English spelling and pronunciation rules

This section of the English Phonetics Academy designed to provide guidance and practice in English pronunciation through the use of phonetics. The exercises and drills included will aid in reducing accents and improving overall speech sound production. These lessons are particularly beneficial for non-native speakers looking to improve their English-speaking skills.

1. Spelling and pronunciation

This section deals with two problems in the study of the pronunciation of a foreign language. One is the spelling of English as a confusing factor. The other problem is interference from our native language (our L1).

1.1 Two problems

If we want to learn the pronunciation of a foreign language later in life, we are faced with at least two problems.

Problem 1: Spelling

We may be misled by the spelling of foreign words. A foreign learner of English may not realize, for example, that the word (she) says is pronounced as if it were spelt sezz.


Problem 2: Interference

Our efforts will suffer from the fact that we have already mastered the pronunciation of another language, namely that of our native language. We will tend to pronounce as well as perceive the sounds of our native language instead of those of the foreign language (with which we are, after all, not sufficiently familiar).


Because their knowledge of the native language is here seen to interfere with the process of speaking and perceiving the foreign language, this problem is referred to as interference (Du: interferentie). It will be discussed more fully in a later chapter.

1.2 Spelling as a confusing factor

In this chapter, we first turn to the problem of spelling. For understandable reasons we are inclined to attach far more authority to the way words are spelled than to the way they are pronounced. This goes for our native language as well as for foreign languages. It is a tendency that will inevitably confuse our thoughts and discussion about the pronunciation of words because instead of thinking in terms of sounds, we keep thinking in terms of letters.

This is easy enough to demonstrate. Which of the following pairs do you think are pronounced exactly alike?

01 wendde wenden
02 (ik) teken (een) teken
03 jou jouw
04 u uw
05 ik vil hem ik film
06 Baarn baren
07 niet Sien niets zien
08 hij gaat gaat hij?
09 kastje kasje
10 (ik ken) haar (lang) hear

Also, when reading or talking about ’vowels’ and ’consonants’, the first thought people often have is of vowel letters and consonant letters. When asked how many vowels English has, for instance, many people might say ’five’, because in the Roman alphabet, the set of letters used to spell these languages, there are five letters commonly used to represent vowels.

The correct answer to the question will in fact depend on the particular variety of the language that is chosen, but for the English described in this book, it is 20 (which is only two less than the number of consonants in that language).

1.3.1 Spelling pronunciations – homophones?

There is yet another aspect to this. We will have learned this language ’by ear’, and were only taught how to write it when we went to school. When learning a foreign language, however, we often first become familiar with a word in writing and form an opinion of how it is pronounced on the basis of how it is written.

Unfortunately, there is a large discrepancy between the spelling and the pronunciation of English, and basing our pronunciation on the spelling of English words can lead to disappointing results.

This discrepancy – has arisen chiefly because the spelling has remained virtually unchanged over a period of some centuries, while the pronunciation has undergone considerable changes during that time.

By way of illustration, you might try and say which of the following pairs are pronounced alike in English, i.e. which words are homophones. Do this before you listen to the audio samples.


























1.3.2 Spelling pronunciation – inconsistencies

Consider the following words:


















In the first set one and the same vowel is represented differently in each word, while in the second set the vowels are all different in spite of the fact that the letter o is used in all of them.

A pronunciation that is based on the spelling is known as a spelling pronunciation. Sometimes the spelling pronunciation becomes the accepted pronunciation, as is the case with hotel in which word no h was pronounced at the time it was borrowed from French.

1.4 A transcription system for GA

In view of the large discrepancy between the spelling and the pronunciation of English, and the resulting danger of spelling pronunciation that this creates, we really need a new spelling system in which the pronunciation of English words can be unambiguously represented. Such a transcription system is in a sense an improved alphabet: every vowel and every consonant of the language has its own symbol.

At this point, it is essential to realize that English, like most other languages, is pronounced in a variety of ways. A business executive from Chicago will not pronounce English the same as a bus driver in Boston, and both will speak differently than a gas station attendant in Alabama. In so far as these different varieties differ from the point of view of pronunciation, they are said to be different accents of English.

The various accents of a language may differ, among other things, in the sets of vowels and consonants that they have. In the case of English, it is typically the vowel systems that differ from accent to accent.

For example, in English, the words caught and court are pronounced the same and are different from cot, but in Scottish English and in much of California and Canada, caught and cot are the same and differ from court, while in Mid-Western American English, all three words are different.

We give the vowels and consonants of stan­dard American English in the next two sections (1.5 and 1.6). Since important variation may occur even in what would be considered ‘standard’ speech, we refer to two standard varieties of American English, the California variant and the Mid-Western variant.

As you will see in section 1.6, the California variant has one vowel less than the Mid-Western vari­ant. In this course, we follow this California variant, but reference will be made throughout to GA, short for “General American.”

Finally, it is observed that the accent of English which is generally taught at universities and schools in Europe is Standard English, also known as RP, short for “Received Pronunciation,” where ‘received’ is an old-fashioned word meaning ‘generally accepted’.

The collection of sounds of a language is known as its phoneme system. A phoneme system is divided into a consonant system (C- system) and a vowel system (V-system).

1.5 The consonants of GA

The C-system of GA falls into the following groups: sonorants and obstruents.

Sonorants are subdivided into nasals, during which air escapes through the nose, and approximants, for which this is not the case.

nasals approximants
/m/ meal /l/ lip
/n/ Neil /r/ rip
/ŋ/ sing /j/ yes
/w/ well

Obstruents are further subdivided into stops (also known as plosives /ˈploʊsɪvs/) and fricatives. In addition, there are two affricates, /t͡ʃ/ and /d͡ʒ/, as in cheek and Jack, respectively. They are normally considered to be single consonants, but could also be regarded as combinations of /t,d/ and /ʃ,ʒ/.

stops fricatives affricates
/p,b/ pond, bond /f,v/ feel, veal / t͡ʃ, d͡ʒ/ cheek, Jack
/t,d/ tan, Dan /θ,ð/ think, this
/k,g/ cold, gold /s,z/ sink, zinc
/ʃ,ʒ/ ash, beige
/h/ hall

There is a different way in which obstruents can be subdivided: there is a fortis set /p, t, k; f, θ, s, ʃ; t͡ʃ/, and a lenis set /b, d, ɡ; v, ð, z, ʒ; d͡ʒ/. The difference between fortis and lenis obstruents is very important, as we will see later.

Note: The symbol [t̬] is used for a so called flapped t, as in city /ˈsɪt̬i/.

1.6 The vowel system of GA

There are several ways in which the GA V-system can be subdivided.

Lax and Tense Vowels

First, a distinction that many learners find easy to grasp is between lax and tense vowels. This is because, too, has a distinction of this nature: zit, Fred, kap contain lax vowels, for instance, while Piet, scheer, paal contain tense vowels.

Often, tense vowels are long and lax vowels short, but this is not a necessary connection in either English or many other languages For example, the tense vowels in Piet, Ruud are short, and the lax GA vowel in bag is long. Another characteristic of lax vowels is that they cannot occur without the following consonant: Note that there can be no word */pɛ/, but that /piː/ is fine (and is the word for the letter P, for instance).

Diphtongs and Monophtongs

Another difference is that tense vowels may be (but need not be) diphthongs, while lax vowels are always monophthongs (cf. Greek mono ‘single’ and the verb stem phthong- ‘sound’) and di- ‘two’). This distinction in the tense vowels in wie, ga are monophthongs, while those in ei, bui, kou are diphthongs.

A diphthong is a combination of two vowels in the same syllable. In fact, even tense vowels that are here classed as monophthongs, as well as GA /iː, uː, eɪ, oʊ/ are somewhat diphthongized, and in the case of GA /eɪ, oʊ/ this diphthongal character is expressed in the phonetic symbols. The only ‘pure’ tense monophthong of GA, therefore, is /ɑː/.

Weak and Strong Vowels

Secondly, there is a distinction that is somewhat more difficult to grasp, and that is the distinction between weak vowels and strong vowels (the latter are known as full vowels.) A word like pay has the word stress on the first syllable, but the second syllable nevertheless contains a strong vowel. Compare this word with agree, in which the second syllable contains a weak vowel.

First, we give the strong V-system of GA.


/ɪ/ tin – /tɪn/
/ʊ/ foot – /fʊt/
/ɛ/ shell – /ʃɛl/
/æ/ cat – /kæt/
/ʌ/ run – rʌn/


/iː/ bean – /biːn/
/uː/ spoon – /spuːn/
/eɪ/ pain – /peɪn/
/oʊ/ home – /hoʊm/
/ɑː/ bomb – /bɑːm/
/aɪ/ fine – /faɪn/
/aʊ/ crown – /kraʊn/
/ɔɪ/ boy – /bɔɪ/

A separate list is given of the strong vowels that can occur before /r/ in the same syllable. They are as follows:

/ɪr/ beer – /bɪr/
/ʊr/ tour – /tʊr/
/ɛr/ air – /ɛr/
/ɔr/ or – /ɔr/
/ɑr/ car – /kɑr/
/ɜr/ bird – /bɜrd/

Notice that we do not use a length-mark before /r/ in such cases. This is because the /r/ is really pronounced as part of the vowel. Such vowels are said to be r-colored.

The weak vowels only occur in unstressed (‘weak’) syllables. The difference between ‘strong’ and ‘weak’ syllables is very important for the realization of particular consonants.

/ə/ about – /əˈbaʊt/
/ɪ/ extend – /ɪkˈstɛnd/
/i/ happy – /ˈhæpi/
/u/ insinuate – /ɪnˈsɪnjueɪt/
/oʊ/ window – /ˈwɪndoʊ/

1. /ɪ/ varies with /ə/. On the whole, speakers tend to use /ɪ/ before /k,g,ŋ/
2. /i/ occurs before vowels and at the end of the word.
3. /u/ occurs before vowels and in initial syllables.
4. ‘weak’ /oʊ/ is the same vowel as the strong /oʊ/, but ut occurs in unstressed syllables, so you might also say “GA /oʊ/ is weak when unstressed”.

GA comprises two varieties. Speakers from California, Canada, and increasingly other parts of the United States, pronounce GA /ɒː/ and GA /ɑː/ alike.

So words like caller, caught, hawk, dawn, which are /ˈkɒːlər/, /kɒːt/, hɒːk/, /dɒːn/ in Chicago or New York, are /ˈkɑːlər/, /kɑːt/, hɑːk/, /dɑːn/ in San Francisco or Toronto. In this course, we will not use /ɒː/, but give /ɑː/ only. If you would like to know where the vowel /ɒː/ is used by New Yorkers, you are advised to study the optional section 6.3.7. Notice that before /r/, the distinction is always maintained: barn is different from born in all varieties of American English.

1.8 The King of the Birds

Now read this transcription carefully. Then read it again, this time out loud.

//ðə ˈkɪŋ əv ðə ˈbɜrdz/

/ˈwʌns ə ˈlɑːŋ ˈtaɪm əɡoʊ ði ˈiːɡl sʌmənd ˈɑːl kaɪndz əv ˈbɜrdz təɡɛðer tə t͡ʃuːz ə ˈkɪŋ / ðə ˈstɔrk sɛd ðət ðeɪ ˈɑːt̬ə hoʊld ə ˈreɪs / bət ˈʃʊrli ɪt ˈʃʊdnt bi ə mæt̬ər əv ˈspiːd kuːd ðə dʌv / ˈæftər sʌm dɪ’spjuːt ðeɪ əˈɡriːd ðət ðe ˈwʌn wɪt͡ʃ kəd ˈflaɪ ˈhaiəst ʃəd ˈbɛr ðə ˈpɑːm / ˈsoʊ ðeɪ ˈɑːl ʃɑːt̬ ˈʌp ən fluː əz ˈhaɪ əz ðeɪ ˈkʊd/

/ˈsuːn wʌn æftər ði ˈʌðər hæd ə ɡɪv ˈʌp ði ətɛmt ən ˈdrɑːp bæk tu ˈɜrθ / bət ði ˈiːɡl̩ ˈsɔrd ˈhaɪər ən haɪər əntɪl ɪt wəz əbʌv ˈɑːl ˈʌðərz / ˈd͡ʒʌst əz ɪt wəz əˈbaʊt tə dɑrt traɪˈʌmfəntli bæk tə bi kraʊnd ˈkɪŋ əv ði ˈɛr / ə ˈlɪt̬l ˈfɜri ˈbɜrd fluː ˈhɜrədli frəm ɪts ˈbæk ˈtwɪt̬əriŋ ˈnɔɪzəli / ɪt wəz ðə ˈrɛn / wɪt͡ʃ əd bɪn ˈhaɪdɪŋ əmʌŋ ði ˈiːglz ˈfɛðərz ən wɪt͡ʃ ˈnaʊ ˈflɪt̬ɪd ʌp əz ˈfæst əz ɪtsˈlɪt̬l ˈwɪŋz kəd ˈkɛri ɪt / ði ˈiːɡl / baɪ ˈðɪs taɪm ˈkwaɪt ɪɡˈzɑːstɪd / bəɡæn tə ˈbiːt̬ ɪts weɪ ˈʌpwərdz əɡɛn / bət haʊˈɛvər hɑrd ɪt ˈtraɪd / ɪt ˈkʊdnt ɡɛt̬ ˈɛni ˈnɪrər tə ðə taɪni bɜrd / ən ˈðæts haʊ ðe ‘lɪt̬l ˈrɛn bɪkeɪm ˈkɪŋ əv ðə ˈbɜrdz //

The King of the Birds

Audio Player