A sound inventory
On most counts, there are 44 phonemes in English (with slight variations between accents/dialects/varieties, including different versions of ‘Standard English’.) The exact number is partly a matter of theory and partly a matter of the variety of English which is being described.
But whichever variety represents the learner’s target, the inventory as a whole is clearly a key point on the agenda. Many children have problems with one or more parts of the inventory. The commonest problems are with one feature, such as the voicing in B, or the back of the tongue articulation in K, or the gesture of partially blocking the airstream in fricatives like TH and S.
The scale of the learner’s task
English inherits its alphabet from Latin which had five vowels, each with a long and short version, with the same letter for both versions. English has between 17 and 25 vowels, depending on how they are counted. Unlike Latin, English has sounds which are halfway between vowels or consonants. These include Y and W. They are known as ‘glides’ or ‘semivowels’. English also has sounds known as affricates, at the beginnings and ends of churchand George. At the beginning of the syllable, affricates only occur on their own. They cluster with N and L at the end of the syllable in strange and bulge. They are often one the last sorts of sounds which children learn to say. And English has ‘syllabic consonants’, in words like bottle and button, where the L and the N have a kind of built-in unstressed vowel after a stressed vowel. So the Latin alphabet does not provide enough letters for a language like English. English compensates for the short fall by combining letters, but inconsistently.
Stops or plosives, with the airstream completely blocked by the lips, by the back of the tongue, or by the tongue tip,
Voiced, with the vocal cords allowed to vibrate as soon as the closure is released
Unvoiced or voiceless, with a significant pause between the release of the closure and the vocal cord vibration.
Fricatives, with the air stream forced through a narrow gap between the upper front teeth and lower lip or between the tongue and the teeth or the tongue and the roof of the mouth,
Voiced with the vocal cords allowed to vibrate. The consonant in azure never occurs at the beginning of a stressed syllable or word, and occurs only in loans from other languages like French, as in this case.
Voiceless with the vocal cords not allowed to vibrate.
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, Calling ch a digraph because it uses two letters misses the key point. Affricates are a distinct category of phoneme, pronounced in two parts – unlike SH and TH.
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 not pronounced after the vowel.
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 mouth, 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. But in many Northern British English varieties, the G is fully pronounced as a stop 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. Depending on the variety, this may contrast with 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.
Semivowels 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.
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.
The vowels vary in length, but they are additionally differentiated by being pulled towards or away from the centre of the ‘vowel space’. And some long vowels involve a tongue movement while they are are being articulated.
Short vowels 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.
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.
Diphthongs, with the tongue rising in the course of the articulation.
‘Schwa’, with the tongue in the middle of the mouth,`always unstressed, with the pronunciation following the spalling, by a single A other than in the.
the, a, agenda, data, media, criteria
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.
In the same tongue position as schwa. but with length and stress, always written with an R, there is equivalent of a long schwa. The R is pronounced in the same varieties which pronounce it in mother.
hurt, pert, earn
On what seems to me the simplest possible analysis, the length and stress are from the R which just goes unpronounced in some varieties.
‘Schwi’, as this is sometimes known, 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, technically short and tense. But there are various other analyses.
A Russian-type vowel? for some speakers (some British, some American) tune and moon do not rhyme. For these speakers, if tune was represented phonetically there would be an initial Y, as part of the the same vowel as moon, but no Y. On this analysis, speakers without a rhyme here have an extra vowel – like what Russians consider to be the single initial vowel in the name Yury.
Tripthongs? On some counts, a vowel can have three elements – sometimes known as ‘triphthongs’ – with the 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, greatly restricting the power of the grammar and accordingly simplifying the task of the learner. 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 an off–glide pronounced as schwa.
For those who believe in triphthongs there are thus seven additional vowels in English. Alternatively, by what seems to me a simpler analysis, the R is just pronounced as a vocalic element in what are known as ‘non-rhotic’ varieties. These include all the varieties of English widely spoken in London today.