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The phonetics and phonology of English differ between dialects, usually without interfering with mutual communication. Phonological variation affects the inventory of phonemes (speech sounds that distinguish meaning), and phonetic variation is differences in pronunciation of the phonemes. This overview mainly describes the standard pronunciations of the United Kingdom and the United States: Received Pronunciation (RP) and General American (GA) (See Section below on "Dialects, accents and varieties"). The phonetic symbols used below are from the International Phonetic Alphabet (IPA).
Most English dialects share the same 24 consonant phonemes. The consonant inventory shown below is valid for Californian American English and for RP.
In the table, when obstruents (stops, affricates, and fricatives) appear in pairs, such as /p b/, /tʃ dʒ/, and /s z/, the first is fortis (strong) and the second is lenis (weak). Fortis obstruents, such as /p tʃ s/ are pronounced with more muscular tension and breath force than lenis consonants, such as /b dʒ z/, and are always voiceless. Lenis consonants are partly voiced at the beginning and end of utterances, and fully voiced between vowels. Fortis stops such as /p/ have additional articulatory or acoustic features in most dialects: they are aspirated [pʰ] when they occur alone at the beginning of a stressed syllable, often unaspirated in other cases, and often unreleased [p̚ ] or pre-glottalised [ˀp] at the end of a syllable. In a single-syllable word, a vowel before a fortis stop is shortened: thus nip has a noticeably shorter vowel (phonetically, but not phonemically) than nib [nɪˑp̬] (see below).
• lenis stops: bin [b̥ɪˑn], about [əˈbaʊt], nib [nɪˑb̥]
• fortis stops: pin [ˈpʰɪn], spin [spɪn], happy [ˈhæpi], nip [ˈnip̚ ] or [ˈniˀp]
In RP, the lateral approximant /l/, has two main allophones (pronunciation variants): the clear or plain [l], as in light, and the dark or velarised [ɫ], as in full. GA has dark l in most cases.
• clear l: RP light [laɪt]
• dark l: RP and GA full [fʊɫ], GA light [ɫaɪt]
All sonorants (liquids /l, r/ and nasals /m, n, ŋ/) devoice when following a voiceless obstruent, and they are syllabic when following a consonant at the end of a word.
• voiceless sonorants: clay [ˈkɬɛɪ̯] and snow [ˈsn̥oʊ]
• syllabic sonorants: paddle [pad.l̩], and button [bʌt.n̩]
The pronunciation of vowels varies a great deal between dialects and is one of the most detectable aspects of a speaker's accent. The table below lists the vowel phonemes in Received Pronunciation (RP) and General American (GA), with examples of words in which they occur from lexical sets compiled by linguists. The vowels are represented with symbols from the International Phonetic Alphabet; those given for RP are standard in British dictionaries and other publications.
In both RP and GA, vowels are phonetically shortened before fortis consonants in the same syllable , like /t tʃ f/, but not before lenis consonants like /d dʒ v/ or in open syllables: thus, the vowels of rich [rɪ̆tʃ], neat [niˑt], and safe [sĕɪ̆f] are noticeably shorter than the vowels of ridge [rɪdʒ], need [niːd], and save [seɪv], and the vowel of light [lăɪ̆t] is shorter than that of lie [laɪ]. Because lenis consonants are frequently voiceless at the end of a syllable, vowel length is an important cue as to whether the following consonant is lenis or fortis.
The vowels /ɨ ə/ only occur in unstressed syllables and are a result of vowel reduction . Some dialects do not distinguish them, so that roses and comma end in the same vowel, a dialect feature called weak vowel merger . GA has an unstressed r-coloured schwa /ɚ/, as in butter [ˈbʌtɚ], which in RP has the same vowel as the word-final vowel in comma.
An English syllable includes a syllable nucleus consisting of a vowel sound. Syllable onset and coda (start and end) are optional. A syllable can start with up to three consonant sounds, as in sprint /sprɪnt/, and end with up to four, as in texts /teksts/. This gives an English syllable the following structure, (CCC)V(CCCC) where C represents a consonant and V a vowel. The consonants that may appear together in onsets or codas are restricted, as is the order in which they may appear. Onsets can only have four types of consonant clusters: a stop and approximant, as in play; a voiceless fricative and approximant, as in fly or sly; s and a voiceless stop, as in stay; and s, a voiceless stop, and an approximant, as in string. Clusters of nasal and stop are only allowed in codas. Clusters of obstruents always agree in voicing, and clusters of sibilants and of plosives with the same point of articulation are prohibited. Furthermore, several consonants have limited distributions: /h/ can only occur in syllable initial position, and /ŋ/ only in syllable final position.
Stress, rhythm and intonation
Stress plays an important role in English. Certain syllables are stressed, while others are unstressed. Stress is a combination of duration, intensity, vowel quality, and sometimes changes in pitch. Stressed syllables are pronounced longer and louder than unstressed syllables, and vowels in unstressed syllables are frequently reduced while vowels in stressed syllables are not. Some words, primarily short function words but also some modal verbs such as can, have weak and strong forms depending on whether they occur in stressed or non-stressed position within a sentence.
Stress in English is phonemic, and some pairs of words are distinguished by stress. For instance, the word contract is stressed on the first syllable (/ˈkɒntrækt/ kon-trakt) when used as a noun, but on the last syllable (/kənˈtrækt/ kən-trakt) for most meanings (for example, "reduce in size") when used as a verb. Here stress is connected to vowel reduction: in the noun "contract" the first syllable is stressed and has the unreduced vowel /ɒ/, but in the verb "contract" the first syllable is unstressed and its vowel is reduced to /ə/. Stress is also used to distinguish between words and phrases, so that a compound word receives a single stress unit, but the corresponding phrase has two: e.g.to búrn óut versus a burn out, and a hót dog versus a hót dóg.
In terms of rhythm, English is generally described as a stress-timed language, meaning that the amount of time between stressed syllables tends to be equal. Stressed syllables are pronounced longer, but unstressed syllables (syllables between stresses) are shortened. Vowels in unstressed syllables are shortened as well, and vowel shortening causes changes in vowel quality: vowel reduction.
Dialects, accents, and varieties
Dialectologists distinguish between English dialects, regional varieties that differ from each other in terms of grammar and vocabulary, and regional accents, distinguished by different patterns of pronunciation. The major native dialects of English are often divided by linguists into the two general categories of the British dialects (BrE) and those of North America (AmE).
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