This is the third blog post in a three-part series on the relationships between the pronunciation of English words and their spellings. Follow the links for part one of the series on Silent Letters and part two on Homophones.
As mentioned in the previous blog posts, it frequently happens that the spelling of an English word doesn’t match up with its pronunciation, which can cause confusion to those studying English.
There are a wide variety of languages in the world with regular spelling- that is to say, in such languages, the spelling of a word and its pronunciation are closely related. So, in those languages, the way a word is spelled is exactly as expected based upon the sound of the word, and conversely, the pronunciation of a word is exactly what you’d expect based upon its spelling. Some examples of languages with regular (or nearly regular) spelling are: Italian, Bulgarian, Finnish, Maltese, Swahili, Turkish, and many more. Alas: English does not come anywhere close to getting a spot on this list!
One question that I’m often asked as an accent instructor is: What exactly is the relationship between letters and sounds in American English? First, let’s define the terms “letter” and “sound” as we will use them here, as well as the names of letters in American English. A “letter” is a written or typed symbol that stands in for a sound. The 26 letters in English are listed in the popular alphabet song: Aa, Bb, Cc, Dd, Ee, Ff, Gg, Hh, Ii, Jj, Kk, Ll, Mm, Nn, Oo, Pp, Qq, Rr, Ss, Tt, Uu, Vv, Ww, Xx, Yy, and Zz. As you can see, letters can be written either in their capital or lowercase versions. We string letters together to form words. You can read a letter, write a letter, or type a letter… but you cannot say or hear a letter. You can, however, say or hear the NAME of a letter. Let’s see a chart of the letters and their names:
|Letter||American English Name of Letter (spelled)||Sound of name of Letter (International Phonetic Alphabet)|
The relationship between letters and sounds/pronunciation in American English is complex and often imprecise for many reasons, historical and linguistic. Furthermore, it’s important to bear in mind that English uses 26 letters to spell all words, and yet American English is comprised of 49 distinct sounds (give or take a few, depending on how you count it.) Of course, given this fact alone, it’s impossible to have a 1-to-1 relationship between a letter and its sound in a word. The disconnect between letter/sound relationships becomes even more extreme when you look at vowels: there are 6 letters that can represent vowels (a, e, i, o, u, y), yet there are 14 vowel sounds (not including vowels combined with “r”!)
Due to these discrepancies, the need was recognized to be able to transcribe sounds in a way that is universally clear and understood. To this end, the International Phonetic Alphabet was developed about a century and a half ago, and it has been revised and updated many times over the years.
For many people who wish to learn American English pronunciation, it can be helpful to become familiar with the International Phonetic Alphabet, which is meant to be a completely phonetic written modality for expressing sounds precisely.
The International Phonetic Alphabet (IPA) contains symbols for all sounds that occur in all spoken languages, but for now, let’s just look at a list of IPA symbols that represent the sounds of American English. For ease of comprehension, this chart contains a column of the letters that are most commonly associated with that sound, as well as example words containing each sound.
Please note that symbols from the International Phonetic alphabet will always be written between two forward slashes, for instance: /want/
|IPA symbol representing sound:||Letters most commonly associated with that sound:||Example Words:|
|/i/||ee, ea, ie, ei, e, y||need, bead, piece, receive, he, city|
|/ɪ/||i, ui, y||him, build, gym|
|/e/||a, ai, ay, ey, eigh||late, rain, say, they, neighbor|
|/ɛ/||e, ea||bed, head|
|/ɑ/||o, a||hot, want|
|/ə/ (unstressed syllable) and /ʌ/ (stressed syllable)||u, o, ou, a, e||fun, love, cousin, about, enough|
|/ɔ/||aw, au, ough, augh, o||saw, August, bought, daughter, off|
|/o/||o, oa, ow, ough||go, road, low, though|
|/ʊ/||oo, u, ou||good, pull, could|
|/u/||oo, ue, o, ew, u||food, blue, do, new, rule|
|/aɪ/||y, i, igh, ie||fly, time, high, tie|
|/aʊ/||ou, ow||house, cow|
|/ɔɪ/||oi, oy||voice, toy|
|/ɚ/ (unstressed syllable) and /ɝ/ (stressed syllable)||er, ir, ur||teacher, bird, turkey|
|/or/||or, our, ar||more, four, war|
|/ɪɚ/||ear, eer||fear, beer|
|/ɛɚ/||air, are||hair, care|
|/ɛr/||er, err, ur||very, sherry, bury|
|/aʊɚ/||our, ower||hour, power|
|/aɪɚ/||ire, ier, yre||fire, drier, pyre,|
|/k/||k, c||kid, cat|
|/f/||f, ph, gh||fine, phone, laugh|
|/z/||z, s||zoo, has|
|/ʃ/||sh, ss, t||shoe, issue, action|
|/ʒ/||g, s||beige, leisure|
|/ʤ/||j, g||jam, gem|
|/ɾ/||t, d||writing, riding|
Here is a chart that highlights the 26 letters of the English alphabet, along with the sounds that are most commonly associated with that letter, demonstrated by symbols from the International Phonetic Alphabet. Example words for each IPA symbol are listed in the right column.
|Letter of the alphabet:||Sounds most commonly associated with letter:||Example Words:|
|Aa||/æ/,/ɑ/, /e/, /ə/, /ɪ/, /ɔ/||hat, want, about, April, urban, all|
|Cc||/k/, /s/||cat, city|
|Dd||/d/, /t/, /ɾ/||dog, kissed, medal|
|Ee||/ɛ/, /i/, /e/||bed, me, they|
|Gg||/g/, /ʤ/, /ʒ/||get, gem, beige|
|Oo||/o/, /ɑ/, /ɔ/||go, not, off|
|/kw/, /k/||quick, quay|
|Ss||/s/, /z/||say, was|
|Tt||/t/, /ɾ/, /ʔ/||table, capital, Britain|
|Uu||/ə/, /ʊ/, /u/||fun, pull, rule|
|Xx||/ks/, /gz/||excellent, exactly|
|Yz||/j/, /i/, /ɪ/||yellow, city, gym|
There are many additions and exceptions to the charts above, yet taking a step back and looking at these charts as a whole can give a good insight into the interaction of letters and sound in American English, as well as an appreciation for how complex English spelling and pronunciation can be.
Getting familiar with the International Phonetic Alphabet and how sounds and letters typically interact in English is a great step towards a deeper understanding of American English as it’s spoken by real native speakers every day. It can also help greatly when studying pronunciation on your own. For example, if you look up a word in a dictionary that uses the International Phonetic Alphabet, such as Collins Dictionary, you can easily figure out a word’s pronunciation by decoding the symbols next to it. Happy studying!