American English Phonetics

Another American English Faculty Project

In view of the large discrepancy between the spelling and the pronunciation of English, and the resulting danger of spelling pronunciation that this creates, we really need a new spelling system in which the pronunciation of English words can be unambiguously represented. Such a transcription system is in a sense an improved alphabet: every vowel and every consonant of the language has its own symbol.

At this point it is important to realize that English, like most other languages, is pronounced in a variety of ways. A business executive from Chicago will not pronounce English the same as a bus driver in Boston, and both will speak differently than a gas station attendant in Alabama. In so far as these different varieties differ from the point of view of pronunciation, they are said to be different accents of English. The various accents of a language may differ, among other things, in the sets of vowels and consonants that they have. In the case of English, it is typically the vowel systems that differ from accent to accent.

For example, in English Eng­lish, the words caught and court are pronounced the same, and are different from cot, but in Scottish English and in much of California and Canada, caught and cot are the same and differ from court, while in Mid-Western American English, all three words are different. We give the vowels and consonants of stan­dard American English in the next two sections (1.5 and 1.6). Since important variation may occur even in what would be considered ‘standard’ speech, we refer to two standard varieties of American English, the California variant and the Mid-Western variant.

As you will see in section 1.6, the California variant has one vowel less than the Mid-Western vari­ant. In this course, we follow this California variant, but reference will be made throughout to GA, short for “General American.” Finally, it is observed that the accent of English which is generally taught at universities and schools in Europe is Standard English English, also known as RP, short for “Received Pronunciation,” where ‘received’ is an old fashioned word meaning ‘generally accepted’.

The collection of sounds of a language is known as its phoneme system (Dutch ‘foneemsysteem’). A phoneme system is divided into a consonant system (C- system) and a vowel system (V-system).