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Beginner's Phonetics – A Simple Guide

This is intended to get you intrigued rather than fully educated! It also points you to where you can learn more, if you wish.

Singers don’t just sing in their own language and are faced with the daunting task of learning (at least to pronounce) a number of foreign languages.  One of the more recent additions to a singer’s armoury has been the use of phonetics which can cut across the language barrier and allow the singer to make the correct sound by using a “special” alphabet.

Every language has a unique set of sounds that are used to build words.  Indeed when we each learnt to speak we were taught these sounds and shown the words that went with them – so we learnt to speak.

Linguists call these sounds “phonemes” (fo neemes) and these sounds differentiate between words at the lowets (smallest) level.

Think about the following set of words – only a letter has changed, but the sound is completely different.

Sat – Set / Sin – Sir / Ton – Top.

Indeed, there are some word games that require you to get from one word to another by altering only one letter at a time.

The number of phonemes in each language varies.  English has some 44 (it depends on accent), whilst Italian has about 25, as does German. There are two tables at the end of this article detailing some of the English vowel and consonant phonemes.

Linguists use the IPA – the International Phonetic Alphabet to describe and analyse the sound systems of languages.  In IPA each sound is given a unique symbol which allows us to capture similarities and differences that are hidden by the written form.  Cat and Kit for example – the sound at the start of the word is the same, though the letters are different.  Look at the letter Y in various words and you will find it completely different.  In that previous sentence Y in you and Y in completely differ from each other.  How about silly young youths?

The following link is to the IPA’s main site and is well worth time spent looking through it:

 http://www.arts.gla.ac.uk/ipa/index.html

Vowels are sounds produced with no interruption or obstruction to the air flow coming up from the lungs – but they do take on their different sound qualities by very subtle changes in the shape of the vocal tract.

For example – the “ee” sound in mean has the lower and upper jaw quite close together and the tongue is raised towards the roof of the mouth.  The “oo” in moon needs to have the back of the tongue raised.  When producing the sound “ah” as in darn, the jaws are quite apart and the centre of the tongue is raised.

A diphthong is a long complex vowel sound with starts with one quality and end with another.  English has several diphthongs, Italian has none!

Consonants are sounds that need an interruption or obstruction of the air flow.  There are three basic classifications – voice, place and manner of articulation.

By voice we mean – are the vocal folds vibrating when the sound is produced – the b in bark and p in park are made by briefly closing the lips to stop the air flow, but the b is voiced and the p is not.

The place of articulation is where the air flow is obstructed.  The vocal tract extends from the lips down to the glottis.  See the figure at the end of this article.

There are a number of differing places of articulation, which are:

Place of Articulation
Word
Labial (lips) pip 
Pip
Labial-Dental (lips and teeth)
Fish
Dental (placing the tongue between the teeth)
This
Alveolar (the hard ridge behind the upper teeth)
Ten
Post-Alveolar (between the hard ridge and the hard palate)
Ship
Palatal (hard palate – roof of the mouth)
Yet
Velar (soft palate)
Cat
Glottal (glottis – the vocal folds and the opening between them)
Hen
Manner of Articulation
Plosive (a complete obstruction followed by release)
Ten
Fricative (very close but not complete obstruction involving friction)
Set

Affricate (very close obstruction where the consonant begins as a plosive and ends as a fricative)

Church
Nasal (complete obstruction of the mouth but with the velum open)
Man
Approximant (some obstruction but not enough to cause friction) of which there are two types
Liquids (the tongue touches the alveolar ridge)
Let
Glides (a very slight closure akin to a vowel)
Wet

This diagram shows the positions mentioned in the table:

IPA

 

Vowel Phonemes:

a

cat

 

 

 

 

e

peg

bread

 

 

 

i

pig

wanted

 

 

 

o

log

want

 

 

 

u

plug

love

 

 

 

ae

pain

day

gate

station

 

ee

sweet

heat

thief

these

 

ie

tried

light

my

shine

mind

oe

road

blow

bone

cold

 

ue

moon

blue

grew

tune

 

oo

look

would

put

 

 

ar

cart

fast (regional)

 

 

 

ur

burn

first

term

heard

work

or

torn

door

warn (regional)

 

 

au

haul

law

call

 

 

er

wooden

circus

sister

 

 

ow

down

shout

 

 

 

oi

coin

boy

 

 

 

air

stairs

bear

hare

 

 

ear

fear

beer

here

 

 

Consonant Phonemes:

b

baby

 

 

 

d

dog

 

 

 

f

field

photo

 

 

g

game

 

 

 

h

hat

 

 

 

j

judge

giant

barge

 

k

cook

quick

mix

Chris

l

lamb

 

 

 

m

monkey

comb

 

 

n

nut

knife

gnat

 

p

paper

 

 

 

r

rabbit

wrong

 

 

s

sun

mouse

city

science

t

tap

 

 

 

v

van

 

 

 

w

was

 

 

 

wh

where (regional)

 

 

 

y

yes

 

 

 

z

zebra

please

is

 

th

then

 

 

 

th

thin

 

 

 

ch

chip

watch

 

 

sh

ship

mission

chef

 

zh

treasure

 

 

 

ng

ring

sink

 

 

 

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