the fix and exactly

c - For either                    /k/ or /s/                as in the car and since

q - For the sound              /k/                         as in the quick or risqué

Be careful to distinguish your symbols properly. / ə / with / ʌ /, / ᶿ / with /  /

When double letters in the spelling of a word come, do not use double consonants in a transcription.

For example, rabbit is transcribed / ræbit /.

In the speech, there are actually no gaps between words. In transcription, you will find that some words seem to “stick” together and you should transcribe them as such.


For example, “is a” in the phrase “is a cat” would be transcribed / izə kæt /.

Use these various “sounds like” rules in transcribing vowels before nasals and / r /:

Words that contain “ank” and “and”, like tank, thank, bank, hand, band, tanned, should be transcribed with the vowel [ æ] and  the appropriate nasal consonant:

ƞk           tæƞk             bæƞk

hænd         bænd              tænd

Words that contain “ing” or “ink”, like thing, ring, singer, think, blink, should be transcribed with the vowel [i] and the appropriate nasal consonant:

ᶿiƞ     riƞ     siƞə         ᶿiƞk     bliƞk

The only tense vowels used before [ɹ] in the same syllable are [Ɔ] and [].

Follow these rules:


1.    If it sounds like “or”     [Ɔɹ ]                              as in tore, lore, four, score.


2.    If it sounds like “are”   [ɑɹ¨]                               as in car, far, bar, star.


3.    If it sounds like “ear”   [iɹ ]                                 as in fear, leer, sneer, beer.


4.    If it sounds like “air”    [ɛɹ ]                                as in bare, stare, fair, care.


5.    If it sounds like “lure” [ʊɹ]                               as in tour, poor.

Phonetics Exercise -1


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