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General and Applied Linguistics

The Origins and development of the English Language

This book uses a variant of the International Phonetic Alphabet (used for writing sounds in any

language), adapted in certain ways by American dialectologists and linguists. Here is a list of some symbols used in this book, with variants you may find elsewhere:




i iy, i:


o ow, oυ, o:, ǝʊ





i, ɩ


ǝ ʌ





e ey, eɪ , eι, e:


ǝr ɝ, ɚ



tš, t∫


ɛ e


aɪ ay, aɩ



dž, ʤ


u uw, u:


aʊ aw, aυ


y j


ʊ u, ɷ, υ


ɔɪ ɔy, ɔι


Such differences in transcription are matters partly of theory and partly of style, rather than substantial disagreements about the sounds being transcribed. You need to be aware of their existence, so that if you encounter different methods of transcribing, you will not suppose that different sounds are necessarily represented. The reasons for the differences belong to a more detailed study than is appropriate here.

The Vowels of current Engllish

Vowels are the principal sounds of syllables. In the accompanying chart, the vowels are shown according to the position of the tongue relative to the roof of the mouth (high, mid, low) and to the position of the highest part of the tongue (front, central, back). The chart may be taken to represent a cross section of the oral cavity, facing left. Vowel symbols with keywords are those of present-day American English.

Those without keywords represent less common vowels or those of older periods of the language; they are explained and illustrated below or in later chapters.

Some of the vowel symbols, especially [i], [e], and [ ɑ], do not represent the sounds

Some of the vowel symbols, especially [i], [e], and [ɑ], do not represent the sounds those letters usually have in current English spelling. Instead, those phonetic symbols represent sounds like those the letters stand for in Spanish, French, Italian, and German. Thus in transcribing Modern English words, we use [i] for the sound that is written i in other languages, although the sound [i] is most frequently written e, ee, ea, ie, or ei in Modern English, except in words recently borrowed from those other languages (for example, police). Similarly, we use [e] for the sound usually written a (followed by a consonant plus “silent e”) or ai in Modern English (as in bate, bait). We use the symbol [ɑ] for “broad a,” which often occurs in the spelling of English words before r and lm (as in far and calm); in father, mama, papa, and a few other words like spa; and in certain types of American English after w (as in watch). The most usual spelling of the sound [ɑ] in American English is, however, o, as in pot and top.

Of the vowels listed in the chart, [i], [ɪ], [e], [ɛ], and [æ] are called front vowels because of the positions assumed by the tongue in their articulation, and [u], [ʊ], [o], [ɔ], and [ɑ] are called back vowels for the same reason. Both series have been given in descending order, that is, in relation to the height of the tongue as indicated by the downward movement of the lower jaw in their articulation: thus [i] is the highest front vowel and [æ] the lowest, as [u] is the highest back vowel and [ɑ] is the lowest. All of these back vowels except [ɑ] are pronounced with some degree of rounding and protrusion of the lips and hence are called rounded vowels. Vowels without lip rounding (all of the others in Modern English) are called unrounded or spread vowels. The symbol [ǝ], called schwa, represents the mid and central stressed vowels of cut and curt as well as the unstressed vowels in the second syllables of tuba and lunar. Those four vowels are acoustically distinct from one another, but differences between them do not serve to distinguish one English word from another, so we can use the same symbol for all four sounds: [kǝt], [kǝrt], [tubǝ], and [lunǝr].

Some dialects of American English use a few other vowels: [a], [æ:], [ɨ], [ɵ], and [ɒ]. The vowel [a] is heard in eastern New England speech in ask, half, laugh, and path and in some varieties of Southern speech in bye, might, tired, and the like. It is intermediate between [ɑ] and [æ], and is usually the first element of a diphthong (that is, a two-vowel sequence pronounced as the core of a single syllable) in right and rout, which we write, respectively, as [aɪ] and [aʊ].

Along the East Coast roughly between New York City and Philadelphia as well as in a number of other metropolitan centers, some speakers use clearly different vowels in cap and cab, bat and bad, lack and lag. In the first word of these and many other such pairs, they pronounce the sound represented by [æ]; but in the second word, they use a higher, tenser, and longer vowel that we may represent as [æ:]. Some speakers also use these two vowels to distinguish have from halve and can ‘be able’ from can ‘preserve in tins.’

Some Americans pronounce the adverb just (as in “They’ve just left”) with a vowel, namely [ɨ], which is different from that in the adjective (as in “a just person”), which has [ǝ]. It is likewise different from the vowels in gist (with [ɪ]) and jest (with [ɛ]). This vowel may also appear in children, would, and various other words. In eastern New England, some speakers, especially of the older generation, use a vowel in whole that differs from the one in hole. This New England short o is symbolized by [ɵ] and is found also in road, stone, and other words. It is rare and is becoming more so. British English has a lightly rounded vowel symbolized by [ɒ] in pot, top, rod, con, and other words in which Americans use the sound [ɑ] for the spelling o. This vowel also occurs in some American dialects. If you do not use these vowel sounds, obviously you do not need their symbols to represent your speech. It is wise, however, to remember that even in English there are sounds that you do not use yourself or that you use differently from others.

An increasingly large number of Americans do not distinguish between [ɔ] and [ɑ]. For them, caught and cot are homophones, as are taught and tot, dawn and don, gaud and God, pawed and pod. They pronounce all such words with either [ɔ] or [ɑ] or with a vowel that is intermediate between those two, namely the [ɒ] mentioned above.

Other Americans lack a phonemic contrast between two sounds only in a particular environment. For example, in the South, the vowels [ɪ] and [ɛ], although distinguished in most environments (such as pit and pet), have merged before nasals. Thus pin and pen are homophones for many Southerners, as are tin and ten, Jim and gem, and ping and the first syllable of penguin. The sound used in the nasal environment is usually [ɪ], though before [ŋ] it may approach [i]. Vowels can be classified not only by their height and their frontness (as in the vowel chart), but also by their tenseness. A tense vowel is typically longer in duration than the closest lax vowel and also higher and less central (that is, further front if it is a front vowel and further back if a back one). Tense vowels are [i], [e], [u], and [o]; the corresponding lax vowels for the first three are [ɪ], [ɛ], and [ʊ]. The “New England short o” is a lax vowel corresponding to tense [o]. For most Americans, the low and the central vowels do not enter into a tense-lax contrast. However, for those who have it, [æ:] (in cab, halve, bag) is tense, and the corresponding [æ] (in cap, have, back) is lax.

Similarly, in standard British English, [ɔ] (in caught, dawn, wars) is tense, and the corresponding [ɒ] (in cot, don, was) is lax. In earlier times (as we shall see in Chapters 5 and 6), English vowels were either long or short in duration; today that difference has generally become one of tenseness.

In most types of current English, vowel length is hardly ever a distinguishing factor. When we talk about “long a,” as in the first paragraph of this chapter, we are really talking about a difference of vowel quality, namely [e] usually spelled with the letter a (as in fade or raid), as distinguished from another vowel quality, namely [æ] also spelled with the same letter a (as in fad). But phonetically speaking, vowel length is just that—a difference in how long a vowel is held during its pronunciation— and any difference of vowel quality is incidental.

In current English, the length of vowels is determined primarily by neighboring sounds. For example, we distinguish bad from bat, bag from back, and lab from lap by the final consonants in those words, not by the longer vowel in the first of each pair. We tend to hold a vowel longer before a voiced consonant than before a voiceless one (as in bad versus bat), but that difference is secondary to and dependent on the voiced d versus the voiceless t.

Some speakers, as noted above, distinguish can ‘preserve in tins’ from can ‘be able,’ halve from have, and similarly balm from bomb and vary from very. They do so by pronouncing the vowel of the first word in each pair longer than that of the second word—but also tenser and with some difference in quality. In southeastern American English, bulb (with no [l]) may also be distinguished from bub by vowel length, and similarly burred (with no [r]) from bud, and stirred (with no [r]) from stud. In r-less speech, when [ɑ] occurs before etymological r, length may likewise be a distinguishing factor, as in part [pɑ:t] and pot [pɑt]. In phonetic transcriptions, a colon is used to indicate vowel length when it is necessary to do so. Such distinctions need not concern most of us except in Old, Middle, and early Modern English, which had phonemically distinctive vowel quantity. A diphthong is a sequence of two vowels in the same syllable, as opposed to a monophthong, which is a single, simple vowel. Many English vowel sounds tend to have diphthongal pronunciation, most notably [e] and [o], as in bay and toe, which are usually pronounced in a way that might be written [eɪ] and [oʊ] if we wanted to record the secondary vowel. Normally, however, there is no need to do so. In parts of the United States, most vowels are sometimes diphthongized; thus, bed may have a centralized off-glide (or secondary vowel):

[bɛǝd]. In keeping with our practice of writing only sounds that affect meaning, however, we will ignore all such diphthongal glides, writing as diphthongs only [aɪ] and [aʊ] in my and now and [ɔɪ] in joy and coin. Words like few and cube may be pronounced with a semivowel before the vowel, [fyu] and [kyub], or with a diphthong, [fɪu] and [kɪub]. The first pronunciation is more common. In all three of the diphthongs [aɪ], [aʊ], and [ɔɪ], the tongue moves from the position for the first vowel to that for the second, and the direction of movement is more important than the exact starting and ending points. Consequently, the diphthongs we write [aɪ] and [aʊ] may actually begin with vowels that are more like [ɑ], [æ], or even [ǝ]. Similarly, [ɔɪ] may begin with [ɒ] or [o] as well as with [ɔ]. The ending points are equally variable. The off-glide in [aɪ] and [ɔɪ] may actually be as high as [i] or as as [ɛ] (and for [aɪ] the off-glide may disappear altogether, especially in parts of

the South, being replaced by a lengthening of the first vowel, [a:]); similarly, the off-glide in [aʊ] may be as high as [u] or as low as [o]. Thus it is best to understand [aɪ] as a symbol for a diphthong that begins with a relatively low unrounded vowel and moves toward a higher front position, [aʊ] as representing a diphthong that begins the same way but moves toward a higher back rounded position, and [ɔɪ] as representing a diphthong that begins with a mid or low back rounded vowel and moves toward a higher unrounded front position. In a more detailed transcription, these differences could be represented, for example, in the word white as [ɑɛ], [a:], [ǝi], or various other possibilities. If we are interested in less detail, however, we can write [aɪ] and understand that digraph as representing whatever sound we use in words like white.

Taken from ¨The Origins and Development of the English Language¨. Algeo, John. 6 th Edition. Chapter 2.

Professor Arce Sueldo, Santiago Emanuel.