How you ought properly to spell “fish” in English: “ghoti”George Bernard Shaw
This statement does make sense. In cough, gh is pronounced [f]; in women, o gives [i]; finally, ti is [ʃ] in nation.
This example perfectly illustrates the cornerstone idea: reading and pronunciation rules in English are never simple, so even advanced learners may find themselves doubtful of how a word they do not know really sounds.
Here is the point where phonetic transcription comes into the game — this instrument was designed to show how to pronounce sounds in different words. To be seamlessly understood when speaking English, put a focus on learning pronunciation, i.e. phonetic transcription.
We will help you get through it. The text below contains principal rules and vivid examples you can leverage to figure the whole thing out.
General Rules of English Pronunciation
Before moving to sounds, let us identify the symbols that form the basement of transcription:
- phonetic transcriptions of words are put in brackets  or slashes //: [ˈɪŋɡlɪʃ], /ˈɪŋɡlɪʃ/;
- stress is denoted — in words having more than one syllable — by an apostrophe (stress mark) which precedes the stressed syllable: [ˈstʌdi];
- some words in English are double-stressed as they have primary stress (ˈ) and secondary stress (ˌ) both of which precede their stressed syllables: [ˌməʊtɪˈveɪʃən];
- colons indicate long sounds: [fɑːr];
- elided sounds are put in parentheses () or expressed in superscript as shown in two previous examples
The modern English alphabet has 26 letters and 44 sounds (phonemes): 20 consonants giving 24 phonemes, and 6 vowels giving 20 phonemes.
In this case, we mean received pronunciation (RP), i.e standard British English dialect. American English has fewer vowel sounds which amount to 14 to 16.
Transcription of Vowels
English never follows the “one letter — one sound” rule. All vowels in English are divided into monophthongs and diphthongs.
A monophthong is a pure single vowel sound, whereas diphthong, also known as a gliding vowel, is a tandem of two adjacent vowels.
English has only 12 monophthongs:
|[ʌ]||cut, dove, money|
|[a:]||bar, heart, can’t|
|[e]||bed, export, said|
|[ə]||student, teacher, assistant|
|[æ]||apple, bad, thanks|
|[i]||pin, busy, symbol|
|[i:]||be, achieve, leader|
|[ɒ] (previously denoted by [ɔ])||clock, possible, body|
|[ɔ:]||wall, awesome, more|
|[ʊ](previously denoted by [u])||put, foot, should|
|[u:]||food, true, shoe|
|[ɜ:]||girl, nurse, earn|
The remaining 8 vowel sounds are diphthongs:
|[ai]||buy, by, mine|
|[au]||now, trousers, browser|
|[oi]||boy, oyster, coin|
|[əʊ] (RP)[oʊ] (AE)||go, low, joke|
|[ei]||cake, eight, pray|
|[iə]||near, here, beer|
|[υə]||tour, insurance, poor|
|[eə]||care, air, there|
How to Pronounce Vowel Sounds
Such a large number of vowels and vowel sounds makes it clear that every letter can be read in different ways and that each of these ways has its own rules.
Firstly, these rules depend on the syllable type: open (ends with a vowel) and closed (ends with a consonant).
Secondly, stress also has its impact. Thirdly, do not forget about letters following the vowel.
Let us take a dive into each of these cases.
In a stressed open syllable, the a is most often pronounced [ei]: baby, play, station.
In an open syllable, e gives [i:]: we, sea, people.
Words such as break, great, steak follow the open syllable rule and let both vowels sound: [breɪk], [greɪt], [sreɪk].
Letters i and y sound like [ai]: I, wife, invite и my, style, reply.
Letter o gives [oʊ]: no, goal, stone.
Letter u is pronounced [ju]: use, duty, computer.
In three-syllable and multisyllabic words, the third syllable from the end is usually stressed, with the vowel in it giving a short sound:
- letter a gives [æ] (animal, Saturday, family);
- letter e gives [e] (general, president);
- letter o gives [ɒ] (economy, monopoly);
- letters i and y give [i] (military, infinitive; typical, cylinder).
Vowels in a stressed closed syllable behave exactly the same way: language, end, sorry, little, symbol.
Letter u in such a syllable is pronounced [ʌ]: up, culture, number. If a syllable ends with b, f or p, or with sh or ll, then letter u gives [ʊ]: bush, full.
This is why Sandra Bullock’s last name is pronounced [ˈbʊlək], not [ˈbʌlək].
Letter r also influences the way vowels sound. Closed syllables that end with r give long sounds:
- letter а sounds like [a:]: car;
- letter o gives [ɔ:]: for;
- letters e, i, u are pronounced [ɜ:]: her, bird, purpose.
Concerning an open syllable ending with r, then letter o there will sound like [ɔ:] (core), and other vowels form diphthongs: letter a gives [eə] (prepare), letter e is pronounced [iə] (mere), and letter u sounds like [υə] (sure).
It is also important to memorize vowel sounds in some letter combinations.
Double e and ea give [i:] (tree, please). Double o sounds like [u:] (school). However, if double o is followed by k, the sound is short [ʊ] (book, look, took).
In some cases, a gives [ɔ:]: it is subject to combinations al+consonant, au, aw (talk, autumn, awful). The combination ou+ght, where only t is pronounced, give the same sound [ɔ:] (bought, thought, ought).
Tandems eu and ew sound like [juː] (new) and [uː] (jewel).
Sometimes, letter e is completely dropped. For instance, if a word has another vowel: lie, serve, make. Letter u follows the same path — it is elided in the combination gu+vowel: guy [ɡaɪ], guest [ɡest], colleague [ˈkɒl.iːɡ].
Transcription of Consonants
Consonants are much easier than vowels. To make it even more convenient, we will break down them into voiced-unvoiced pairs, and unpaired consonants.
|[ʃ]||she, nation||[ʒ]||pleasure, garage|
How to Be Good at Transcription
Phonetic transcription itself is not that tough as you may think. Basically, this instrument is a kind of helping hand in mastering English pronunciation.
So do not just memorize sounds but augment your skills through listening — this way you will train your visual and aural memory and enrich your vocabulary.
To make the training routine easily accessible, just download the free EWA app to your smartphone. It will let you create lists comprising words from your favorite book (which is available on the app), see their phonetics and listen as they sound.
Practice makes perfect!