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Word Pronunciation

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Word Pronunciation

Most native English speakers don't tend to think about the pronunciation of English words too much - we just sort of say them. But have you ever tried learning another language and realized just how tricky word pronunciation could be?

In this explanation, we'll look at the importance of pronunciation skills, the symbols we use to transcribe pronunciation, the most important elements of pronunciation in English, and plenty of examples.

Word Pronunciation English

The way we pronounce words can depend on several things. Of course, a word's spelling can help us 'figure out' pronunciation, but not all words are pronounced how they look.

There are tips and tricks in English we can learn to help with pronunciation. For example:

  • When certain letters appear together, they create specific sounds, e.g., ch, sh, igh - we call these phonics blends.

  • Now consider the letter G in gnome or K in knife; these are silent letters and shouldn't be pronounced.

  • Or, how about the modifying E, which can turn a short vowel sound into a long vowel sound, e.g., hat --> hate.

  • Finally, consider the difference in pronunciation between a vinyl record and the verb to record. Here we can see the effect of word stress on a word's meaning.

This is just a small insight into the complex world of pronunciation.

To help us understand and tell others how a word should be pronounced, we can transcribe words using the International Phonetic Alphabet (IPA). The IPA is a system comprised of letters and symbols representing different sounds and is used worldwide to help with pronunciation.

Before we delve into the important elements of pronunciation, let's take a close look at transcription and the IPA. This will help you understand the remainder of the explanation as example pronunciations will be transcribed using the IPA.

Word Pronunciation Symbols

Have you ever looked up a word in the dictionary or online, such as morphology, and seen something that looks like this: mor·faa·luh·jee or even, like this: [ˈmɔːrfəloʊgiː]

The first example uses phonetic spelling to 'sound out' the pronunciation syllable by syllable, whereas the second uses IPA transcription.

Let's begin by looking at phonetic spelling.

Phonetic Spelling

Before we can discuss phonetic spelling, there are two important terms we need to define: phonemes and graphemes.

Phoneme - A phoneme is a speech sound. It is the physical noise we make. We represent phonemes by placing them between two slashes, e.g., /f/

Grapheme - A grapheme is a letter or symbol used to represent an individual speech sound, e.g., f

If we look at the word morphology again, we can see that in the center of the word, the phoneme /f/ is represented by the grapheme ph.

When we write a word using phonetic spelling, we use phonemes rather than graphemes and break the word down into syllables.

Creation = kree·ay·shn

Celebrate = seh·luh·brayt

Happy = ha·pee

Light = lite (Here, we can see the modifying e in action. The e lets us know that the i is a long vowel sound rather than a short one. We know not to pronounce the e as it would appear in a second syllable, like so lit.e

International Phonetic Alphabet Transcription

The second representation of pronunciation we saw ( /ˈmɔːrfəloʊgiː/) was phonetic transcription.

Phonetic transcription uses symbols from the IPA to transcribe the pronunciation of any word from any language. These symbols include:

  • Consonants - these are ordered based on the manner and place of articulation, with voiced consonants on the right and voiceless consonants on the left.

Manner and place of articulation - Your articulators are the speech organs that help you produce sounds like the teeth, tongue, and lips. Manner and place of articulation refer to where you place and how you use your articulators to make certain sounds.

Voiced and voiceless consonants - the pronunciation of some consonants creates a vibration in your voice box (these are voiced consonants), whereas others do not (voiceless).

  • Vowels - these are organized based on the shape of the mouth and the position the tongue is in when pronouncing the sound.

  • Diacritics - these are small marks that appear alongside the consonant and vowels to provide extra information on the pronunciation, such as voiced or voiceless, aspirated or nonaspirated (with or without an exhalation of air), or how rounded a vowel sound should be.

Hat = [ˈhæt]

If you look closely, you can see that the h consonant has a small mark above it. This lets us know that the sound is aspirated, meaning it is created with a small exhalation of air.

  • Suprasegmentals - these are similar to diacritics, except they apply to the prosodic features that appear in connected speech, such as tone, intonation, changes in pitch, and stress. These prosodic features are represented by small marks.

  • Other features - the IPA also contains symbols to represent other pronunciation features, such as clicks and tones; however, these aren't necessary for English.

Word Pronunciation, The International phonetic Alphabet, StudySmarterFig. 1. Recent copy of the International Phonetic Alphabet

As you can see, the IPA is pretty comprehensive, and all the included information isn't necessary for doing simple phonemic transcriptions of English words. To simplify things, we can use the English Phonemic Alphabet, a simplified version of the IPA that focuses only on vowels and consonants that appear in English.

Word pronunciation, English phonemic Alphabet, StudySmarterFig.2. Example of the English Phonemic Chart

Phonetic vs. Phonemic Transcriptions

Phonetic transcription includes all the extra details on how to pronounce a word, making use of the diacritics and suprasegmentals that appear in the IPA. These are called narrow transcriptions, and they appear between two square brackets, like so:

Clean = [kl̥i:n]

On the other hand, phonemic transcriptions are much simpler and usually only include the pronunciation of consonants and vowels. These are called broad transcriptions, and they appear between two slashes, like so:

Clean = /klin/

It's not unusual to see people referring to phonemic transcriptions as phonetic transcriptions or for phonemic transcriptions to include the most common diacritics/suprasegmentals, such as word stress.

Word Pronunciation Elements

Now we know the basics behind pronunciation and how to represent the pronunciation of words, let's look at some important elements behind correct pronunciation specific to English.

Syllable Stress

By now, you're probably aware that there is more to pronunciation than the production of consonant and vowel sounds.

When we pronounce a word with multiple syllables, the syllable we stress can be very important as it can make the word difficult to understand or even change the meaning of the word altogether. Stressed syllables can be longer, louder, of a higher pitch, or just generally clearer than other syllables.

This is particularly important for homonyms (words that look/sound the same but have different meanings). There are many homonyms in English that can function either as a noun or a verb, depending on where the syllable stress falls.

RE-cord (noun) -- re-CORD (verb)

PRE-sent (noun) -- pre-SENT (verb)

RE-bel (noun) -- re-BEL (verb)

As you can see, placing stress on the first syllable creates a noun.

Phonics Blends

There are certain sounds we can create when we pair phonemes together - these are called phonics blends. When pronouncing phonics blends, each phoneme shouldn't be pronounced individually, but the blend should be pronounced as a whole.

ch as in church - here, the c and h are combined to make a specific sound that is represented as /ʧ/

th as in teeth - represented as /θ/

igh as in night - represented as /aɪ/

When a phonics blend contains two vowels, we usually pronounce the first vowel. For example, the word brain contains a long a sound (so does the word contain!)

Minimal Pairs

Minimal pairs are words that sound very similar but differ by a singular sound. The sound that differs usually appears in the same place in each word.

Sheep and Ship

Desk and Disk

Fan and Van

Understanding minimal pairs highlights the importance of clear pronunciation.

Modifying 'E'

The modifying e (a.ka. the magic e) is a silent letter that appears at the end of a word and modifies the vowel sound that appears before it. The e will transform a short vowel sound to a long one - for example, rat --> rate.

Silent Letters

In English, there are many words that contain silent letters; they could be vowels or consonants. These are letters that appear in the spelling of words but should not be pronounced. When we consider things such as the second vowel in phonics blends and the modifying e, an estimated 60% of English words actually contain silent letters.

Gnome

Hour

Knife

Column

Doubt

Silent letters often exist because the word originated from another language, such as Greek or Latin, and the spelling has been carried over. Silent letters can also Help us distinguish between homophones (words that sound the same), e.g., hour and our.

Word Pronunciation Example

Let's finish with some example words that include some of the elements we've looked at today. Each example will include the English spelling, the phonetic spelling, and the IPA transcription.

Words with silent letters

  • Climb - klime - /klaɪm/

  • Read - reed - /riːd/

  • Knight - nite - /naɪt/

Words with the modifying e

  • Plane - playn - /pleɪn/

  • Shine - shine - /ʃaɪn/

  • Home - home - /hoʊm/

Words with phonic blends

  • Flight - flite - /flaɪt/

  • Rain - rayn - /reɪn/

  • Brought - braat - /brɔːt/

Word Pronunciation - Key takeaways

  • Several elements can contribute to the pronunciation of a word, such as spelling, syllable stress, phonic blends, silent letters, and modifiers.
  • We can use phonetic spelling or transcription to represent a word's pronunciation.
  • Phonetic spelling uses phonemes rather than graphemes and breaks the word down into syllables.
  • Transcription uses symbols from the International Phonetic Alphabet to represent pronunciation.
  • Pronunciation involves the sound of consonants and vowels, as well as suprasegmentals, such as tone, stress, pitch, and intonation.

References

  1. Fig. 1. The chart of the International Phonetic Alphabet (IPA) as of 2020. This file is licensed under the Creative Commons Attribution-Share Alike 3.0 Unported. https://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File:IPA_chart_2020.svg#filelinks
  2. Fig. 2. Category: IPA charts CC-BY-SA-3.0 User: Snowwhite1991 https://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File:Phonetic_alphabet.gif

Frequently Asked Questions about Word Pronunciation

Word pronunciation refers to the way a word sounds when spoken out loud. Several elements can contribute to the pronunciation of a word, such as spelling, syllable stress, phonic blends, silent letters, and modifiers.

Pronunciation is the way words sound when spoken out loud. The way words sound can often differ from the way they're spelled. We can represent the sound of a word by using phonetic spelling or transcriptions, like so:


Flight - flite - /flaɪt/

There are several ways you can improve your pronunciation, such as:

  • Learning and practicing phonics blends 
  • Looking at the place and manner of articulation for certain sounds
  • Listening to native speakers of the language 
  • Looking at your mouth shape in the mirror
  • Having fun with tongue twisters

In the dictionary, you will likely find phonetic or phonemic transcriptions of the pronunciation of a word. Transcriptions use symbols from the International Phonetic Alphabet to represent sounds - they look like this:

Home -  /hoʊm/

Important aspects of pronunciation include:

  • Word stress
  • Phonics blends and blending 
  • Modifiers (such as the modifying e)
  • Silent letters 

Final Word Pronunciation Quiz

Question

Choose the best definition for the International Phonetic Alphabet:

Show answer

Answer

A system comprised of letters and symbols that represent different sounds and is used worldwide to help with pronunciation.

Show question

Question

What is this an example of:


mor·faa·luh·jee

Show answer

Answer

Phonetic spelling

Show question

Question

Which phoneme represents the grapheme ph ?

Show answer

Answer

F

Show question

Question

What represents a speech sound?

Show answer

Answer

Phonemes 

Show question

Question

What does the modifying do?

Show answer

Answer

Changes a short vowel sound to a long one.

Show question

Question

What is the difference between a voiced and a voiceless consonant?

Show answer

Answer

Voiced consonants create a vibration in the voice box, whereas voiceless consonants do not.

Show question

Question

Which symbols from the International Phonetic Alphabet represent pronunciation in connected speech?

Show answer

Answer

Suprasegmentals 

Show question

Question

Select the minimal pairs

Show answer

Answer

Sheep --> Ship

Show question

Question

How do stressed syllables sound different from non-stressed syllables?

Show answer

Answer

They can be louder, longer, higher in pitch, or clearer.

Show question

Question

When two vowels appear in a phonics blend, which one is pronounced?

Show answer

Answer

The first

Show question

Question

Name two reasons we have silent letters

Show answer

Answer

Because the spelling is a carry-over from another language.

To show the difference between homophones, e.g., hour and our

Show question

Question

In homonyms with two syllables, which syllable is stressed when the word is a noun?

Show answer

Answer

The first 

Show question

Question

What is the phonetic spelling of the word climb?

Show answer

Answer

Klime

Show question

Question

What is the phonetic spelling of the word Knight 

Show answer

Answer

nite 

Show question

Question

What can we use instead of the IPA for simpler English translations?

Show answer

Answer

The English Phonemic Alphabet 

Show question

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