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Lesson 14.1

Letters and Sounds

Las letras y los sonidos
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We all know that English pronunciation can be difficult, but why? The difficulty lies in differences between how some words are spelled and how they are pronounced. In more phonetic languages, such as Spanish, words are pronounced as they are written (with occasional exceptions, such as the silent “h” in Spanish). In languages such as Spanish, there is a direct relationship between how a word is pronounced and how it is written. In English, however, how a word is spelled does not necessarily indicate to the speaker how it should be pronounced. There are many complexities within the English language that effect pronunciation. In this lesson, we will discuss the various sounds in English. In later lessons, we will present an explanation of silent letters and syllable stress, two other factors linked to proper pronunciation.

Homophones, Homographs and Homonyms

First, to demonstrate how English spelling and pronunciation can differ, take a look at the explanations and examples of three different types of words in English.

Homophones

Homophones are words with different spellings, but the same pronunciation.

Examples:

 there,   their,   they’re
 to,   too,   two
 flour,   flower
 hear,   here
 threw,   through

Homographs

In contrast to homophones, homographs are words with the same spelling and different pronunciations.

Examples:

 read(present tense)
 read(past tense)
 tear(noun: a teardrop)
 tear(verb meaning to rip)
 desert(verb meaning to abandon)
 desert(an arid region)

Homonyms

Homonyms are words that are spelled and pronounced the same, but that have different meanings. While homophones and homographs can only be found in less phonetic languages, such as English, homonyms are common in other languages, such as Spanish.

Examples:

 left(the direction or the past tense of the verb “leave”)
 block(can be a noun or a verb)
 kind(is a synonym for “type” as well as an adjective)
 watch(is both a verb as well as a noun, as in a wristwatch)

To review, the table below demonstrates the differences between homophones, homographs and homonyms.

Spelling Pronunciation Meaning
Homophones =
Homographs =
Homonyms = =

Sounds and Phonetic Symbols

Homographs and homophones exist in English because, while the English alphabet contains 26 letters, there are in fact over 40 different sounds in English. These sounds are represented by phonetic symbols, as shown in the chart below. In order to learn proper English pronunciation, it is important to first have a good understanding of the different sounds. The fourth column contains the pronunciation of the examples using phonetic symbols. The pronunciation is found between two “/”, as can be seen in most dictionaries.

Symbol Type Example Pronunciation
Vowels: Monophthongs _ _
i: long   feet /fi:t/
ɪ short   hit /hɪt/
ʊ short   wood /wʊd/
u: long   boot /bu:t/
e short   men /men/
ə schwa  winter /wɪntər/
ɜ: long   word /wɜ:rd/
ɔ: long   door /dɔ:r/
æ short   cat /kæt/
ʌ short   up /ʌp/
ɑ: long   car /kɑ:r/
ɒ short   hot /hɒt/
Vowels: Diphthongs _ _
ɪə _   clear /klɪər/
_   wait /weɪt/
ʊə _   tour /tʊər/
ɔɪ _   toy /tɔɪ/
əʊ _   slow /sləʊ/
_   wear /weər/
_   my /maɪ/
_   how /haʊ/
Consonants _ _ _
p unvoiced   pay /peɪ/
b voiced   big /bɪg/
t unvoiced   tea /ti:/
d voiced   dog /dɔ:g/
ʧ unvoiced   chat /ʧæt/
ʤ voiced   joy /ʤɔɪ/
k unvoiced   cat /kæt/
g voiced   got /gɑ:t/
f unvoiced   fast /fæst/
v voiced   vain /veɪn/
ɵ unvoiced   thin /ɵɪn/
ð voiced   other /ʌðər/
s unvoiced   miss /mɪs/
z voiced   use /ju:z/
ʃ unvoiced   wash /wɔ:ʃ/
ʒ voiced  leisure /li:ʒər/
m voiced   make /meɪk/
n voiced   sun /sʌn/
ŋ voiced   wing /wɪŋ/
h unvoiced   help /help/
l voiced   like /laɪk/
r voiced   air /er/
w voiced   web /web/
j voiced   yes /jes/

Note: Further explanation of the various types of sounds can be found in the lessons on pronunciation that follow.

To review, below you will find the examples of homophones and homographs presented at the beginning of the lesson, but this time with their pronunciation given in phonetic symbols.

Homophones:

 there, their, they’re/ðər/
 to, too, two/tu:/
 flour, flower/flaʊr/
 hear, here/hɪr/
 threw, through/ɵru:/

Homographs:

 read/ri:d/
 read/red/
 tear/tɪr/
 tear/ter/
 desert/dezərt/
 desert/dɪzɜ:rt/
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14.2 Vowels

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