How many sounds are there in English?

How many sounds are there in English? It all depends on what you mean by English and what you mean by sounds. In this post, I will talk about the sounds of standard southern British English, generally known as Received Pronunciation.

Phonemes

The only feasible way to analyse the set of sounds used in a language is to consider the phonemes identified in that language. A phoneme is a set of sounds that are similar to each other and enter into contrasts with other sets of sounds. For example, in English, /p/ contrasts with /b/ in pairs of words such as pat and bat. So both /p/ and /b/ are phonemes in English. By convention, phonemes are transcribed between /slanted lines/. To avoid ambiguity, the written form of a word can be placed between <angled brackets>.

Allophones

A phoneme is a set of sounds. Typically, different members of that set (different forms of the phoneme) appear in different contexts. The various forms of a phoneme are called called allophones. By convention, allophones are transcribed between [square brackets].

For example, in English, two different allophones of /p/ occur in pat and spit. Those allophones could be transcribed as [ph] and [p] respectively. This transcription would show that aspiration occurs only in the allophone used in pat.

/p/ is produced with a strong puff of air (aspirated) if it occurs at the start of a syllable, but is not aspirated if it appears at the beginning of a syllable after /s/. Voiced means that the vocal chords are vibrating strongly while the sound is being produced.

Consonants in Received Pronunciation

There are about 24 consonant phonemes in Received Pronunciation. They are summarised in the following table. The table classifies the consonants by manner of articulation (the rows) and by place of articulation (the columns). The symbols used are from the International Phonetic Alphabet (IPA).

English consonants

Manner of articulation

The table distinguishes the following types of consonant, classified by how they block or impede the airstream inside the mouth:

  • Stops (sometimes called plosives): consonants which block the airstream completely.
  • Fricatives: consonants which interrupt the airstream but do not block it completely.
  • Affricates: a blended and overlapping sequence of a stop and a fricative. The IPA uses a sequence of symbols to represent the two affricates generally identified in Received Pronunciation.
  • Nasals: consonants in which the soft palate (velum) is lowered to let air into the nose while the consonant is being produced.
  • Liquids and approximants: consonants which interrupt the airstream, but less than in fricatives.

Place of articulation

The table also classifies consonants by where they block or impede the airstream:

  • Labial: consonants produced by pressing the lips together
  • Labio-dental: consonants produced by pressing a lip against the teeth.
  • Dental: consonants which involve placing the tip of the tongue again or between the teeth.
  • Alveolar: consonants formed by placing the tip of the tongue against or near the alveolar ridge, which lies just behind the teeth.
  • Palatal: consonants formed by placing the tongue near the hard palate at the roof of the mouth.
  • Velar: consonants produced by placing the tongue near the soft palate (velum) at the back of the mouth
  • Glottal: consonants formed by constricting the glottis—the aperture between the vocal chords

Comments on phonemes

Here are some comments on some of the phonemes presented in the table above:

  • The phoneme /θ/ is written <th> and appears in, for example, the word bath. It is unvoiced (produced without vibration of the vocal chords). Its voiced counterpart is /ð/, also written <th> and appearing in, for example, the word there.
  • The phoneme /ʃ/ is written <sh> and appears in, for example, the word sheep. It voiced counterpart is /ʒ/, written as s and appearing in, for example, the word measure.
  • The phoneme /ŋ/ is written in English as <ng>. For some discussion of this phoneme, please see Droppin’ g’s = bad speech? – Language Miscellany
  • /h/ can appear at the start of a syllable (but never at the end) and /ŋ/ can appear at the end (but never at the beginning). Thus, it is not possible to change one word into another word merely by swapping /h/ for /ng/, or vice versa. Nevertheless, these two sounds differ from each other so much that no credible analysis would treat them as allophones of a single phoneme.
  • The phonemes /j/ and /w/ are sometimes called semi-vowels and some researchers analyse them as versions of the vowels /i/ and /u/ respectively, not as separate consonantal phonemes. The phoneme /w/ is produced by rounding the lips and raising the tongue towards the back of the mouth. Some researchers classify it as labial, some as velar and some as labio-velar.

Summary

The variety of English known as Received Pronunciation contains 24 consonant phonemes. Some other varieties of English may have slightly more or slightly fewer and there might be some variations in how particular phonemes are best described in other varieties.

I discuss the vowels in a later post. How many sounds are there in English? (2): vowels – Language Miscellany

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