This Website is designed to help students of the English language trace the development of the phonemes of English from the Old English period into Present-Day English. The information contained in the site is available in any good textbook on the history of the language, but printed texts normally present the information in a linear fashion corresponding to the chronological development of English. The value of the Website is the hypertextual treatment of the information, which is meant to keep students from having to spend a great deal of time leafing through textbooks.
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Phoneme Chart: English Vowel and Consonant Sounds
showing the symbols for phonemic transcription of English
All consonants may be classified as either voiced or voiceless. In articulating a voiced consonant, the vocal cords are vibrating. (The vibration may easily be felt by gripping the larynx--the "Adam's apple"--between the fingers and the thumb while articulating the consonant.) In articulating an unvoiced consonant, the vocal cords are not vibrating.
Present-Day English has several consonant pairs that are articulated alike except that one is voiced and the other is unvoiced. Some examples are the phoneme spelled b in bat (voiced) and the phoneme spelled p in pat (unvoiced); the phoneme spelled d in dab (voiced) and the phoneme spelled t in tab (unvoiced); the phoneme spelled th in this (voiced) and the phoneme spelled th in thistle (unvoiced).
Consonants may also be classified according to the manner of articulation and the point of articulation: that is, how and where the flow of air is stopped or impeded when the consonant is articulated. Thus, we get the following systems of classification. Click on the terms for further information.
Vowels may be classified as either rounded or unrounded, as either lax or tense, and as either long or short.
In articulating a rounded vowel, the lips are rounded. The rounded vowels of Present-Day English are
1. /u/ (the phoneme spelled oo in food);
2. /U/ (the phoneme spelled u in put);
3. /o/ (the phoneme spelled oa in boat);
4. /ô/ (the phoneme spelled au in caught).
Note that there are different degrees of rounding in these different vowels. The other vowels of Present-Day English are unrounded.
In articulating a tense vowel, the tongue and other parts of the vocal apparatus are relatively tense. With a lax vowel, on the other hand, the muscles of the vocal apparatus are relatively loose. The lax vowels in Present-Day English are
1. /I/ (the phoneme spelled i in bit);
2. /e/ (the phoneme spelled e in bet);
3. /U/ (the phoneme spelled u in put);
4. /ô/ (the phoneme spelled au in caught).
Note that the degree of tenseness varies considerably in these different vowels. The other vowels of Present-Day English are relatively tense (also in different degrees).
The distinction between long and short vowels cannot be illustrated in Present-Day English, because vowel-length is no longer "phonemic" for speakers of English. That is, there are no "minimal pairs" of words that differ only with respect to the length of a vowel, and so speakers of PDE typically do not "hear" differences in vowel length. The distinction between long and short vowels was presumably phonemic in Old English and Middle English. Vowel length is presumably a matter of duration: that is, how long the vowel-sound is sustained in its articulation.
Apart from the above distinctions, vowels may be classified according to the how far the tongue is from the roof of the mouth during articulation, and how far back in the oral cavity the vowel is articulated.
If the lower jaw is relatively low (that is, if the mouth is relatively widely open), the tongue will be relatively far from the roof of the mouth. Vowels for which the jaw is relatively low during articulation are called, unsurprisingly, low vowels; and vowels for which the jaw is relatively high (the mouth is more nearly closed) are called high vowels. This distinction can be appreciated, for example, by gripping the chin and successively articulating "ha-ha, hee-hee, ha-ha, hee-hee." The phoneme spelled a in ha is a low vowel, and the phoneme spelled ee in hee is a high vowel. The jaw can be felt to move up and down correspondingly.
A vibration is felt in the oral cavity when a vowel is articulated. If this vibration is felt toward the front of the cavity, say in the area of the alveolar ridge, the vowel is described as a front vowel. If the vibration is felt toward the back of the cavity, say in the area of the velum, the vowel is described as a back vowel. This distinction can be appreciated by successively articulating "ho-ho, hee-hee, ho-ho, hee-hee," and paying attention to where the vibration is felt most strongly in the oral cavity. The phoneme spelled o in ho is a back vowel, and the phoneme spelled ee in hee is a front vowel.
Thus, we get the following system of classification for vowels. Click on the terms for further information.