© 2012 Rex Jaeschke. All rights reserved.
[Due to limitations of the blog software, several symbols used in this essay don't render correctly when written as characters. As a result, in a few places I've inserted pictures of the original Word document formatting instead of the actual formatted text.]
During the past 35 years, I've looked at a number of languages, with a variety of writing systems. [See my July 2010 essay, "What is Normal? – Part 2: Writing Systems".] In more recent years, I've helped to teach English to speakers of other languages. It seems to me that while the grammar for English is simpler than for some other languages, pronunciation can be very difficult, especially in the absence of the diacritical marks present in other European languages. Yes, there are some rules, but there are many exceptions, which you simply have to learn by rote.
English is my native language, and I've been speaking it for some 57 years. Although I have known about pronunciation guides for some years, I'd never taken the time to understand them. Having now spent some time studying the topic, I have a good idea of their intent.
In this essay, I'll look at breaking words into syllables and the pronunciation of those syllables, adding some extra commentary as I go. However, I won't even try to provide complete coverage of the subject. Hopefully though, I'll give you enough information and links that you'll be able to find out more for yourself should you be so inclined. By the way, I'll be focusing on pronunciation of American English.
Breaking Words into Syllables
Each word consists of one or more syllables, each of which is a basic unit of speech that consists of a single sound. A syllable might consist of one to six or, perhaps, even more letters. The process of breaking a word into its constituent syllables is knows as syllabication. The typical way of indicating the syllables in a word is to separate them with a centered dot; for example:
[It is rumored that in parts of Texas, the word shit has at least four syllables, as in shi·i·i·it!]
[The Japanese writing systems hiragana and katakana do not use an alphabet, per se. Instead, they are syllabaries. That is, each character has a sound; there are no such things as an alphabet or letters. Is that normal? Again, see my July 2010 essay.]
The Notation for Vowels
Unfortunately, there are a number of different notation systems for English pronunciation, and some of them appear to be quite complicated. I settled on what I see as the simpler United States dictionary transcription system, which Wikipedia says is, "similar to those used by American Heritage, Merriam Webster, and Random House dictionaries".
For my essays, for definitions I usually refer to Wikipedia and Wiktionary, but for this series on English, I'm supplementing these with the American Heritage Dictionary (AHD).
For the most part, the sounds of consonants are straightforward; it's the vowel sounds—and combinations of vowels with consonants and other vowels—that cause confusion. As such, we'll start with those. (Each word is followed by its pronunciation in parentheses.)
Consider the AHD entry for man:
The pronunciation of the m and n are as expected, but what about the a? Specifically, how do we distinguish this a from other a-sounds, such as that in mane? AHD does this by putting a breve diacritical mark over the a to indicate the vowel has a short sound.
As you might expect, we distinguish different a-sounds by using different diacritical marks. For example:
mane, main, Maine (mān) — these are homophones
In this case, we use a macron to indicate a long sound.
Continuing on with the other vowels, we have the following examples:
meet, meat, mete (mēt) — more homophones
There is no long-u sound. (See cube and cute below regarding a "long-ooh".)
By the way, just how does one pronounce the word macron? AHD shows both mākrŏn and măkrŏn; it also shows that the 2nd syllable can be -krən (see discussion of the schwa below). And as for breve, AHD shows that brĕv or brēv are equally acceptable.
There are more than two different a-sounds, so it should come as no surprise that there are more than two diacritical marks used in this pronunciation guide. For example:
The two dots are called a diaeresis (or umlaut). The little up-arrow is called a circumflex. These marks can be used with other vowel sounds as well. For example:
pier, peer (pîr)
here, hear (hîr)
for (fôr) — interestingly, AHD shows fore, four (fôr, fōr)
herd, heard (hûrd)
urn, earn (ûrn)
Consider the following heteronyms:
tear (târ) — to pull apart
tear (tîr) — the thing produced when one cries
There are a number of other o-sounds; for example:
boot () — uses a double macron
book () — uses a double breve
broom (, )
A difference between American-English and other English dialects is the pronunciation of certain n-sounds. For examples:
news (, )
tune (, )
However, AHD permits both for American speakers.
Unless we're reading a dictionary, we won't see pronunciation-guide diacritical marks (or syllable-separating centered dots for that matter). However, occasionally we might come across some of those marks used in ordinary English-language typesetting. The diaeresis is one example. Consider the following words:
In these cases, the vowel with the diaeresis is pronounced separately from the preceding vowel; that is, the two vowels do not make a diphthong.
[Note carefully that some of these diacritical marks have entirely different meanings when used in writing other languages. For example, German allows an umlaut on its a, o, and u, while French allows a circumflex on its e.]
The Notation for Consonants
According to the literature, the following consonants each have only one pronunciation: b, d, f, j, k, l, m, p, r, t, v, w, y, and z. However, one exception I've noted is that the d in schedule is pronounced j.
For the most part, the letter c sounds like k, but sometimes s. The combination ch is treated separately. For example:
scheme (skēm) — not the usual ch-sound
In American English, schedule is pronounced without the h, while in British English, that word is pronounced without the c.
The letter g has its own sound, but sometimes is pronounced j. For example:
high (hī) — an exception
The letter h has its own sound except in the combination wh (or th, ch, and sh). For example:
where (hwâr, wâr)
when (hwĕn, wĕn)
which (hwĭch, wĭch)
while (hwīl, wīl)
The letter n has its own sound except in the combination ng. For example:
change (chānj) — here the ng is treated as nj
The letter q has no sound of its own; it uses that for k. For example:
The letter s has its own sound except in the combination sh. For example:
cash, cache (kăsh)
The letter t has its own sound except in the combination th. For example:
this (thĭs) — a slightly different th-sound
The letter x is usually pronounced ks, but sometimes z (as in words prefixed with xeno and xylo). For example:
English has many words with letters that are not voiced. Here are some examples:
halve (hăv, häv)
Thus far, we've looked only at words containing one syllable. When a word has multiple syllables the possibility exists for stress (or emphasis) to be placed on one syllable over another. For example, in the word con·tro·ver·sy, people disagree as to whether the stress goes on the first or the second syllable. (AHD says "the first".)
Consider the following examples:
The end of a syllable is indicated by the presence of a stress (prime) character (′), a hyphen-minus (-), or the end of the word. The stress indicators apply to the syllable that immediately precedes them.
[Some treatments of pronunciation define both a primary and a secondary stress character. I have used only one.]
The Humble Schwa
A common symbol seen in pronunciation guides is the schwa (shwä), written as ə, an upside-down-and-reversed, lowercase e. According to Wikipedia, it's "an unstressed and toneless neutral vowel sound in some languages" and "is the most common vowel sound" in English. Here are some examples of its use:
The "zh" Sound
The final sound is zh. Here are some examples:
The Many Faces of "ough"
This letter combination has one of the most diverse sets of different pronunciations. For example:
slough (sl, slou)
cough (kôf, kŏf)
After a year in the US (in Chicago), I moved to northern Virginia, some 22 miles (40 kms) west of the National capital, Washington DC. Back then, the main road to my city was Route 7. Using my Australian English knowledge, I dared to pronounced route as rt, for which I not only received grief, but there were people who claimed to have no idea what I was talking about. The locals pronounced it the same as the word rout. Since then, I've met many American speakers who use one or the other forms, and AHD blesses both. To those who insist its pronounced rout, I point them to the famous American highway Route 66, which I've only ever heard pronounced as rt.
This essay concentrates on American English, but not all Americans speak alike. And for some words it is quite acceptable to have more than one pronunciation. Rules are good, but if there is one thing we can say for sure about English is there are almost always exceptions to the rules. And since there are no pronunciation police (yet) here in the US, regardless of what the rules are, for those of us trying to understand Americans when they speak, we need to be ready for variations. (Now whether they have anything worth listening to is another matter altogether!)
Now and again, I'm exposed to news and business reports on a BBC TV channel. The pronunciation of the following words by its newsreaders and reporters compared with those from the US always jump out at me:
Iraq (is it ĭ·răk, ĭ·räk, or ī·răk?)
The Finnish technology company Nokia
Oh, and by the way, never put the em-fä′sĭs on the wrong sĭl-ä′bəl, and when pronouncing things don't forget to use your dental fricatives!