ENGLISH PHONEMES

THE HISTORY OF ENGLISH PHONEMES

This Website was constructed by William E. Rogers of the English Department at Furman University, Greenville, South Carolina, and Diana Ervin, an English major at Furman. The site is intended to supplement four courses currently taught at Furman: English 38 (History of the English Language), English 39 (English Grammar), English 40 (Medieval English Literature), and English 60 (Chaucer). The construction of this site was made possible by a grant from the Andrew W. Mellon Foundation to Furman University and Wofford College (Furman/Wofford Mellon Program).

 

This site was last updated on March 19, 2001.

 

 

Copyright © 2000 William E. Rogers. See "Copyleft Notice."
E-mail: bill.rogers@furman.edu

 

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.

The navigation bar on the left-hand side of this page mirrors the structure of the site. Click on "Instructions" in the navigation bar for instructions on using the site, or click on the green button here

Phoneme Chart: English Vowel and Consonant Sounds
showing the symbols for phonemic transcription of English

 

Vowel Phonemes

Consonant Phonemes

01

pit

21

 pit

02

pet

22

 bit

03

pat

23

 time

04

pot

24

 door

05

luck

25

 cat

06

good

26

 get

07

a

go

27

 fan

08

meat

28

 van

09

car

29

th

ink

10

door

30

th

at

11

girl

31

 send

12

too

32

 zip

13

day

33

 man

14

sky

34

 nice

15

boy

35

ring

16

beer

36

l

eg

17

bear

37

r

at

18

tour

38

 wet

19

go

39

 hat

20

cow

40

y

et

 

 

 

41

 shop

 

 

 

42

leisure

 

 

 

43

 chop

 

 

 

44

j

ump

 

PHONOLOGY: CONSONANTS

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.

MANNER OF ARTICULATION

 

POINT OF ARTICULATION

 

PHONOLOGY: VOWELS

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.

POSITION OF JAW

 

POINT OF ARTICULATION

Diphthongs are vowel-phonemes articulated with a glide from one vowel to another. There are three diphthongs in Present-Day English.

1. /aI/ (the phoneme spelled i in bite). In articulating this phoneme, a speaker begins by articulating /a/ (the phoneme spelled a in father), and glides to /I/ (the phoneme spelled i in bit).

2. /aU/ (the phoneme spelled ou in house). In articulating this phoneme, a speaker begins by articulating /a/ (the phoneme spelled a in father), and glides to /U/ (the phoneme spelled u in put).

3. I/ (the phoneme spelled oy in boy). In articulating this phoneme, a speaker begins by articulating /ô/ (the phoneme spelled au in caught), and glides to /I/ (the phoneme spelled i in bit).

 

PRESENT-DAY ENGLISH VOWELS

Vowels   Diphthongs
  Front Central Back   /aI/
High /i/ /I/                       /U/ /u/  

/aU/

I/

Mid     /e/ /e/       /'/       /ô/        
Low         /æ/     /a/          

MR HAMZAOUI
 
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