Almost, but not quite all, linguists agree that it is useful to list the sounds or ‘phonemes’ of a language. The phonemes of an accent or dialect or variety are commonly known as the ‘phonemic inventory’. Children often seem to be missing one or more phonemes from the inventory.
It is often said that in what is known as ‘Standard English’ and ‘General American’ there are 44 phonemes. There are differences of view about the exact number.
Most children with a problem with their speech are either missing one or more phonemes from the inventory or they are saying one or more in some non-standard way. In the case of children learning English, most of the problems are with respect to the consonants. But some children’s problems are with respect to the vowels.
On most analyses, there are the 24 consonants in these words
The stops, with the airstream completely blocked by the lips, by the back of the tongue, or the tongue tip, first the voiced stops, with the vocal cords allowed to vibrate as soon as the closure is released and then the voiceless stops, with a significant pause between the release of the closure and the vocal cord vibration.
The fricatives, with the airstream partially blocked by the upper teeth and lower lip, the middle of the tongue, the tongue tip, and the tongue tip and the teeth, first with the vocal cords allowed to vibrate and then not. The consonant in azure never occurs at the beginning of a syllable.
The affricates with a complete closure by the tongue tip released after a brief moment to allow a partially blocked airstream slightly further back along the tongue, with voicing and without.
The liquids, always next to a vowel, and with the characteristic resonance of vowels, but mainly functioning as consonants in relation to the structure of the syllable. R may be in the process of transitioning to a semi-vowel in what are sometimes known as ‘non-rhotic’ varieties of English in which R is never pronounced after the vowel in words in their citation form.
The nasals, with the airstream blocked at the lips or the tongue tip, but allowed to go through the nose by opening a ring of muscle at the back of the mouth. By virtue of the closure in the moth they count as stops. (N clustered with G at the end of the syllable, as by the writing, is often counted as a phoneme, by native speakers of English varieties in which the G is not heard as a stop, as it is in many northern British English varieties. But the G is fully pronounced as a stop in all varieties where it occurs as the first sound in an unstressed syllable at the end of root forms of words, as in finger, single, mingle, and so on, unlike singer, ringer, and winger, where the root forms are sing, ring, and wing, respectively.)
Both L and N on their own after a stop after a stressed vowel can function as the nucleus of a syllable in at least most varieties of English in words like little, middle, and funnel. This is quite unusual across languages, and thus very much something which English learners have to learn. This is evidently quite hard for many normally developing children who shift the articulation back along the tongue in words like this to something like K, G, and NG as a single phoneme.
The semi-vowels or glides, by a gesture with the lips or tongue, colouring the vowel, always immediately before it in at least most modern varieties of English.
If R is becoming another semi-vowel and a third member of this set in at least some varieties of English, this may represents a significant problem for learners of those varieties.
The glottal, by a momentary opening of the vocal cords or glottis, with the sound of friction from the resulting airstream, and often classed as a fricative on this account, but different from the fricatives proper in that it never clusters with another consonant, but always occurs before the vowel and never after it.
On most analyses, the letter X represents two phonemes, K and S. But on the basis of words like next and text, an argument could be made for counting it as a complex phoneme, as represented by the single letter.
Minimally there might seem to be these 18 vowels
The short vowels, going round the vowel space, starting with the tongue high at the front of the mouth, down to the bottom of the mouth and up to the back of the mouth, rounding the lips progressively in the last two cases.
The long vowels, following the same sequence, with more tension in the tongue and with the tongue closer to the edge of the vowel space at each position.
The diphthongs with the tongue rising in the course of the articulation.
‘Schwa’ with the tongue in the middle of the mouth, never with any stress
The same tongue position as schwa. but with stress, always written with an R, which is pronounced in many varieties of English.
Not all speakers make all of these distinctions. Some speakers make more.
I am one of those (some British, some American) for whom tune and moon do not rhyme. If my tune was represented phonetically there would be an initial TY before the vowel. In my version of moon there would seem to be the same vowel. But how come there isn’t a rhyme? On what seems to me the most plausible analysis, speakers like me have an extra vowel – like what Russians consider to be the single initial vowel in the name Yury.
Schwa is often defined on the basis of stresslessness. In words like data, agenda, media, criteria, pronunciation mostly follows the spalling, with no R. In words like mother, father, brother, and sister, the R is pronounced only in ‘rhotic’ varieties of the language.
In the two commonest words in the language, a and the, there is a change, adding an N to a or changing the vowel of the, if the word is followed by a vowel. These are the only words in the language which do this.
The vowel in hurt is articulated with the tongue in the same position as in unstressed schwa, but always written with an R, as in fir, fur, her, earn. Phonetically this is like a long or stressed schwa. But on what seems to me a better analysis, the length is from an R which is just not pronounced in ‘non-rhotic’, sometimes considered ‘standard’ varieties of British English.
In a different way there might be said to be another vowel in the word the as it is said in the evening. It is not the same as either of the vowels in he and hip, but somewhere in between. It is both short and tense. This is sometimes known as ‘schwi’. But there are various possible analyses.
On some counts, a vowel can have three elements – sometimes known as ‘triphthongs’ – with tongue doing a double movement in the mouth. By many views (including mine), this is impossible, on the basis that human speech and language never divide anything into more than two parts. For speech in which the R is not pronounced, as in all varieties of London English, the R has to be somehow represented in the speaker’s mind, even though it is pronounced only as a schwa. But for some theorists, there is no such thing as anything which is just represented in the mind, and not pronounced.
The theoretical issue about triphthongs and what is sometimes known as an ‘underlying’ R concerns the vowels in these words in most British varieties of English.
With the off–glide by an articulation with the tongue tip
With the off–glide by a back of the tongue articulation
Without an off–glide, but still a schwa gesture
For those who believe in triphthongs there are thus six or seven additional vowels in English.
The counting problem
So the exact number of phonemes is partly a matter of linguistic or phonetic theory and partly a matter of the variety of English which is being described.
Complexity and instability
Vowel systems as complex as that of English are unusual. Greek and Italian are more typical with just five vowels. Complex vowel systems are often unstable with vowels gaining or losing a feature in a human life time. In British English, this is particularly the case with the vowels in hock and horse moving in both directions. In the first world war, most members of the officer class pronounced horse as though it was HOSS, much to the silent merriment of those they commanded. Some of their children pronounced cross as though it was CRORSE – the opposite way round.
What is for children – and what isn’t
These complexities, and the various ways they can be theorised, are obviously not for children. But rhyming is reflected in verse from Chaucer to Shakespeare to the work of Roald Dahl to rap. At the time of Geoffrey Chaucer 600 years ago, chamber, gander, and wander, all rhymed with one another, at least approximately, as did spoon and fun. But the supposedly nursery rhymes which feature these words don’t rhyme any more because of major changes in the vowel system over the last 600 years, most of these changes between the times of Chaucer and Shakespeare.
Beyond the phoneme
To me the discovery of the alphabetic principle is one of the crowning achievements of human thought. But as I suggest in Four clever letters, phonemes are composed of more fundamental bits or ‘features’, and this is very useful for helping children with many sorts of speech problem.
By an alternative view, as espoused by April McMahon, the alphabet is just a convenient artefact, reflecting what are really just overlapping sequences of gestures within the vocal tract. One argument against this view is that it makes a language-specific phonemic inventory very difficult to state.