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English phonology
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English phonology

English phonology refers to the sound system (phonology) of the English language, or to the study of that system. 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.



A 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 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 phonemes of English and their number 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.


The following table shows the consonant phonemes found in most dialects of English. When consonants appear in pairs, fortis consonants (i.e., aspirated or voiceless) appear on the left and lenis consonants (i.e., lightly voiced or voiced) appear on the right:

Consonant phonemes of English
  Bilabial Labio-
Dental Alveolar Post-
Palatal Velar Glottal
Fricative 3
Approximant 1, 2, 5 4
Lateral 1, 6
  1. Some phonologists identify syllabic nasals and liquids in unstressed syllables, while others analyse these phonemically as .
  2. Postalveolar consonants are usually labialized (e.g., ), as is word-initial or pre-tonic /r/ (i.e., ), though this is rarely transcribed.
  3. The voiceless velar fricative is dialectal, occurring largely in Scottish English. In other dialects, words with these sounds are pronounced with . It may appear in recently-domiciled words such as chutzpah.
  4. The sequence /hw/, a voiceless labiovelar approximant , is sometimes considered an additional phoneme. For most speakers, words that historically used to have these sounds are now pronounced with ; the phoneme is retained, for example, in much of the American South, Scotland, and Ireland.
  5. Depending on dialect, may be an alveolar approximant , postalveolar approximant, retroflex approximant , or labiodental approximant . See also below. Also in non-rhotic accents such as Received Pronunciation and Australian English, can only appear before a vowel.
  6. For alternative realizations of , see below.

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

pit bit
tin din
cut gut
cheap jeep
fat vat
thin then
sap zap
she measure
we map
left nap
run yes
ham bang

The distinctions between the nasals are neutralized in some environments. For example, before a final , or there is only one nasal sound that can appear in each case: , or respectively (as in the words limp, lint, link note that the n of link is pronounced ). This effect can even occur across syllable or word boundaries, particularly in stressed syllables: synchrony is pronounced as whereas synchronic may be pronounced either as or as . For other possible syllable-final combinations, see in the Phonotactics section below.

Allophones of consonants

An allophone is one of a set of multiple possible spoken sounds (or phones) used to pronounce a single phoneme. For example, the phoneme /t/ is pronounced differently in tonsils than in button, and still differently in cat. All of these "t" sounds are allophones of the same phoneme, since no two words can be distinguished from each other solely on the basis of which of these pronunciations is used.

Although regional variation is very great across English dialects, certain instances of allophony can be observed in all (or at least the vast majority) of English accents. (See also below.)

  • Many dialects have two allophones of the "clear" L and the "dark" or velarized L. The clear variant is used before vowels (or sometimes only before stressed vowels), the dark variant in other positions. In some dialects, may be always clear (e.g. Wales, Ireland, the Caribbean) or always dark (e.g. Scotland, most of North America, Australia, New Zealand).
  • For many speakers, is somewhat labialized in some environments, as in reed and tree . In the latter case, the may be slightly labialized as well.[1]
  • In some rhotic accents such as General American, when not followed by a vowel is realized as an r-coloring of the preceding vowel or its coda.
  • becomes (a voiceless palatal fricative) before and , as in human or .
  • The voiceless stops , and are aspirated (, , ) at the beginnings of words (for example tomato) and at the beginnings of word-internal stressed syllables (for example potato). They are unaspirated (, , ) after (stan, span, scan) and at the ends of syllables.[2]
  • In American English, both /t/ and /d/ can be pronounced as a voiced flap in certain positions: when they come between a preceding stressed vowel (possibly with intervening ) and precede an unstressed vowel or syllabic L. Examples include water, bottle, petal, peddle (the last two words sound alike). 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 , so winter may be pronounced as similar or identical to winner.[3]
  • Before , as in catnip and button, British and American English pronounce as a glottal stop , allowing a distinction in pronunciation between, for example, Sutton and sudden or bitten and bidden. Finally, final as in cat is not released, and may be glottalized in British English.

However, in speech with careful enunciation, in all situations may be pronounced as or . These features mean that the phoneme has six different allophones in all.[4]


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 in Received Pronunciation and 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 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.


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 below. The feature descriptions given here (front, close, etc.) are abstracted somewhat; the actual pronunciations of these vowels are 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[5]
Front Central Back
long short long short long short

General American
Front Central Back
long short long short long short

Australian English
Front Central Back
long short long short long short

The differences between these tables can be explained as follows:

  1. The absence of length marks in the General American table is largely a matter of notational convention.
  2. In General American, the vowels , and may be considered a single phoneme.
  3. General American lacks a phoneme corresponding to RP (LOT, CLOTH), instead using or in such words.
  4. General American does not have the centering diphthong phonemes , , ; in NEAR, SQUARE and CURE it has the combinations , , . (However in some descriptions these words are analyzed as diphthongs even in rhotic dialects.[6])
  5. The different notations used for the vowel of GOAT in RP and General American ( and ) reflect a difference in the most common phonetic realizations of that vowel.
  6. The different notations used here for some of the Australian vowels reflect the phonetic realization of those vowels in Australian: a central rather than in GOOSE, a more closed rather than in DRESS, an open-mid rather than RP's in LOT and CLOTH, a more close rather than in THOUGHT, NORTH and FORCE, a fronted rather than in STRUT, a fronted rather than in CALM and START, and somewhat different pronunciations of most of the diphthongs.
  7. The Australian monophthong corresponds to the RP diphthong (SQUARE).
  8. Australian has the bad lad split, with distinctive short and long variants of in various words of the TRAP set.
  9. The vowel is often omitted from descriptions of Australian, as for most speakers it has split into the long monophthong (e.g. poor, sure) or the sequence (e.g. cure, lure).[7]

Other points to be noted are these:

  • Although the notation is used for the vowel of STRUT in RP, the actual pronunciation is closer to a near-open central vowel . The symbol continues to be used for reasons of tradition (it was historically a back vowel) and because it is still back in other varieties.[8]
  • A significant number of words (the BATH group) have in General American, but in RP (and mostly in Australian).
  • Many American speakers do not distinguish from (see cot caught merger).
  • In General American (which is a rhotic accent can occur in positions where it does not precede a vowel), many of the vowels can be r-colored by way of realization of a following . This is often transcribed phonetically using the symbol ("schwar"), either for an r-colored schwa (as in LETTER) or for the r-colored coda of another vowel (for example START might be written ). The vowel [ ] (as in NURSE) is generally always r-colored, and this can be written (or as a syllabic ).
  • 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 and may be monophthongized to and respectively.[9]
  • Long vowels are often not pronounced as pure monophthongs. In particular, the vowels of FLEECE and GOOSE are usually pronounced as narrow diphthongs: , .

Allophones of vowels

Listed here are some of the significant cases of allophony of vowels found within standard English dialects (see also above).

  • 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 in advise is longer than that in advice.
  • In many accents of English, tense vowels undergo breaking before , resulting in pronunciations like for peel, for pool, for pail, and for pole.
  • In RP, the vowel may be pronounced more back, as , before , as in goal.
  • The vowel /a / may be pronounced less open before a voiceless consonant.[4] Thus writer may be distinguished from rider even when flapping causes the and 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, , as in COMMA and (in non-rhotic dialects) LETTER; also in many other positions such as about, photograph, paddock, etc. This sound is essentially restricted to unstressed syllables exclusively. In the approach presented here it is identified with the phoneme , 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, , as in LETTER in General American and some other rhotic dialects, which can be identified with the underlying sequence .
  • syllabic consonants: as in bottle, as in button, 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 or .
  • , as in roses, making, expect. This can be identified with the phoneme , although in unstressed syllables it may be pronounced more centrally (in American tradition the barred i symbol is used here), and for some speakers (particularly in Australian and New Zealand and some American English) it is merged with in these syllables. Among speakers who retain the distinction there are many cases where free variation between and is found, as in the second syllable of typical. (The OED has recently adopted the symbol to indicate such cases.)
  • , as in argument, today, for which similar considerations apply as in the case of . Some speakers may also have a rounded schwa, , used in words like omission .
  • , as in happy, coffee, in many dialects (others have in this position). Phonemically this can be identified with the FLEECE vowel. See happy-tensing.

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 (a, an, of, for, etc.) are pronounced with a schwa when they are unstressed, although they have different vowels when they are in a stressed position (see weak form and strong form).

Some unstressed syllables, however, retain full (unreduced) vowels, i.e. vowels other than those listed above. Examples are the in ambition and the in finite. Some phonologists regard such syllables as not being fully unstressed (they may describe them as having tertiary stress). Dictionaries have sometimes marked such syllables as having secondary stress.

Linguists such as Ladefoged[10] and Bolinger[11] argue that vowel reduction is phonemic in English (that is, that it allows otherwise identical words to be distinguished from each other), and that there are two "tiers" of vowels in English, full and reduced. Though full unstressed vowels may derive historically from stressed vowels, either because stress shifted over time (such as stress shifting away from the final syllable of French loan words in British English) or because of loss or shift of stress in compound words or phrases ( verseas v yage from overs as or vers as plus v yage), the distinction is not one of stress but of vowel quality (Bolinger 1989:351), and over time, if the word is frequent enough, the vowel tends to reduce.

Examples of words where vowel reduction or an extra level of stress seems to be distinctive for some speakers (Bolinger 1989:348)include chickaree vs. chicory (the latter has the HAPPY vowel, identified phonemically with FLEECE, 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 be pronounced more weakly).

Transcription variants

The choice of which symbols to use for phonemic transcriptions may reveal theoretical assumptions or claims on the part of the transcriber. English "lax" and "tense" vowels are distinguished by a synergy of features, such as height, length, and contour (monophthong vs. diphthong); different traditions in the linguistic literature emphasize different features. For example, if the primary feature is thought to be vowel height, then the non-reduced vowels of General American English may be represented according to the table to the left and below. If, on the other hand, vowel length is considered to be the deciding factor, the symbols in the table to the below and center may be chosen (this convention has sometimes been used because the publisher did not have IPA fonts available, though that is seldom an issue any longer.) The rightmost table lists the corresponding lexical sets.

General American full vowels,
vowel height distinctive
General American full vowels,
vowel length distinctive
Lexical sets representing
General American full vowels

If vowel transition is taken to be paramount, then the chart may look like one of these:

General American full vowels,
vowel contour distinctive
General American full vowels,
vowel contour distinctive

(The transcriber at left assumes that there is no phonemic distinction between semivowels and approximants, so that is equivalent to .)

Many linguists combine more than one of these features in their transcriptions, suggesting they consider the phonemic differences to be more complex than a single feature.

General American full vowels,
height & length distinctive
General American full vowels,
height & contour distinctive

Lexical stress

Lexical stress is phonemic in English. For example, the noun increase and the verb increase are distinguished by the positioning of the stress on the first syllable in the former, and on the second syllable in the latter. (See initial-stress-derived noun.) Stressed syllables in English are louder than non-stressed syllables, as well as being longer and having a higher pitch.

In traditional approaches, in any English word consisting of more than one syllable, each syllable is ascribed one of three degrees of stress: primary, secondary or unstressed. Ordinarily, in each such word there will be exactly one syllable with primary stress, possibly one syllable having secondary stress, and the remainder unstressed. For example, the word amazing has primary stress on the second syllable, while the first and third syllables are unstressed, whereas the word organization has primary stress on the fourth syllable, secondary stress on the first, and the second, third and fifth unstressed. This is often shown in pronunciation keys using the IPA symbols for primary and secondary stress (which are and respectively), placed before the syllables to which they apply. The two words just given may therefore be represented (in RP) as and .

Some analysts identify an additional level of stress (tertiary stress). This is generally ascribed to syllables that are pronounced with less force than those with secondary stress, but nonetheless contain a "full" or "unreduced" vowel (vowels that are considered to be reduced are listed under above). Hence the third syllable of organization, if pronounced with as shown above (rather than being reduced to or ), might be said to have tertiary stress. (The precise identification of secondary and tertiary stress differs between analyses; dictionaries do not generally show tertiary stress, although some have taken the approach of marking all syllables with unreduced vowels as having at least secondary stress.)

In some analyses, then, the concept of lexical stress may become conflated with that of vowel reduction. An approach which attempts to separate these two is provided by Peter Ladefoged, who states that it is possible to describe English with only one degree of stress, as long as unstressed syllables are phonemically distinguished for vowel reduction.[12] In this approach, the distinction between primary and secondary stress is regarded as a phonemic or prosodic detail rather than a phonemic feature primary stress is seen as an example of the predictable "tonic" stress that falls on the final stressed syllable of a prosodic unit. For more details of this analysis, see secondary stress.

For stress as a prosodic feature (emphasis of particular words within utterances), see below.


Phonotactics is the study of the sequences of phonemes that occur in languages and the sound structures that they form. In this study it is usual to represent consonants in general with the letter C and vowels with the letter V, so that a syllable such as 'be' is described as having CV structure. The IPA symbol used to show a division between syllables is the dot . Syllabification is the process of dividing continuous speech into discrete syllables, a process in which the position of a syllable division is not always easy to decide upon. Most languages of the world syllabify and sequences as and or , with consonants preferentially acting as the onset of a syllable containing the following vowel. According to one view, English is unusual in this regard, in that stressed syllables attract following consonants, so that and syllabify as and , as long as the consonant cluster is a possible syllable coda; in addition, preferentially syllabifies with the preceding vowel even when both syllables are unstressed, so that occurs as . This is the analysis used in the Longman Pronunciation Dictionary[13]. However, this view is not widely accepted, as explained in the following section.

Syllable structure

The syllable structure in English is (C)3V(C)5, with a near maximal example being strengths (, although it can be pronounced ).[14] From the phonetic point of view, the analysis of syllable structures is a complex task: because of widespread occurrences of articulatory overlap, English speakers rarely produce an audible release of individual consonants in consonant clusters.[15] This coarticulation can lead to articulatory gestures that seem very much like deletions or complete assimilations. For example, hundred pounds may sound like and 'jumped back' (in slow speech, ) may sound like , but X-ray[16] and electropalatographic [17] [18] [19] studies demonstrate that inaudible and possibly weakened contacts or lingual gestures may still be made. Thus the second in hundred pounds does not entirely assimilate to a labial place of articulation, rather the labial gesture co-occurs with the alveolar one; the "missing" in 'jumped back' may still be articulated, though not heard.

Division into syllables is a difficult area, and different theories have been proposed. A widely accepted approach is the maximal onsets principle[20] : this states that, subject to certain constraints, any consonants in between vowels should be assigned to the following syllable, not the preceding one. Thus the word 'leaving' /li v / should be divided /li . v / rather than /li v . /, and 'hasty' /he sti/ is /he . sti/ rather than /he s . ti/ or /he st . i/. However, when such a division results in an onset cluster which is not allowed in English, the division must respect this. Thus if the word 'extra' /ekstr / were divided /e . kstr / the resulting onset of the second syllable would be /kstr/, a cluster which does not occur in English. The division /ek . str / is therefore preferred. If assigning a consonant or consonants to the following syllable would result in the preceding syllable ending in an unreduced short vowel, this is avoided. Thus the word 'comma' /k m / should be divided /k m . / and not /k . m /, even though the latter division gives the maximal onset to the following syllable, because English syllables do not end in / /. In some cases, no solution is completely satisfactory: for example, in British English (RP) the word 'hurry' /h ri/ could be divided /h . ri/ or /h r . i/, but the former would result in an analysis with a syllable-final / / (which is held to be non-occurring) while the latter would result in a syllable final /r/ which is also said not to occur in this accent. Some phonologists have suggested a compromise analysis where the consonant in the middle belongs to both syllables, resulting in an analysis of 'hurry' which comprises the syllables /h r/ and /ri/ and the medial /r/ is described as ambisyllabic. Where the division coincides with a word boundary, or the boundary between elements of a compound word, it is not usual to insist on the maximal onsets principle in a way that divides words in a counter-intuitive way; thus the word 'hardware' /h dwe / would be divided /h . dwe / by the M.O.P., but dictionaries prefer the division /h d . we /. For discussion of this topic, see Gimson[21] , Giegerich[22] or Kreidler[23]

In an alternative approach, Wells (1990)[13] claims that consonants syllabify with the preceding rather than following vowel when the preceding vowel is the nucleus of a more salient syllable, with stressed syllables being the most salient, reduced syllables the least, and secondary stress / full unstressed vowels intermediate. But there are lexical differences as well, frequently with compound words but not exclusively. For example, in dolphin and selfish, he argues that the stressed syllable ends in , but in shellfish, the belongs with the following syllable: vs , where the is a little longer and the not reduced. Similarly, in toe-strap Wells argues that the is a full plosive, as usual in syllable onset, whereas in toast-rack the is in many dialects reduced to the unreleased allophone it takes in syllable codas, or even elided: ; likewise nitrate with a voiceless , vs night-rate with a voiced . Cues of syllable boundaries include aspiration of syllable onsets and (in the US) flapping of coda (a tease vs. at ease ), epenthetic stops like in syllable codas (fence but inside ), and r-colored vowels when the is in the coda vs. labialization when it is in the onset (key-ring but fearing ).


The following can occur as the onset:

All single consonant phonemes except  
Stop plus approximant other than : , , , , , , ,[1] ,[1] , , , , , , play, blood, clean, glove, prize, bring, tree,[1] dream,[1] crowd, green, twin, dwarf, language, quick, puissance
Voiceless fricative plus approximant other than :[2] , , ,[3] , , , ,[4] , , floor, sleep, thlipsis,[3] friend, three, shrimp, what,[4] swing, thwart, reservoir
Consonant plus (before or ): , , ,[5] ,[5] , , , ,[5] , , ,[5] ,[5] ,[5] , [5] pure, beautiful, tube,[5] during,[5] cute, argue, music, new,[5] few, view, thew,[5] suit,[5] Zeus,[5] huge, lurid[5]
/s/ plus voiceless stop:[6] , , speak, stop, skill
/s/ plus nasal other than :[6] , smile, snow
/s/ plus voiceless fricative:[3] , sphere, sthenic
/s/ plus voiceless stop plus approximant:[6] , ,[3] , , , , , , ,[5] split, sclera, spring, street, scream, square, smew, spew, student,[5] skewer
/s/ plus voiceless fricative plus approximant:[3] sphragistics


  1. For a number of speakers, and tend to affricate, so that tree resembles "chree", and dream resembles "jream".[24][25][26] This is sometimes transcribed as and respectively, but the pronunciation varies and may, for example, be closer to and [27] or with a fricative release similar in quality to the rhotic, i.e. , , or , .
  2. In some dialects, (rather than ) occurs in words beginning in wr- (write, wrong, wren, etc.).
  3. Words beginning in unusual consonant clusters that originated in Latinized Greek loanwords tend to drop the first phoneme, as in *, *, *, *, *, *, *, *, *, *, *, *, *, and *, which have become (bdellium), (phthisis), (gnome), (rhythm), (cnidoblast), (xylophone), (ctenophore), (chthonic), (mnemonic), (pneumonia), (psychology), (pterodactyl), (tmesis), and (asthma). However, the onsets , , , , and have remained intact.
  4. The onset is simplified to in many dialects (wine whine merger).
  5. There is an on-going sound change (yod-dropping) by which as the final consonant in a cluster is being lost. In RP, words with and can usually be pronounced with or without this sound, e.g., or . For some speakers of English, including some British speakers, the sound change is more advanced and so, for example, General American does not contain the onsets , , , , , , , or . Words that would otherwise begin in these onsets drop the : e.g., tube (), during (), new (), Thule (), suit (), student (), Zeus (), lurid (). In some dialects, such Welsh English, may occur in more combinations; for example in (chew), (Jew), (sure), and (slew).
  6. Many clusters beginning with and paralleling native clusters beginning with are found initially in German and Yiddish loanwords, such as , , , , , , (in words such as schlep, spiel, shtick, schmuck, schnapps, Shprintzen's, strudel). is found initially in the Hebrew loanword schwa. Before however, the native cluster is . The opposite cluster is found in loanwords such as Sri Lanka, but this can be nativized by changing it to .
Other onsets

Certain English onsets appear only in contractions: e.g., ('sblood), and or ('swounds or 'dswounds). Some, such as (pshaw), (fwoosh), or (vroom), can occur in interjections. An archaic voiceless fricative plus nasal exists, (fnese), as does an archaic (snew).

A few other onsets occur in further (anglicized) loan words, including (bwana), (moir ), (noire), (zwieback), (kvetch), (schvartze), (Tver), (Vladimir), and (zloty).

Some clusters of this type can be converted to regular English phonotactics by simplifying the cluster: e.g. (dziggetai), (Hrolf), (croissant), (pfennig), (phthalic), and (tsunami).

Others can be substituted by native clusters differing only in voice: (sbirro), and (sgraffito).


The following can occur as the nucleus:

  • All vowel sounds
  • , and in certain situations (see below under word-level rules)
  • in rhotic varieties of English (e.g. General American) in certain situations (see below under word-level rules)


Most (in theory, all) the following except those that end with , , , , or can be extended with or representing the morpheme -s/z-. Similarly, most (in theory, all) the following except those that end with or can be extended with or representing the morpheme -t/d-.

argues that a variety of syllable codas are possible in English, even in words like entry and sundry , with being treated as affricates along the lines of . He argues that the traditional assumption that pre-vocalic consonants form a syllable with the following vowel is due to the influence of languages like French and Latin, where syllable structure is CVC.CVC regardless of stress placement. Disregarding such contentious cases, which do not occur at the ends of words, the following sequences can occur as the coda:

The single consonant phonemes except , , and, in non-rhotic varieties,  
Lateral approximant plus stop or affricate: , , , , , , help, bulb, belt, hold, belch, indulge, milk
In rhotic varieties, plus stop or affricate: , , , , , , , harp, orb, fort, beard, arch, large, mark, morgue
Lateral approximant + fricative: , , , , golf, solve, wealth, else, Welsh
In rhotic varieties, + fricative: , , , , , dwarf, carve, north, force, Mars, marsh
Lateral approximant + nasal: , film, kiln
In rhotic varieties, + nasal or lateral: , , arm, born, snarl
Nasal + homorganic stop or affricate: , , , , , jump, tent, end, lunch, lounge, pink
Nasal + fricative: , , , , , in some varieties triumph, gloomth, month, prince, bronze, length
Voiceless fricative plus voiceless stop: , , , left, crisp, lost, ask
Two voiceless fricatives: fifth
Two voiceless stops: , opt, act
Stop plus voiceless fricative: , , , , , , depth, lapse, eighth, klutz, width, adze, box
Lateral approximant + two consonants: , , , , , sculpt, twelfth, waltz, whilst, mulct, calx
In rhotic varieties, + two consonants: , , , , , warmth, excerpt, corpse, quartz, horst, infarct
Nasal + homorganic stop + stop or fricative: , , , , , in some varieties prompt, glimpse, thousandth, distinct, jinx, length
Three obstruents: , sixth, next

Note: For some speakers, a fricative before is elided so that these never appear phonetically: becomes , becomes , becomes .

Syllable-level rules

  • Both the onset and the coda are optional
  • at the end of an onset cluster (, , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , ) must be followed by or
  • Long vowels and diphthongs are not found before except for the mimetic word boing![28]
  • is rare in syllable-initial position[29] (although, in the northern half of England, is used for and is common at the start of syllables).
  • Stop + before (all presently or historically ) are excluded[30]
  • Sequences of + C1 + + C1, where C1 is a consonant other that and is a short vowel, are virtually nonexistent[30]

Word-level rules

  • does not occur in stressed syllables
  • does not occur in word-initial position in native English words although it can occur syllable-initial, e.g., luxurious
  • , , and, in rhotic varieties, can be the syllable nucleus (i.e. a syllabic consonant) in an unstressed syllable following another consonant, especially , , or
  • Certain short vowel sounds, called checked vowels, cannot occur without a coda in a single-syllable word. In RP, the following short vowel sounds are checked: , , , , , and .


The prosodic features of English stress, rhythm, and intonation can be described as follows.

Prosodic stress

Prosodic stress is extra stress given to words when they appear in certain positions in an utterance, or when they receive special emphasis. It normally appears on the final stressed syllable in an intonation unit. So, for example, when the word admiration is said in isolation, or at the end of a sentence, the syllable ra is pronounced with greater force than the syllable ad. (This is traditionally transcribed as .) This is the origin of the primary stress-secondary stress distinction (see above). However, the difference disappears when the word is not pronounced with this final intonation.

Prosodic stress can shift for various pragmatic functions, such as focus or contrast. For instance, consider the dialogue

"Is it brunch tomorrow?"
"No, it's dinner tomorrow."

In this case, the extra stress shifts from the last stressed syllable of the sentence, tomorrow, to the last stressed syllable of the emphasized word, dinner. Compare

"I'm going tomorrow."


"It's dinner tomorrow."

Although grammatical words generally do not have lexical stress, they do acquire prosodic stress when emphasized. Compare ordinary

"Come in"!

with more emphatic

"Oh, do come in!"


English is a stress-timed language. That is, stressed syllables appear at a roughly steady tempo, and non-stressed syllables are shortened to accommodate this.


English declarative sentences generally have a pattern of rising pitch on the final stressed syllable followed by falling pitch on the subsequent unstressed syllables (or on the last part of the final stressed syllable itself, if it is also the last syllable of the sentence). But if something is left unsaid, the final fall in pitch occurs only to a lesser extent. Wh-questions, and tag questions with declarative intent, follow the same pattern as do declarative sentences.

In contrast, yes-no questions show pitch rising on the last stressed syllable, and remaining high on any subsequent syllables.

History of English pronunciation

English consonants have been remarkably stable over time, and have undergone few changes in the last 1500 years. On the other hand, English vowels have been quite unstable. Not surprisingly, then, the main differences between modern dialects almost always involve vowels.

Around the late 14th century, English began to undergo the Great Vowel Shift, in which

  • The high long vowels and in words like price and mouth became diphthongized, first to and (where they remain today in some environments in some accents such as Canadian English) and later to their modern values and . This is not unique to English, as this also happened in Dutch (first shift only) and German (both shifts).
  • The other long vowels became higher:
    • became (for example meet).
    • became (later diphthongized to , for example name).
    • became (for example goose).
    • become (later diphthongized to , for example bone).

Later developments complicate the picture: whereas in Geoffrey Chaucer's time food, good, and blood all had the vowel and in William Shakespeare's time they all had the vowel , in modern pronunciation good has shortened its vowel to and blood has shortened and lowered its vowel to in most accents. In Shakespeare's day (late 16th-early 17th century),[31] many rhymes were possible that no longer hold today.[32] For example, in his play The Taming of the Shrew, shrew rhymed with woe.[33]

Dialectal differences


-tensing is a phenomenon found in many varieties of American English by which the vowel has a longer, higher, and usually diphthongal pronunciation in some environments, usually to something like . Some American accents, for example those of New York City, Philadelphia, and Baltimore, make a marginal phonemic distinction between and although the two occur largely in mutually exclusive environments.

Bad lad split

The bad lad split refers to the situation in some varieties of southern British English and Australian English, where a long phoneme in words like bad contrasts with a short in words like lad.

Cot caught merger

The cot caught merger is a sound change by which the vowel of words like caught, talk, and tall (), is pronounced the same as the vowel of words like cot, rock, and doll ( in New England elsewhere). This merger is widespread in North American English, being found in approximately 40% of American speakers and virtually all Canadian speakers.

Father bother merger

The father bother merger is the pronunciation of the short O in words such as "bother" identically to the broad A of words such as "father", nearly universal in all of the United States and Canada save New England and the Maritime provinces; many American dictionaries use the same symbol for these vowels in pronunciation guides.

See also

  • Australian English phonology
  • English pronunciation of Greek letters
  • English spelling
  • General American
  • Japanese speakers learning r and l
  • Non-native pronunciations of English
  • Old English phonology
  • Phonological history of the English language
  • Phonological history of English vowels
  • Phonological history of English consonants
  • Pronunciation of English th
  • Received Pronunciation
  • Regional accents of English
  • Rhotic and non-rhotic accents
  • Vocalic r
  • Category:Splits and mergers in English phonology



External links

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