The English Phonemic System English Language Essay

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1st Jan 1970 English Language Reference this

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In English there are five vowels and it would appear that there are just five vowel sounds in this system. However, in the RP English vowel system there are twenty vowel sounds that can be categorized into simple vowels or diphthongs.

In a speech there are two types of sounds – vowels and consonants – it should be emphasised that in terms of intelligibility vowels are more important than consonants. Some of the aims of the phonetic methodical studies are to define and evaluate the components that constitute the speech.

Consequently, Spanish speakers encounter many pronunciation difficulties when they attempt to speak in English. This is because the English sound system has different types of sounds than the Spanish one.

This essay has been organised in the following way. The first section will describe the English vowel system, It will be distinguished according to the English vowels and diphthongs and its different types. Despite this, there are some differences between RP (Received Pronunciation) and GenAm (General American) English, both in realization (vowel quality) and in the system, (vowel inventory) this will also be discussed. Finally, there can be pronunciation issues that can affect native Spanish students when they try to pronounce the English language, this is another objective of this research, to examine what aspects of the English vowel system are likely to pose difficulties for a learner whose native language or L1 is Spanish.

In the pages that follow, the English vowel system will be described explicitly, as well as the definition of the term ‘vowel’ and its classification in the system according to quality, quantity and complexity. In addition, the differences between RP (Received Pronunciation) and GenAm (General American) English vowels will be looked at.

What differentiates a vowel from a consonant?

The term ‘vowel’ is a sound for which the oral cavity is open in a way that there is no build-up of air pressure above the glottis. The airstream flows relatively uninterrupted. On the other hand, a consonant is a sound for which the oral tract presents a constriction or closure at one or more points. The airstreams is somehow interrupted.

The aspect that differentiates vowels in English is an increasingly important area in applied linguistic. It may be divided in three main stages: quality, quantity and complexity.

Quality

It refers to the position of the tongue and lips. It may be grouped into: tongue height, tongue location, and lip posture.

Tongue height. It is explained as the vertical position of the tongue relative to the roof of the mouth. The tongue height has the follow categories: close, (high), half-close, half-open, open (low).

Close (High): the tongue is as close as possible to the roof of the mouth without creating audible friction.

Open (Low): the tongue is as far as possible from the roof of the mouth without creating audible friction.

Mid (Half- open and half- close).

Tongue Location. It is also called ‘backness’, frontness’ or ‘advancement’. It can be described as the horizontal position of the tongue relative to the roof of the mouth. The tongue location has the following categories: front, back and central.

Front: the tongue is as far forward as possible without creating audible friction.

Back: the tongue is as far back possible without creating audible friction.

Central: the tongue is halfway between front and back.

Lip posture. It is also called ‘lip position’, ‘lip rounding’. It can be described as shaping of the lips. The lip posture has the following categories: rounded or unrounded.

Rounded: the lips have a circular shaping.

Unrounded: the lips have either a neutral shaping or they are spread.

Quantity

It refers to the duration of the sound. It is also called ‘length’ or ‘duration’. It can be described as how long a vowel is, but exactly how long it is depends on the voicing of the following consonant. The quantity can be categorised into short or long vowels. It can be represented using a ‘length mark’ (ː).

Complexity

It can be static or dynamic according to the position of tongue and lips through the vowel pronounced in isolation. In the production of most vowels, the tongue and lips adopt a specific position and maintain it until the end of a vowel. In the production of some vowels, the positions of the lips and tongue are not the same at the beginning of the sound as they are by the end of the sound.

The British English vowel inventory contains preliminary remarks as are showed:

iː

ɪ

ÊŠ

uː

ɪə

eɪ

READ

SIT

BOOK

TOO

HERE

DAY

e

É™

ɜː

ɔː

ÊŠÉ™

ɔɪ

əʊ

MEN

WATER

WORD

SORT

TOUR

BOY

GO

æ

ʌ

ɑː

É’

eÉ™

aɪ

aÊŠ

CAT

BUT

PART

NOT

WEAR

MY

HOW

According to Ladefoged and Johnson (2010, p.88) ‘When you move to one vowel to another vowel you are changing the auditory quality of the vowel’. This is done by moving the tongue and lips but it is not very easy to describe how the tongue moves. This is why experts concerned with phonetics have discovered specific labels to allocate the positions of the vocal organs in the vowels.

A distinction is made between long and short vowels, apart from the quality and quantity, it is important to bear in mind whether the vowels are found in stressed or unstressed syllables. Based on syllable stress, it is said there are strong and weak vowels. The weak vowels are three /É™/, /i/ and /u/. Since unstressed syllables are very common in English, weak vowels are very frequent, particularly schwa.

In the current study, will be described long vowels as well as short ones, in relation to the length in English vowels:

The long vowels are /iː/, /uː/, /ɜː/, /ɔː/, /ɑː/

The vowel /iː/ is a long, close front vowel, and it is pronounced with unrounded lips (spread). It is closer than the Spanish /i/, and has more lip spreading and longer. It has a short version /i/ known as – the happY vowel- , which is used in unstressed syllables. Some examples of English words that contain this vowel are feet, read, machine or police.

The vowel /uː/ is a long, close, central to back vowel, and strongly rounded. It is similar to Spanish /u/ but longer. This vowel has become more central and less rounded in the speech of young British speakers. It has a short version/u/ known as – the thank yOU vowel -, used in unstressed syllables. Some examples of English words that contain this vowel are June, Luke, cool or zoo.

The vowel /ɜː/ is a long, mid (half-open to half-closed) central vowel. This vowel is pronounced with the lips unrounded (neutral). There is no equivalent in Spanish, and some dictionaries also use the symbol /əː/. It is important to highlight that it is not pronounced the sound [r] after /ɜː/ unless the next sound is a vowel (e.g. occur /əˡkɜː/ but occurring /əˡkɜːrɪŋ/). Some examples of English words that contain this vowel are church, birth, sir or girl.

The vowel /ɔː/ is a long, mid (half-close to half-open) back vowel. This is pronounced with the lips rounded (medium lip- rounding). There is a similar vowel in Spanish /o/, but longer. Some examples of English words that contain this vowel are horse, four, door or sure.

The vowel /ɑː/ is a long, open back vowel. It is pronounced with the lips unrounded (neutral). Some examples of English words that contain this vowel are laugh, heart, car or part.

The short vowels are /ɪ/, /ÊŠ/, /e/, /É™/, /æ/, /ÊŒ/, /É’/

The vowel /ɪ/ is a short, half-closed front to central vowel. It is pronounced with neutral lips (loosely spread). This vowel is half way between Spanish /i/ and /e/. Some examples of English words that contain this vowel are bit, rich, pretty or language.

The vowel /ÊŠ/ is a short, half-close, central to back vowel. It is pronounced very slight and loose lip-rounding. Some examples of English words that contain this vowel are bull, book, sugar or good.

The vowel /e/ is a short, mid (half-open to half-closed) front vowel. This is pronounced with lips spread. It does not occur in final open syllables, and some dictionaries also use the symbol /É›/. Some examples of English words that contain this vowel are bed, pet, bread or set.

The vowel /É™/ is a short, mid (half-close to half-open) central vowel. It is pronounced with the lips unrounded (neutral). There is no equivalent in Spanish, and this vowel never occurs in stressed syllables. This is the commonest English vowel, found in unstressed syllables in polysyllabic content words and in the unstressed weak forms of function words. The vowel and its symbol are called ‘schwa’. Some examples of English words that contain this vowel are camera, letter, pencil or special.

The vowel /æ/ is a short, half-open to open front. It is short, but is often lengthened before voiced C’s. It is pronounced with lips unrounded (neutrally open, more open than in the case of /ÊŒ/, its current quality is very close to Spanish /a/, although slightly more fronted and less open. In GenAm English /æ/ sounds pretty much like /e/ so words like marry-merry are, from many American speakers, homophonous. Some examples of English words that contain this vowel are bad, cat, mad or sand.

The vowel /ʌ/ is a short, half-open central vowel. It is pronounced with lips unrounded (neutrally open). This vowel is like a centralized and raised version of Spanish /a/. In the north of England, /ʌ/ is absent. People use /ʊ/ in many areas. Some examples of English words that contain this vowel are bus, sun, fun or butter.

The vowel /É’/ is a short, half-open to open back. It is pronounced slightly rounded lips and wide opening of the jaws. The Spanish /o/ is closer than /É’/, and it involves more lip-rounding and less jaw opening. In GenAm English /É’/ is not found. Some examples of English words that contain this vowel are body, bottle, hot or dog.

The English phonemic system distinguishes the following different kinds of diphthongs depending on the direction of the moving tongue; a division is made into centring and closing diphthongs:

Centring. The tongue location is from front /back to central. Their final tongue location is ‘central’ – the diphthongs started with either a front or a back tongue location:

The diphthong [ɪə] can be found in English words such as near, here or beer.

The diphthong [eÉ™] can be found in English words such as bear, fair or hair.

The diphthong [ʊə] can be found in English words such as poor (also [ɔː]), sure or dour.

Closing fronting. The tongue height is from open/mid to close, and the tongue location is from back/central to front. In this kind of diphthongs theirs final tongue height is ‘close’ – the diphthong started with a lower tongue height:

The diphthong [aɪ] can be found in English words such as high, buy or price.

The diphthong [eɪ] can be found in English words such as hay, face or day.

The diphthong [ɔɪ] can be found in English words such as choice, oil or boy.

Closing backing. The tongue height is from open/mid to close, and the tongue location is from front/central to back.

The diphthong [əʊ] can be found in English words such as no, hoe or phone.

The diphthong [aÊŠ] can be found in English words such as mouth, town or now.

The diphthong [ju] differs from all the other diphthongs in that the more prominent part occurs at the end. Because it is the only vowel of this kind, many books on English phonetics do not even consider it a diphthong; they treat it as a sequence of a consonant followed by a vowel (Ladefoged and Johnson, 2011).

Some authors also speak of triphthongs or vowels with two changes in quality, these are the following:

/aɪə/ as in ‘fire’ or ‘tyre’.

/eɪə/ as in ‘player’ or ‘Naomi’.

/ɔɪə/ as in ‘lawyer’ or ‘royal’.

/əʊə/ as in ‘lower’ or ‘mower’.

/aÊŠÉ™/ as in ‘power’ or ‘Howard’.

In this section will be exanimated the differences between RP (Received Pronunciation) and GenAm (General American) English vowels. One of these differences is the rhotacization and American monophthongs.

<r> is always pronounced as an r-sound in rhotic American English. This leads to the rhotacization (or r-colouring) of the preceding vowel. For rhotacised vowels (also called ‘coloured’ vowels), the tongue tip curls back, like for any retroflex consonant. Most vowels are partially rhotacised but in American English /ɜː/ and /É™/ + /r/ are fully rhotacized. This process is indicated with a superscript right hook: /Éš/ /ɝ/.

Centring diphthongs do not occur in American English or very rarely. Instead, it has (rhotacized) vowels followed by /r/. Other differences that are found /uː/ is centralised in British English, but not in American English. In addition, the vowel /ɔː/ is closer in British English. On the other hand, in British English the vowel /æ/ is more open than in American English, where it is closer and lengthened, sounding rather like [ɛː] and similar to British English /e/. Finally, the vowel /É’/ does not occur in American English, which uses /ɑː/ instead.

The interpretation of what have been discussed above may be illustrated clearly with the following section:

The vowel space

high front high back

i u

æ

É‘

low front low back

The Cardinal Vowel System

It is not easy to find an exact description of the position where the articulators of vowels are produced. However, in the twentieth century, Daniel Jones pointed to focus on the idea of how vowels are different each other’s instead of how they are produced. To carry out this project he created the Cardinal Vowel System, based on the four cardinal points. The aim of this system was to identify how close the vowel quality heard by experts in phonetic would be to a cardinal vowel quality.

The Cardinal Vowel System may be grouped in three levels according to Ball and Rahilly (1999) the first of these points was the highest frontest vowel that could be made without the sound becoming consonantal. This was named ‘Cardinal Vowel 1’. The second anchor point was the lowest backest vowel he could produce, without the sound becoming some kind of pharyngeal consonants. This was named ‘Cardinal Vowel 5’.

Secondly, sited in the front boundary region, in the middle of CV1 and CV5, he established three more Cardinal vowels. So far, all these five vowels had the same auditory distance from each other, and vocalized with the lips unrounded.

Finally, three more Cardinal vowels were added in the back boundary region, in the middle of CV5 and CV1, in this occasion the vowels had the same auditory distance from each other, and the lips are rounded. As soon as it goes up, it evenly becomes closer from CV6 to CV8 (Ball and Rahilly, 1999).

Primary Cardinal vowels

1. i u 8.

2. e o 7.

3. É› É” 6.

4. a É‘ 5.

Primary Cardinal vowels contain eight vowels. Even though, this system does not have very difficult use and the same space distance from rounded and unrounded vowels, generated difficulties; this may be due to Jones’s language.

English is very similar to the Cardinal Vowel system, which contains front unrounded vowels and back rounded vowels. However, other languages contain front rounded vowels which is the most usual than back unrounded ones. In addition, there are also several languages which use central vowels as well. These three divisions are found in the Cardinal Vowel system with diacritics. To solve this problem, ten more vowels were included to the primary Cardinal vowels system, with the result of secondary Cardinal vowels.

Ball and Rahilly (1999) defined the secondary Cardinal vowels as follow: ‘CVs 9-13 have exactly the same tongue position as CVs 1-5, have rounded lip shape instead of spread… CVs 14-6, on the other hand, have unrounded lip shape, becoming fully spread at CV16. The final two CVs were and unrounded and a rounded central vowel midway between CV 1/9 and CV8/16’.

IPA adapted those symbols for opener central vowels that Jones did not provide. However, critics have also argued that this system is not very essay to learn (Ball and Rahilly, 1999).

Secondary Cardinal vowels

17. ɨ 18. ʉ

9. y ɯ 16.

10. ø ɤ 15.

11. œ ÊŒ 14.

12. ɶ ɒ 13.

The International Phonetic Alphabet established a new vowel chart according to unrounded and rounded vowels, eliminating the primary and secondary vowels system addressed by Daniel Jones.

The components in this chart are related to the tongue position, as well as the diacritics for lip position, duration and nasalization of vowels 9 Ball and Rahilly, 1999).

IPA vowel chart

Ball and Rahilly (1999) list this chart showing the English vowels and diacritics, and also what are some times termed the ‘ spare vowel symbols’, but more accurately can be called ‘symbols for lax vowels’. These are symbols for vowel sounds in no peripheral areas, and can be used for any vowel in a language that is made within the area concerned. Amongst these symbols is the central ‘schwa’ vowel we referred to above, but the 1996 IPA revision also includes symbols for the close-mid and open-mid rounded and unrounded central vowels.

According to the essay plan it will be examined what aspects of the English vowel system are likely to pose difficulties for a learner whose native language or L1 is Spanish.

English and Spanish vowel system.

The English sound system has different types of sounds, as it has been showed previously, than the Spanish one. Spanish vowel system contains five vowels according to the five vowel letters; this may cause some difficulties to Spanish students when they try to learn English, because there are seven different sounds more than in their own L1.

Most of the pronunciation problems for these learners exist in the English vowels, such as /a/, /e/ or /i/. This could be because the Spanish speakers usually confuse the English vowel /e/ with the Spanish /i/, since this vowel is pronounced as /i/.

Another aspect that makes Spanish learners aware that there is no equivalent in Spanish language for the vowel schwa /É™/, a way to produce this sound is to press the tongue against the lower teeth and try to keep it relaxed. This is very common vowel in English because this is one of the weak vowels in English, and many function words contain /É™/.

There is another vowel that cannot be found in the Spanish vowel system, this may confuse learners when they try to reproduce the /ɜː/ sound; because there is no similar sound to the L1 which they can compare with.

The Spanish vowel system contains peripheral units as it showed in the chart, while English has closer ones. Another difference between English and Spanish is that Spanish language does not have long vowels.

The following conclusions can be drawn from the present study about the English vowel system and the aspects that may pose difficulties for a learner whose native language or L1 is Spanish. This assignment has explained the definition of the term ‘vowel’ as well as the central importance of the English vowel system, according to the different classifications (quality, quantity and complexity) of the vowels. It was also showed the British English vowel inventory. Furthermore, it described monophthongs, diphthongs and triphthongs. In addition, this essay compared the British English with American English. Besides, explained the Cardinal Vowel systems. Moreover, it examined what aspects of the English vowel system could cause troubles for Spanish learners.

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