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Speech sounds

In English there are often said to be 44 sounds or ‘phonemes’, although the exact number is a matter of argument. But across the world’s languages, the number ranges from 11 to almost 200. English strings sounds together as clusters, as in strength. Other languages add complexity to the sound, as in the name of the West African language, Igbo. Which way the language goes on this point, the number of phonemes in the language is one key point on the learner’s agenda.

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.

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.

Letters of the alphabet represent the notion of the phoneme as this was originally conceived in the Middle East and ancient Greece. To me the discovery of the alphabetic principle is one of the crowning achievements of human thought. But this profound and original notion was obstructed by a common reluctance to update spellings as languagesw developed over centuries and a common preference for some prestigious system, as represented by Latin or Greek . So English makes do with five single letters for a system with the six short vowels in him, hem, ham, hum, hod and hood because that is the system bequeathed by Latin. In 1875 the Polish scholar, Baudouin de Courtenay, reawakened interest in the original insight, and in the 1920s opened the world’s first institution dedicated to the training of speech and language pathologists in Warsaw. But the phonemes are only part of the structure.

In 1968 Chomsky and Halle published the Sound Pattern of English, analyising the totality of the sound structure of the language, and giving a new prominence to the notions of features and metricality, both enormously relevant to children’s problems with speech.

By an alternative view, the alphabet is just a convenient artefact, reflecting what are really just overlapping sequences of gestures within the vocal tract. But to my mind this view does not illuminate in any useful way any symptomatology that I have come across or heard of in child speech.

Apart from the inventory, there is significant variation with respect to which phonemes can be ‘clustered’ together in what is known as the phonotactics‘.


English has just one sort of complex phoneme, what are known as affricates, at the beginnings and ends of church and George. Affricates begin with a complete closure of the air-stream, and end with an almost complete closure. At the beginning of the syllable, affricates only occur on their own before the vowel.

Some children find affricates hard to hear or say. But the issue for such children may be by a misanalysis . They may be hearing these phonemes as two phonemes one after the other, in the case of chair, for instance, as a T followed by a SH.


In many languages, phonemes can be doubled in length, with the difference in length alone enough to change one word into another. This is the case in Arabic, Finnish, Cypriot Greek, Classical Latin and Greek, and many other languages. But not in English.

In a way which might seem contradictory, there are instances where a phoneme is repeated at the end of one word or bit of a word and at the beginning of the next, as in non-native and soulless. But these are not single words.

But there are more potentially confusing miscues for the learner of English. Length can be deceptive. Most of the difference between hit and hid is signalled by the length of the vowel. The nominally short vowel in hid can be almost as long as the long vowel in heed. The identity of the consonant depends on the length of the vowel before it. Different tokens of one sound, which may vary enough from one context to the next to count as different sounds in one language may need to go into the same ‘box’ in another language. The sorting into boxes has to take place in the mind of the learner.

At least in modern English, there are no long consonants, although there may have been once upon a time, as suggested by the spelling of hammer and rudder. And some children wrongly conclude that in English there are long consonants, with the effect that they say finger with a NN in the middle. In all the cases that I have recorded, the F is also replaced by a T or a D, with the effect that the word sounds like TINNA or DINNA, where the N is perceptibly doubled.