Back to the Syllabus


Phonetic Transcription Workshop

Stops Fricatives Nasals Affricates Semivowels Vowels


There are two kinds of language sounds: consonants and vowels. Consonants involve interrupting the air that comes out of your mouth; vowels are made by opening the mouth and letting air come out freely. Consonants are relatively stable and invariable; vowels are extremely variable and are more difficult to transcribe. We'll start with consonants. You must refer to your handout giving the phonetic transcription symbols, as these symbols are not reproduced on this web page.

[Note that (as with so much in this course) the following exercise is a radical oversimplification of the issue. In fact, what we are doing is not in-depth phonetic transcription as a sort of idealized and simplified phonemic transcription--useful not in conveying small details of speech but in seeing how a standardized notion of English behaves in terms of the basic contrasts that make up its sound system.]



There are two basic ways of making consonants: voiced and unvoiced. Voiced consonants involve a vibration of the vocal cords that you can feel when you place your hand on your throat. Unvoiced consonants involve no vibration of the vocal cords.

There are five types of consonants: stops, fricatives, nasals, affricates, and semivowels. Nasals and semivowels are always voiced; stops, fricatives and affricates can be voiced or unvoiced.

Stops are the simplest kind of consonant; you simply stop the air coming out of your mouth. You cannot "hold" a stop consonant; you simply block and then release the air. The stop consonants are distinguished by what part of your mouth you use to block the air.

Stopping the air with both lips together produces a bilabial (two-lip) stop. If voiced, the bilabial stop is the intial consonant of bill. If unvoiced, it's the intial consonant of pill.

Further back in the mouth, we pronounce alveolar stops. These are made by placing your tongue against the alveolar ridge--the hard ridge in the top of your mouth, behind your teeth--and stopping the air there. The voiced alveolar stop is the initial consonant of dill. The unvoiced alveolar stop is the initial consonant of till.

Still further back are the velar stops. The back of your tongue stops the air at the back of your hard palate. The voiced velar stop is the initial consonant of gill. The unvoiced velar stop is the initial consonant of kill.

Furthest back is the glottal stop, which does not (yet, anyway) distinguish one word from another in English, but is increasingly replacing the intervocalic alveolar stop in British English, and is heard in many American dialects in various situations. The glottal stop is unvoiced in English. If you say "Iowa apples" you will hear it before each of the initial vowels in those words.

Fricatives involve letting the air slide through a narrow opening in the mouth. They can be prolonged for some time. The air is not completely blocked.

If you make the narrow opening with your bottom lip against your top teeth, you are producing a labiodental (lip-tooth) fricative. The voiced labiodental fricative is the initial consonant of veer. The unvoiced labiodental fricative is the initial consonant of fear.

If you make that opening with your tongue against your top teeth, you produce a dental fricative. The voiced dental fricative is the initial consonant of though. The unvoiced dental fricative is the initial consonant of think.

There are voiced and unvoiced alveolar fricatives, just as there are alveolar stops (above). The voiced alveolar fricative is the initial consonant of zoo; the unvoiced alveolar fricative is the initial consonant of sue.

Postalveolar fricatives are made with the tongue constricting the air behind the alveolar ridge, almost at the top of the roof of the mouth. The voiced postalveolar fricative is the initial sound of the second syllable of version. The unvoiced postalveolar fricative is the initial sound of the second syllable of motion.

The unvoiced velar fricative is not now used in English except in some Scots dialects; it is like the consonant sound in German ich. A voiced velar fricative is heard sometimes as the initial consonant in Spanish llame. I include these sounds here because the unvoiced velar fricative is perhaps the sound that was heard after a front vowel (see below in Middle English words like knight and bright.

Modern English has an unvoiced glottal fricative, the initial consonant in home (at least for American speakers). Another, slightly "rougher" glottal fricative is heard at the end of Scots loch or German Nacht, and may have been the sound heard after a back vowel (see below) in Middle English words like brought and caught.

Nasals involve blocking the mouth completely, holding the blockage (instead of releasing it as in a stop consonant), and letting the air come out of your nose. All nasals are voiced. You can hold and hum them.

The bilabial nasal is the initial consonant of might.

The alveolar nasal is the initial consonant of night.

The velar nasal is never initial in English. It is the final consonant of sing.

The affricates are represented in phonetic transcription (usually) by double symbols. They begin as stops and slide into fricatives, and hence are represented as a stop followed by a fricative. Only two affricates are used in most dialects of English: a voiced affricate that is the initial consonant in jeer and an unvoiced affricate that is the initial consonant in cheer.

When we make semivowels, we only partially obstruct the flow of air. Each semivowel is unique; all are voiced. Rounding the lips and then opening them straight up and down gives the initial consonant of weir. Flattening and extending the lips and cheeks--almost as if smiling--gives the initial consonant of year. Flapping the tongue toward the front and top of the mouth, while letting air go around its sides, gives the initial consonant of leer. Rounding the lips and then opening them sideways gives the initial consonant of rear. /l/ and /r/ are sometimes called "laterals" because of the sideways motion involved in producing them. /w/ and /y/ are sometimes called "glides" or "liquids"; they often occur along with vowels--if before, as "on-glides," if after, as "off-glides." /l/ and /r/ also sound quite different depending on whether they come before or after a vowel.



Vowels are made by opening your mouth and letting air come out while your vocal cords vibrate. They're voiced by definition. They are the sounds that you sing; listen particularly to opera singers and you will notice that they just suggest consonants while moving from one vowel (one note) to another.

We classify vowels according to a grid of two characteristics: whether the lips are more nearly close or open, and whether the tongue is more nearly front, central, or back in the mouth as the vowel is being produced.

The front vowels are, going from close to open, the vowels in lead (as in "a horse"), lid, laid, lead (as in pencil), lad, and lod (if that were a word . . . it would rhyme with how most Americans pronounce prod, sod, God).

The central vowels, both of which are middle vowels, are the second vowel of bullet and the first vowel of Luddite. The second vowel of bullet, the mid-central vowel, is often "reduced," and the symbol for it is called schwa. The first vowel of Luddite is more heavily stressed.

The back vowels, again going from close to open, are the vowels of lewd, look, load, laud, and Lahd (as pronounced in a rich stage dialect). The vowel of Lahd is close to what your doctor makes you say to get a look at the back of your throat, because to make that sound you open your mouth and depress your tongue as far as possible.

Many vowel sounds in English are diphthongs, vowels that begin in one vowel position and move toward another as the vowel is articulated. The vowel in laid is actually a diphthong, beginning with the "long a" sound and ending a bit closer. Starting with the vowel of prod and going up much closer gives the diphthong in lied. Starting with the back vowel of laud and then moving front and near-close yields the diphthong in Lloyd. Starting way back and open and moving up to a back near-close sound gives the diphthong of loud. The English "long" vowels are usually pronounced as diphthongs: the vowels of lead, load, and lewd are actually pure vowels followed by a semivowel "off-glide."

Note, however, that the distinction between "long" and "short" vowels, so often made in elementary teaching, is really not a distinction between long and short versions of the same sound. For instance, we think of the vowel in bad as being a "short a" and the vowel in bathe as being a "long a." But the two sounds are quite different and articulated in different parts of the mouth. Bathe has a "long" sound because it is a diphthong, not because it has the sound of bad lengthened. We call both of these vowels "a" sounds just because of an accident of spelling.

Historical Example

Here's an example of what I mean by the stability of consonants and the variability of vowels, both across time and across the English-speaking world at a given time.

The Old English words stan, ham, bat, and rad correspond to the Modern English words stone, home, boat and road. The Old English words were pronounced with an open back vowel; the standard modern American pronunciation of those words has the diphthong /ow/. Yet the consonants of the Old English words are substantially identical to the consonants of the modern American words. The consonants have remained stable for 1,500 years while the vowels have changed a great deal.

At the present moment, the consonants in stone, home, boat and road are pretty much stable in all English dialects, except that the majority of British speakers have no initial consonant in home and may also substitute a glottal stop for the final /t/ in boat. So there's great stability in this age-old consonant pattern at the present moment.

But there's enormous variability world-wide in the vowels of these words. This variability is the basic manifestation of what we call "accents" or dialectal differences in pronunciation. The OE vowel has disappeared from these words, leaving a host of regional variants.

The Standard American vowel in stone is, as I noted, the /ow/ "off-glide" diphthong. The British RP vowel is also a diphthong, one that starts with the vowel of met and ends with that of put. It's like the diphthong in some East Coast US dialects (South Jersey / Philadelphia/ Maryland), which starts with the vowel of bathe and ends with that of put.

Another British diphthong, that of Southeastern or "Estuary" speakers, starts with the front vowel of bat and ends ups back and central. Make that a bit longer and you have the distinctive Australian diphthong in stone, which makes sense because Australian dialects are relatively recent developments from London English.

By contrast, some English dialects have a short pure vowel /o/--notably South African dialects and some West Indian dialects. A longer /o/ is a feature of some Irish dialects, but there are Irish speakers who have a high long pure vowel, almost that of American boot, in stone. If you start with /o/ and glide into a central vowel, you have the Canadian and Minnesota version of stone, and if you make the initial /o/ of that diphthong longer, you have the Scottish diphthong--again, Canadian speech owes a great deal to Scottish English. Finally, if you use a short vowel like that of put in stone, you have an approximation of the vowel in some Indian dialects.

This list is not complete, but it shows the remarkable variation of vowel systems across the world of English speakers.

To the Top of this Page