Phonology of English Notes Part 2



The Influence Of Adjacent Sounds In Connected Speech:

  1. Distinctive And Non-Distinctive Variation:

It is often said that English has 44 vowel and consonant sounds: 20 vowel sounds (including diphthongs) 24 consonants sounds

Such a statement ignores an infinite number of different “shades” of sound. Each vowel or consonant varies slightly in pronunciation according to its position in words or phases and under the influence of neighboring sounds. Except in a very detailed phonetic study, most if these “shades” of variation can be ignored for practical purposes because they are non-distinctive. That is, they make no difference to the meaning of the word sentence.

For example:

a. An English /t/ is usually articulated with the tip of the tongue on the alveolar ridge, as in /tǽp/ or /put/. But if the next sound is dental (pronounced on the teeth), a mechanical assimilation takes place so that the /t/ will also be articulated on the teeth, as in /witθ/.

b. An English plosive, for instance /p/, is normally followed by an explosive of air from the mouth. But when another plosive follows it or a nasal consonant, this explosion of air does not usually happen. For example, in /ki” p mi”/, there is no explosion of the /p/.

In our phonetic script, we are ignoring such shades of sound, writing just /t/ or /p/ in each case. That is to say that our phonetic script for English is a “phonemic” one. It recognizes only those differences of sound, which are distinctive in English. The differences between alveolar and dental /t/ between exploded and unexploded /p/ is non-distinctive since it can never, in English, make a difference in the meaning of a word.

But of course the difference between /t/ and /p/, or between /t/ and /s/, is distinctive in English. The first difference would turn /tik/ (“tick”) into /pik/ (“pick”) and the second difference would turn /ti: m/ (team”) into /si: m/ “seem”). Therefore /t/ (whatever its exact “shade”) must be kept clearly distinct in out speech or we shall not be understood.

We say that /t/, /p/ and /s/ are three of the distinctive “phonemes” (sound-classes) of English. The technical theory of the phoneme will not concern us here (and in fact the account given above is slightly over-simplified). For present purposes you need only a practical grasp of the subject. You should understand, for instance, that an alveolar and a dental /t/ are just two possible pronunciations of the same English “phoneme”. We ignore the difference in our “phonemic” transcriptions and just write “/t/” got both.

In this sense, we should not say that English has “sounds” (for in fact it has an infinite number, each of which could be given a different IPA symbol), but rather that it has 44 distinct “phonemes”, each realized in slightly different ways in different contexts.

2. Phonemic Assimilations:

Sometimes the influence of adjacent sounds is so great that speakers come to pronounce the same word (or part of a word) with completely different phonemes in different contexts. Often such variation is optional happening mainly in quicker or less formal speech.

For example:

/guddei/ “good day” /gubbai/ “good bye”

/wΛnnouz/ “one knows” /wΛmminit/ “one minute”

/htdai/ “hot day” /hkkeiks/ “hot cakes”

/h : s/ “horse” /h:∫∫ u: z/ “horse-shores”

In each example in the second column above, a phonemic assimilation has taken place. One phoneme has been substituted for another under the influence of the following consonant. For instance in the first example the /d/ of “good” has been replaced by a bi-labial /b/ under the influence of the bi-labial /b/ which follows.

Some such assimilation, once optional, has become compulsory in modern English. For example:

i). “-(e)s” endings:

After voiced sounds (including all vowels): /z/.

E.g.: “rugs”, “gives”, “John’s”, Sings”, “pours”, “people’s”.

After voiceless sounds: /s/.

E.g. “pits”, “Dick’s”, “sips”, “sniffs”, “lumps”, “prints”.

Exceptions: after the “hissing” and “hushing” sounds /s/, /z/, //, //, /t/ and /d/, a vowel /i/ is inserted, giving the pronunciation /iz/

E.g.: “hisses”, “buzzes”, “cashes”, “catches”, “judges”.

ii). “-ed” endings:

After voiced sounds (including all vowels): /d/.

E.g.: “robbed”, “killed”, “played”, “frowned” After voiceless sounds: /t/.

E.g. “hacked”, “missed”, “rushed”, “pounced”

Exceptions: after /t/ or /d/, a vowel /i/ is inserted, giving the pronunciation


E.g. “added”, “Spotted”.



i). Words spoken in isolation:

In any English word spoken in isolation, one syllable will be spoken with more force than the others. This is the syllable that carries the primary stress. Of course in a word that has only one syllable, this syllable must carry the primary stress (e.g.: “go”, bit” was”). In a word with two or more syllables it is often difficult to know where the primary stress should fall. The rules for the placement of stress are so complex and have so many exceptions that ultimately the only solution for a student of English to posses a dictionary in which each word is transcribed in phonetic script and the place of primary stress is marked.

Longer words may contain two or more stresses, one primary, the others secondary (weaker), for example:

“reciiprociityi /resiprsiti/ “admonition” /ædmnin/ “examination” /igzæminein/

“individuality” /individjuæliti/\

You will notive that the secondary stress usually falls two (or four0 syllables before the primary stress. In the same way, a fairly heavy degree of stress (sometimes called “tertiary” stress) will quite often occur two syllables after the primary stress, as in the following:

anybody” /Σnibdi/ “photograph /foutgra:f/

This kind of tertiary stress is not marked in the phonetic script used in many dictionaries. Nevertheless, bare it in mind because of the effect it has in preventing vowel reduction.


Write the words out in phonetic script, underlining the stresses as in the examples above.

Now indicate the stressed syllables in the same way for the words given in ordinary orthography below. Since these words are not written out in phonetic transcription, it will not be possible to indicate the extent of each syllable exactly. Just underline the letters standing for the central vocalic part of each syllable.


2. Vowel Reduction in words spoken in isolation:

In stressed syllables, vowel has “full” quality. In unstressed syllables, the original “full” vowels indicated by the ordinary spelling are generally replaced in modern English by one or other of the three short vowels //, /i/ or /u/.

1. Examples of reduction to //:

Photograph farmer announce substance doctor Reduction to // is very common, in stressed syllables with spellings of many kinds. The examples above illustrate only a few of these spellings.

2. Examples of reduction to /i/:

a. Spellings with “e”:  

denied excited prepare require college

b. Spellings with “age”:

cabbage sausage manage damage marriage

3. Examples of reduction to /u/: 

accusation (cf “accusative”, with long /u:/)

encapsulation (cf “capsule”, with long /u:/)


The examples above are give as a guide only and are by no means exhaustive. Note in particular that many words containing unstressed syllables spelt with “e” are not pronounced with /i/ as you might have expected from the examples in ii) a) above. Instead they are pronounced with //.

Examples of reduction to // in the unstressed suffixes “-en”, “-ent”, “-emt” and  “-er”: broken parent supplement (noun) juggler


Go over all the examples in the last exercise (on the page preceding this one), writing //,

/i/ or /u/ over each unstressed syllable.


3. Compound Words:

The most common type has primary stress on the first element:

Some however have primary stress on the second elements:


Indicate the stresses in the compound words given in ordinary orthography below:

4. Word-groups

So far, we have studied the effects of stress in isolated words. Of course, when we speak to each other in normal conversation, we may well utter single words all by themselves. For instance: “good-bye”. Yes”, “no”, absolutely”, and so on.  Perhaps more often, we link words up into groups, each corresponding, more or less, to a unit of grammar and/or of meaning. These groups are separated from each other by barely perceptible “pauses”. Generally, in each little group, one word is emphasized rather more than the others. Only this word is given the primary stress that it would have when spoken in isolation. The primary stresses that we expect in the other words of the group are reduced to secondary or even eliminated altogether.

Usually, it is the last content word in the group, which its primary stress.

For instance: “ Perhaps more often” // we link word // into groups.”  But for special emphasis we can give the primary stress to any word in the group.

For instance: “Perhaps more often”

“Perhaps more often”

Generally, the stress of the other words is reduced to secondary. For instance:

“ In isolation word” “Spoken isolation” “Eliminated altogether”

But one-syllable function words usually keep no stress at all when spoken within a group.

For instance:

“the effects of stress” “we link word”

“to a unit of grammar “ “are reduced to secondary”

In slow, careful speech, we tend to use many “pauses”. Our speech is therefore broken up into many short word-groups., each giving emphasis (through primary stress) to one word in the group. When we are speaking faster and more casually. We may often use fewer pauses, running many words together into one word- group. There may also be more “special emphasis”.


The exercises below illustrate two slightly different styles of each. The first is slow, careful and formal. The second is rather faster and more casual.

Listen to each of them three times.

On the first reading, mark the divisions between the words-groups (with “//”) On the second reading, mark all the primary stresses

On the third reading, mark all the secondary stresses.

In each exercise, the first word-group has been marked for you.


5. Practice Exercises with simple word, compound words and word groups In each exercise, do the following:

a. Mark primary and secondary stresses.

b. Write /i/, /u/ or // above each unstressed syllable.

c. Check your answers

Exercise I: Simple Words

animation mastication revolution
nobody somebody anyone
conduct 9noun) compare (noun imports (noun)
residential barometer popularity
intention contravention constituents
paragraph telephone baritone
disputatious contradiction comparison
emulate umbrella


Exercise II: Compound Words

under-nourished raincoat fire-extinguisher
notice-board left-handed school-teacher
door-knob debt-collector fair-minded
over-reaction underpopulated self-seeking
disc-jockey vice-president football
emulate umbrella

Exercise III: Word-groups

where are you going now? the school-teacher’s salary
a flat footed archbishop she told them a story
removing all the drawing-pins now you tell them a story
we need more confidence not at the moment
up and down the stairs a problem of mass-production
she went downstairs. after two or three minutes
isn’t it beautiful! now you tell them a story!
on the other hand an underpopulated region
a first-class degree an electronic bobby-trap
on the other hand now you tell them a story!


Practice Exercises with: simple word, compound words and word-groups In each exercise, do the following:

a. Mark primary and secondary stresses.

b. Write /i/, /u/ or // above each unstressed syllable.

c. Check your answers.

Exercise I: Simple Words

Exercise II: Compound Words

Exercise III: Word-groups


Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s