English Phonetics and Pronunciation Practice
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English Phonetics and Pronunciation Practice

Paul Carley, Inger M. Mees

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eBook - ePub

English Phonetics and Pronunciation Practice

Paul Carley, Inger M. Mees

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English Phonetics and Pronunciation Practice provides a unique introduction to basic articulatory phonetics for students of English. Built around an extensive collection of practice materials, this book teaches the pronunciation of modern standard non-regional British English to intermediate and advanced learners worldwide.

This book:

  • provides an up-to-date description of the pronunciation of modern British English;
  • demonstrates the use of each English phoneme with a selection of high-frequency words, both alone and in context in sentences, idiomatic phrases and dialogues;
  • provides examples and practice material on commonly confused sounds, including illustrative pronunciation diagrams;
  • is supported by a companion website featuring phonetic transcriptions and over 30 hours of practice audio material to check your pronunciation against;
  • can be used not only for studying pronunciation in the classroom but also for independent student practice.

English Phonetics and Pronunciation Practice is essential reading for any student studying this topic.

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Chapter 1

Basic concepts

1.1 Pronunciation priorities

When learning to pronounce a new language it’s essential to get your priorities right. The most important sounds are the ones that can change the meaning of words. These are called phonemes (see section 1.2). If you say pin and it sounds like bin, people will misunderstand you. And if you say I hid them and it sounds like I hit them, there will also be a breakdown in communication. Furthermore, you should be aware that sounds may be pronounced differently in different contexts, e.g. pre-vocalically (before vowels), intervocalically (between vowels) or pre-consonantally (before consonants). They may also be pronounced differently in different positions in the word – at the beginning (initial), in the middle (medial) and at the end (final). For instance, /p/ is more like a /b/ when it occurs after /s/, e.g. port vs. sport; /r/ sounds different in red and tread; the two /l/ sounds in global are said differently; and the quality of <oa> is different in goat and goal. Note that when we refer to the letters in a word – as opposed to the sounds – we show them in angle brackets, e.g. <f> or <ie>. Phonemes are shown in slant brackets, e.g. /r/ or /e/. The word spread would be shown phonemically as /spred/.
Even if people can understand what you are saying, an off-target pronunciation may still sound comical, irritating or distracting to listeners. For instance, if you say English /r/ with a back articulation (in your throat) instead of a front articulation (with your tongue-tip), it may sound funny to people who aren’t used to it. If listeners are distracted because of a false pronunciation, they may stop concentrating on what you are trying to say. Or if they need to invest a lot of effort in deciphering what you are saying, they may lose track of your message. Furthermore, judgements of your overall ability in English are likely to be based on the impression your pronunciation makes: if you sound like a beginner, you may be treated like a beginner, even if your level is advanced in terms of grammar, vocabulary, reading and writing.
The best approach is to aim for a pronunciation that (1) can be understood without any difficulty and (2) doesn’t irritate or distract your listeners. Note that there’s more to learning the pronunciation of a language than mastering the segments (vowels and consonants). You have to pay attention to several other points. For instance, correct use of weak forms helps to get the speech rhythm right. Contractions, e.g. don’t, it’s, we’ll, improve the fluency. To make your pronunciation more authentic, it’s important to have a knowledge of assimilation (sounds that change under the influence of neighbouring sounds; e.g. when becomes /wem/ in when my), elision (disappearing sounds; e.g. /t/ is often lost in strictly) and liaison (linking of sounds across word boundaries, e.g. /r/ in far away).

1.2 Phonemes and allophones

Some sound differences matter a great deal, whereas others are of little significance. The ones that matter most are those that can change the meaning of otherwise identical words. In English, the words bit, bet, boat are distinguished only by the vowels; in bit, sit, wit, only the initial consonant is different. In bit, bill, bin, it’s the final consonant that brings about the change in meaning. Sounds which can distinguish meaning are called phonemes (adjective: phonemic). A pair of words distinguished by a single phoneme is called a minimal pair, e.g. bit – hit. The variety of English taught in this book (see section 1.7) has 24 consonant phonemes and 20 vowel phonemes.
Not every sound difference can change the meaning of a word. Listen carefully to feet and feed. You can hear a distinct difference in the length of the two vowels. But the native English speaker interprets these vowels as two variants of the same phoneme /iː/; the different vowel lengths are the result of the influence of the following consonants /t/ and /d/. Similarly, the two /k/ sounds in keen and corn are different, the first being formed more forward and the second further back in the mouth, but English speakers hear both as variants of the phoneme /k/.
When you say the /d/ in deal, your lips are unrounded during the consonant, but when you say the /d/ in door, they are rounded. In deal the vowel is unrounded, and in door the vowel is rounded. When we say deal and door, our lips are getting ready for the vowel during the articulation of the consonant. So the lip shape of the consonant is affected by the lip shape of the following vowel. Each phoneme is composed of a number of such different variants. These are termed allophones (adjective: allophonic). Allophones may occur in complementary distribution or in free variation. Our deal/door example is an instance of allophones in complementary distribution. This means that the different allophones complement each other; where one occurs, the other cannot occur. In other words, we can write a rule for the occurrence of the two allophones: /d/ with rounded lips occurs before lip-rounded sounds while /d/ with unrounded lips occurs before all other sounds. Vowels are shortened before voiceless consonants like /s/ while they retain full length before voiced consonants like /z/; for example, the vowel in price /praɪs/ is clearly shorter than that in prize /praɪz/. Again, the allophones are in complementary distribution. If allophones are in free variation, their occurrence cannot be predicted from the phonetic context. An example of this would be the different possible pronunciations of /t/ in word-final position, as in hat. It’s possible to pronounce the /t/ with or without glottal reinforcement (see section 2.7.3). Many speakers vary between these two possibilities, and we cannot predict which of the two they are going to use. The glottally reinforced and non-glottally reinforced variants are therefore said to be in free variation.
Unfortunately for the learner, different languages generally don’t have the same phoneme system, and they certainly don’t have the same range of allophones. So the learner has to work out the phonemic inventory of the new language and all the phonetic variants. Your first task is to make sure you never lose a phoneme contrast. This isn’t easy to do in practice. Even though two phonemes may sound very similar, or identical, to the learner, to the native speaker they are completely different. This is something native speakers and learners are often not aware of. Native speakers are frequently surprised to hear that the vowels in the English words seat /siːt/ and sit /sɪt/ sound identical to speakers of most other languages, who hear them as the same vowel because they count as allophones of the same phoneme in their languages. Many learners find it difficult to separate the phonemes in Luke /luːk/ and look/lʊk/. Others find it difficult to distinguish between cat /æ/, cut /ʌ/ and cart /ɑː/. Yet others can’t hear and/or make the difference between the initial consonants in three /θ/ and tree /t/, or three /θ/ and free /f/, or theme /θ/ and seem /s/. In this book we have provided exercises for 29 consonant contrasts and 26 vowel contrasts. You’ll find that some of these don’t pose a problem for speakers of your language while others will take a long time to master. If making a particular contrast isn’t difficult for you, you can still use the contrast section as extra material to help you get the two sounds just right. Note that a full command of the contrasts involves being able to say all the different allophones of a phoneme in their appropriate contexts.
Remember that allophones can never change the meaning of words. English /t/ can be said in many different ways (i.e. there are many different allophones or variants), but if we substitute one allophone for another, the meaning remains the same. It will merely sound a bit odd. However, if we replace /t/ in tight by /s/, /f/ or /k/, then it turns into sight, fight or kite, and the result is a new word with a different meaning; /t s k/ are therefore examples of phonemes in English. The English phoneme system is shown in the ‘English Phonemic Transcription Key’ at the start of this book.

1.3 Spelling and sound

English orthography (i.e. spelling) is notoriously unreliable. For instance, the vowel /iː/ can be spelt in numerous ways. All the letters underlined in the following words represent /iː/: me, see, sea, believe, receive, pizza, people, key, quay, quiche, Portuguese, foetus. Most other phonemes can also be spelt in many different ways, especially vowels. So instead of relying on the orthography, phoneticians use transcription. There are two types: (1) Phonemic transcription indicates phonemes only; this type, as we have seen, is normally placed inside slant brackets / /, e.g. part /pɑːt/. The sign – is used to show phoneme contrasts, e.g. letmet /let – met/. (2) Phonetic transcription shows more detailed allophonic distinctions, enclosed by square brackets [], e.g. part [phɑːt]. To indicate the allophonic distinctions, we often make use of diacritics, i.e. marks added to symbols to provide extra information, e.g. [pʰ] and [ʔt]. The rounded allophone of /t/ is shown as [tw]; as /t/ said with unrounded lips is the default, there’s no special symbol to denote it.
Sometimes words with different meanings are spelt completely differently but are pronounced in the same way, as in key and quay above. Such words are called homophones (same pronunciation, different meaning). English has a great many of these. Other examples of homophones are wait/weight, know/no, sea/see, cite/sight/site. To confuse matters even more, the opposite also occurs. It’s possible for words that are spelt identically to be pronounced differently. The written word row can be said with the vowel in GOAT (when it means a ‘line’) or the vowel in MOUTH (when it means a ‘quarrel’), and it’s therefore impossible to tell from the spelling alone which meaning and pronunciation are intended. Words of this type are called homographs (same spelling, different pronunciation).

1.4 Phoneme symbols

Unfortunately, different writers sometimes use different symbols to represent the vowel and consonant phonemes of English. This is partly because writers have different personal preferences and partly because the pronunciation of English has changed over the years. It has consequently become necessary to adapt the symbols to fit in better with present-day pronunciation. On the whole, the consonants tend to be shown in the same way, but several of the vowel symbols differ. In this book we have followed the notation used in the two leading pronunciation dictionaries, the Longman Pronunciation Dictionary (Wells 2008) and the Cambridge English Pronouncing Dictionary (Jones et al. 2011). The transcription system used in these dictionaries is standard for all mainstream English language teaching materials which use British English as their model. Three of the vowel sounds that have recently undergone change are the vowels found in the words DRESS, TRAP and SQUARE. In this book we have shown them in the traditional manner, i.e. /e/, /æ/ and /eə/ (as in the two dicti...

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