How phonemes are pronounced?

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.

4. The acquisition process

So far we have been mainly concerned with letter-phoneme correspondences in English (or the lack of them), with word stress, and with weak forms. That is, you have now been given all the information you need to enable you to determine the phonemic representation of GA words, and to no longer be misled by the spelling.

But really, we have devoted very little attention to the second of the two problems identified in Chapter 1, that of interference from the native language. In this chapter we will therefore consider the process of learning the pronunciation of a second language and the difficulties created by this interference from the first language.

Because in our case that first language is, we will introduce the phonemes of that language in the final sections of this chapter. But before we do so, we must have a look at the question of how phonemes are pronounced.

4.1 The pronunciation of phonemes

If all is well, you will have wondered when you were going to be told about how all these vowels and consonants of English (say, GA /æ/ or /ʊ/, or GA /θ/ or /r/) are pronounced. Knowing that back is transcribed /bæk/ and that son is transcribed /sʌn/ does not of course guarantee that we can pronounce these words correctly.

After all, a transcription system is really a spelling system that does not have the disadvantage of obscuring the pronunciation of words. In addition to knowing where particular phonemes occur, however, we need to know how they are pronounced.

4.1.1 Allophones

It is easier to ask this question than to answer it: we cannot simply give a single description for each phoneme, because, in most cases, the pronunciation of a phoneme may vary according to where it occurs in the word (initially or finally) or what other phonemes it is adjacent to.

In general, we say that the pronunciation of a phoneme depends on the phonological context. Take the vowel of biet as an example. Suppose you were to teach a foreign learner of how to pronounce this vowel, and suppose that the learner mastered the pronunciation of that vowel, and used it in bier.

He would, of course, mispronounce the word, because in the phonological context ‘before /r/ in the same word’ the vowel of Piet is pronounced long. (The same goes for the vowels in koe and nu: please check this for yourself.) A vowel like GA /æ/ is pronounced longer in cab than in cap. Or again, GA /t/ in style is pronounced very much like AN /t/ in stijl, but in tile it is pronounced with aspiration, not unlike the [t] that may be heard from Groningen speakers of, as in Martinitoren.

The different pronunciation of a phoneme that is used in different phonological contexts is known as an allophone. Fortunately, there is a lot of sense and system in how the various allophones of a phoneme are pronounced and when they are used.

With respect to the aspiration of GA /t/, for instance, we need only remember that when they occur at the beginning of a syllable, GA /p, t, k/ are aspirated, as in par, tar, car, but not when /s/ precedes in that syllable, as in spar, star and scar.

Summarizing: a language has vowels and consonants, called phonemes. The different pronunciations of a phoneme in different phonological contexts are called allophones. It is possible to give rules saying which allophone or allophones of a phoneme, or group of phonemes, occur in which phonological contexts.

Following long-standing practice, phonemes are written between slashes: / /, and allophones between square brackets: [ ], as for instance in ‘GA /t/ is pronounced [th] at the beginning of a syllable, but [t] when /s/ precedes.’

4.1.2 Stylistic variants

It is frequently the case that the pronunciation of a phoneme depends on the speech style. That is, the realization of the phoneme is different in formal styles than in in informal style. For example, in ordinary, conversational styles, GA /t/ is pronounced without release in final position.

Say the word kat: notice how the last consonant ends with a very weak [s]-like sound. This is because the closure that your tongue made with the teeth ridge is released when the air pressure behind the closure is still sufficiently high for the air to escape audibly from the mouth. In GA, such audible releases are only used in very formal styles, such as when a teacher were to pronounce the word cat in front of a class.

That is, in utterance-final positions, both released [t] and unreleased [t] are used, but released [t] only occurs in formal styles. Such stylistic variants of the same phoneme are traditionally called free variants, which label is perhaps somewhat misleading, because the variation is not ’free’ but conditioned by speech style. Hence the term stylistic variants.

4.2 Interference

Let us assume that we know the phonemic composition of all English words and that we know what the allophones of each phoneme are and when they are used. Are we now able to pronounce English like a native speaker? Unfortunately, the answer is no.

Speaking is a form of highly automatic behavior, much more complex than is, say, walking, and learning to pronounce a foreign language is not something that can be achieved overnight. It is a long process because pronouncing English must not only be learned, but must also replace another sort of automatic behavior, pronouncing English as if it were.

Because that is of course what we are naturally inclined to do when we are not called upon to try and do otherwise: without being conscious of it we tend to replace the foreign sounds with the sounds that we think resemble them best. In the worst possible case this means that we would pronounce We are very glad to be here and we hope that our stay here will be beneficial to our community as well as yours as what could be represented as: Wie aar ferrie glête (like bête) toe bie hier ent wie hoop det ouwer stee hier wil bie bennefisjel toe ouwer kommjoenetie es wel es joers.

While a GA speaker may well have come to expect this sort of pronunciation from visiting politicians, he himself would have said: /wɪr ˈvɛri ɡlæd tə ˈbiː hɪr ən wi ˈhoʊp ðət ɑr ˈsteɪ hɪr wəl bi bɛnə ˈfɪʃl tʊ ˈɑr kəmjuːnət̬im əz wɛl əz ˈjʊrz/.

It goes without saying that the substition of the sounds of the native language for those of the foreign language does not stop short at the phonemes, but also applies to rhythm, stress and intonation. Examples here are: unrest mispronounced */ˈʌnrɛst/ instead of /ʌnˈrɛst/ because of onrust; communication mispronounced /ˈkɑːmjəniˈkeɪʃn/ instead of /kəˈmjuːnɪˈkeɪʃŋ/ because of communicatie.

Or again, Nice, isn’t it? may be said with a rising intonation instead of a falling one, on the pattern of the rising intonation of Leuk hè? Interference therefore applies to the whole phonology of the language.

As was said in the first chapter, the process is known as interference, more precisely as phonological interference. It accounts for what we commonly call ‘a foreign accent.’ The degree of foreign accent will in the first place depend on how different the phonology of the foreign language is from that of the native language.

Yet, many people do not realize how different English sounds from American English. The trouble is that theness of our accent does not fully strike us because we listen with ears, and also because we have been accustomed to hearing English with a accent from the moment we started learning it. So although we may be reasonably intelligible, our foreign accent may be quite ’thick’, and very different from ‘the real thing,’ i.e. an authentic American accent.

The problems on the production side are paralleled by problems on the perception side: the speaker will also interpret the English sounds as sounds. Here again, the problem is really more serious than it appears to be, because the context often suggests the correct word, so that we do not normally have to rely too heavily on our ability to discriminate English sounds as sounds: even if we really hear banish for vanish – GA /v/ being more like initial /b/ than like initial /v/ – we will nevertheless ‘understand’ vanish if that is what the context suggests. It is only when there is no context, as in isolated or nonsense words, that we may notice how badly our perception falls short of that of the native speaker.

4.3 Acquiring the pronunciation of a foreign language

A second factor determining the degree of foreign accent and of faulty perception is the extent to which the learner has progressed on the path from the worst possible state of affairs illustrated above, i.e. complete interference, to the ‘real’ pronunciation of the foreign language. In other words, how far has the acquisition process gone?

Acquiring the pronunciation of a foreign language is a process that takes time and effort. On the whole, you will find that once you have a clear idea of how a particular phoneme is pronounced – or realized, to use the technical term – you can usually soon pronounce it in isolated words.

You will find, however, that it is much more difficult to pronounce it correctly when reading a sentence or a text, and that it is even more difficult to pronounce correctly in conversation.

That is because an increasingly large share of your attention is required in these tasks: the less attention you can devote to the pronunciation of a particular phoneme, the more likely it is to be wrong

That is why learners usually have a better pronunciation when they read out a simple text than when they are speaking freely. If you go on trying, however, you will eventually need so little of your attention for the production of the foreign sound that you can produce it confidently not only when reading out single words, but also when speaking freely.

A complication that may arise in the acquisition process is that newly acquired pronunciation features may be overgeneralized. Let us, for the sake of the argument, assume that you pronounce English words like par, tar, car (/pɑr, tɑr, kɑr/) without aspiration. You now know that whenever /p, t, k/ occur at the beginning of a syllable this aspiration should be there, and you decide to live by that rule whenever you speak or read English.

But because the non-aspiration of these sounds is part of your automatic behavior, you will find that you only aspirate these sounds once every so often (and probably /t/ more frequently than /p/), in part depending on whether you are able to consciously think of aspirating them.

Gradually, the amount of conscious attention that you need will become smaller, but now you may overgeneralize the rule you have learnt, and begin to use aspiration in words like spar, star, scar. It may be some time before you will be able to say that the correct pattern of pronunciation has become part of your automatic behavior.

The progress you make in the production of English sounds will go hand in hand with improvements in your perception of them. Helped by active observation, you will become more sensitive to the differences between such GA sounds as /æ/ and /ɛ/, /ʊ/ and /uː/, /ð/and /d/, and /b/ and /v/, as well as the differences between the GA phonemes and theircounterparts.

Obviously, such progress is not possible if you do not make the most of the opportunities you have to hear English: you should for instance try and make a point of watching American English TV-programs.

To sharpen your ability to identify GA phonemes, a set of recorded phoneme discrimination exercises is available as an app (for Android, Apple, and Windows phones). There is also a set of recorded pronunciation units offering practice material for the GA vowels and consonants, specially aimed at learners.

4.4 A transcription system for AN

It is generally very illuminating to transcribe your own language, simply because it will make you more aware of what you are actually doing when you speak it.

In general, not a single phoneme of one language is pronounced in the same way as a phoneme of any other language. (Think of the different allophones!) The reason why the same symbol is often used is that it is awkward to go on devising and using more and more complex or exotic symbols to represent all those different phonemes. (All the symbols used here conform to the principles of the International Phonetic Association (IPA).

One of the Association’s aims is to provide a set of symbols that can be used in the transcription of languages. These symbols can be used to represent phonetically different, though reasonably similar sounds. Since it is not possible anyway to express the precise quality and duration of a sound in a symbol, it is only convenient to employ the same symbol for similar sounds in different languages.).

One major division we need to make in the case of the phonemes of AN is that between basic phonemes and marginal phonemes. Marginal phonemes typically occur in what native speakers regard as loanwords. An example of a marginal V-phoneme is /iː/, as in expertise, that of a marginal C-phoneme /ɡ/ occurring in, for instance, goelasj.

4.5 The vowel system of AN

The Basic V-phonemes of AN

Lax Tense
Monophthongs Diphthongs
/ɪ/ – bit /i/ – biet /ɛi/ – bijt
/ʏ/ – put /y/ – fuut /œy/ – buit
/ɛ/ – bed /u/ – boet /ɔu/ – bout
/ɑ/ – bad /eˑ/ – beet
/ɔ/ – bod /øˑ/ – leut
/ ə/ – alle /oˑ/ – boot
/aˑ/ – baat

Note that the vowels /i, y, u/ are short, except before /r/. And also note that the tense vowels /eˑ, øˑ, oˑ/ are diphthongs, except before /r/. Note, too, that the weak /ə/ has been included here with the strong vowels.

The following marginal vowels occur in AN:

/iː/ as in analyse /ɛ̃/ as in bulletin
/yː/ as in centrifuge /ɑ̃/ as in nuance
/uː/ as in rouge /ɔ̃/ as in bon ton
/ɛː/ as in serre
/œː/ as in manoeuvre
/ɔː/ as in controle

The six vowels on the left are long, and their symbols have a length-mark. The three vowels on the right are nasalized, and over their symbols a tilde has been placed to indicate this. A vowel is nasalized when some of the air flows out through the nose.

4.6 The consonant system of AN

The C-system of AN

Obstruents Sonorants
Stops Fricatives Nasals Approximants
/p, b/ Piet, biet /f, v/ fee, vee /m/ mee /l/ la
/t, d/ tak, dak /s, z/ C, zee /n/ nee /r/ ra
/k, g/ keel, goelasj /ʃ, ʒ/ sjokken, jury /ŋ/ eng /j/ ja
/x, ɣ/ chloor, geel /ʋ/ wie
/h/ hal

Note that the two marginal consonant phonemes of AN, /g/ and /ʒ/, have been included in the above table. It is also important to note that most speakers of AN have no /ɣ/ in their system and pronounce logend and loochent as well as chloor and gloor alike. If you are one of them, ignore /ɣ/, and always use /x/ in your transcriptions. Also AN /v/ may be absent from the C-system of speakers of AN, or may be restricted to intervocalic positions.

By way of illustration, transcriptions are here given of the pairs of words given in the first chapter.

01 wendde wenden | /ˈʋɛndə/
02 (ik) teken (een) teken | /ˈteˑkən/ /ˈteˑkə/
03 jou jouw | /jɔu/
04 u uw | /y/ /yʋ/
05 ik vil hem ik film | /(ɪ)k ˈfɪləm/
06 Baarn baren | /ˈbaˑrən/ /ˈbaˑrə/
07 niet Sien niets zien | /nit ˈsin/
08 hij gaat gaat hij? | /hɛi/ /i/
09 kastje kasje | /ˈkɑʃə/
10 (ik ken) haar (lang) haar | /(d)ər/ /haˑr/

Here are some AN words. Please give their orthography.

01 /ˈbɑkər/
02 /maˑnt
03 /bɑŋ/
04 /sxɪp/
05 /ˈloˑpə/
06 /rɔu/
07 /kɑpiˈtɛin/
08 /ˈkrɛːmspulɪŋ/
09 /bœydəldir/
10 /ˈsɛstəx/
11 /ˈmujləkər/
12 /ˈzɔntflut/