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Letter and Sounds of the English Language

Written by: Sherwin Cody

We must begin our study of the English language with the elementary sounds and the letters which represent them.

Name the first letter of the alphabet——a. The mouth is open and the sound may be prolonged indefinitely. It is a full, clear sound, an unobstructed vibration of the vocal chords.

Now name the second letter of the alphabet——b. You say bee or buh. You cannot prolong the sound. In order to give the real sound of b you have to associate it with some other sound, as that of e or u. In other words, b is in the nature of an obstruction of sound, or a modification of sound, rather than a simple elementary sound in itself. There is indeed a slight sound in the throat, but it is a closed sound and cannot be prolonged. In the case of p, which is similar to b, there is no sound from the throat.

So we see that there are two classes of sounds (represented by two classes of letters), those which are full and open tones from the vocal chords, pronounced with the mouth open, and capable of being prolonged indefinitely; and those which are in the nature of modifications of these open sounds, pronounced with or without the help of the voice, and incapable of being prolonged. The first class of sounds is called vowel sounds, the second, consonant sounds. Of the twenty-six letters of the alphabet, a, e, i, o, and u (sometimes y and w) represent vowel sounds and are called vowels; and the remainder represent consonant sounds, and are called consonants.

A syllable is an elementary sound, or a combination of elementary sounds, which can be given easy and distinct utterance at one effort. Any vowel may form a syllable by itself, but as we have seen that a consonant must be united with a vowel for its perfect utterance, it follows that every syllable must contain a vowel sound, even if it also contains consonant sounds. With that vowel sound one or more consonants may be united; but the ways in which consonants may combine with a vowel to form a syllable are limited. In general we may place any consonant before and any consonant after the vowel in the same syllable: but y for instance, can be given a consonant sound only at the beginning of a syllable, as in yet; at the end of a syllable y becomes a vowel sound, as in they or only. In the syllable twelfths we find seven consonant sounds; but if these same letters were arranged in almost any other way they could not be pronounced as one syllable?as for instance wtelthfs.

A word consists of one or more syllables to which some definite meaning is attached.

The difficulties of spelling and pronunciation arise largely from the fact that in English twenty-six letters must do duty for some forty-two sounds, and even then several of the letters are unnecessary, as for instance c, which has either the sound of s or of kx, which has the sound either of ks, gs, or zq, which in the combination qu has the sound of kw. All the vowels represent from two to seven sounds each, and some of the consonants interchange with each other.

The Sounds of the Vowels.?(1) Each of the vowels has what is called a long sound and a short sound. It is important that these two sets of sounds be fixed clearly in the mind, as several necessary rules of spelling depend upon them. In studying the following table, note that the long sound is marked by a straight line over the letter, and the short sound by a curve.

Long Short ate at gave man name bag

these pet me ten (com)plete bred

kite sit rice mill lime rip

note not rode rod sole Tom

cure but cute run (a)buse crust

sc?the (like)l?

If we observe the foregoing list of words we shall see that each of the words containing a long vowel followed by a single consonant sound ends in silent e. After the short vowels there is no silent e. In each case in which we have the silent e there is a single long vowel followed by a single consonant, or two consonants combining to form a single sound, as th in scythe. Such words asroll, toll, etc., ending in double l have no silent e though the vowel is long; and such words as great, meet, pail, etc., in which two vowels combine with the sound of one, take no silent e at the end. We shall consider these exceptions more fully later; but a single long vowel followed by a single consonant always takes silent e at the end. As carefully stated in this way, the rule has no exceptions. The reverse, however, is not always true, for a few words containing a short vowel followed by a single consonant do take silent e; but there are very few of them. The principal arehave, give, {(I)} live, love, shove, dove, above; also none, some, come, and some words in three or more syllables, such as domicile.

2. Beside the long and short sounds of the vowels there are several other vowel sounds.

A has two other distinct sounds:

?? broad, like aw, as in all, talk, etc.

ä Italian, like ah, as in far, father, etc.

Double o has two sounds different from long or short o alone:

long oo as in room, soon, mood, etc.

short oo, as in good, took, wood, etc.

Ow has a sound of its own, as in how, crowd, allow, etc.; and ou sometimes has the same sound, as in loud, rout, bough, etc.

(Ow and ou are also sometimes sounded like long o, as in own, crow, pour, etc., and sometimes have still other sounds, as ou in bought).

Oi and oy have a distinct sound of their own, as in oil, toil, oyster, void, boy, employ, etc.

Ow and oi are called proper diphthongs, as the two vowels combine to produce a sound different from either, while such combinations as ei, ea, ai, etc., are called improper diphthongs (or digraphs), because they have the sound of one or other of the simple vowels.

3. In the preceding paragraphs we have given all the distinct vowel sounds of the language, though many of them are slightly modified in certain combinations. But in many cases one vowel will be given the sound of another vowel, and two or more vowels will combine with a variety of sounds. These irregularities occur chiefly in a few hundred common words, and cause the main difficulties of spelling the English language. The following are the leading substitutes:

ew with the sound of u long, as in few, chew, etc. (perhaps this may be considered a proper diphthong);

e (ê, é) with the sound of a long, as in fête, abbé, and all foreign words written with an accent, especially French words;

i with the sound of e long, as in machine, and nearly all French and other foreign words;

o has the sound of double o long in tomb, womb, prove, move, etc., and of double o short in wolf, women, etc.;

o also has the sound of u short in above, love, some, done, etc.;

u has the sound of double o long after r, as in rude, rule;

it also has the sound of double o short in put, pull, bull, sure, etc.;

ea has the sound of a long, as in great; of e long, as in heat; of e short, as in head; of a Italian (ah), as in heart, hearth, etc.;

ei has the sound of e long, as in receive; of a long, as in freight, weight; sometimes of i long, as in either and neither, pronounced with either the sound of e long or i long, the latter being the English usage;

ie has the sound of i long, as in lie, and of e long, as in belief, and of i short, as in sieve;

ai has the sound of a long, as in laid, bail, train, etc., and of a short, as in plaid;

ay has the sound of a long, as in play, betray, say, etc.;

oa has the sound of o long, as in moan, foam, coarse, etc.

There are also many peculiar and occasional substitutions of sounds as in any and many (a as e), women (o as i), busy (u as i), said (ai as e), people (eo as e), build (u as i), gauge (au as a), what(a as o), etc.

When any of these combinations are to be pronounced as separate vowels, in two syllables, two dots should be placed over the second, as in naïve.

4. The chief modifications of the elementary sounds are the following:

before r each of the vowels e, i, o, u, and y has almost the same sound (marked like the Spanish ñ) as in her, birth, honor, burr, and myrtle; o before r sometimes has the sound of aw, as in or, for,etc.;

in unaccented syllables, each of the long vowels has a slightly shortened sound, as in f_a_tality, n_e_gotiate, int_o_nation, ref_u_tation, indicated by a dot above the sign for the long sound; (in a few words, such as d_i_gress, the sound is not shortened, however);

long a (â) is slightly modified in such words as care, fare, bare, etc., while e has the same sound in words like there, their, and where; (New Englan{d}? people give a the short sound in such words as care, etc., and pronounce there and where with the short sound of a, while their is pronounced with the short sound of e: this is not the best usage, however);

in pass, class, command, laugh, etc., we have a sound of a between Italian a and short a (indicated by a single dot over the a), though most Americans pronounce it as short, and most English give the Italian sound: the correct pronunciation is between these two.

The Sounds of the Consonants. We have already seen that there are two
classes of consonant sounds, those which have a voice sound, as b,
called sonant, and those which are mere breath sounds, like p,
called surds or aspirates. The chief difference between b and p
is that one has the voice sound and the other has not. Most of the
other consonants also stand in pairs. We may say that the sonant
consonant and its corresponding surd are the hard and soft forms of
the same sound. The following table contains also simple consonant
sounds represented by two letters:
Sonant Surd
    b p
    d t
    v f
    g (hard) k
    j ch
    z s
    th (in thine) th (in thin)
    zh (or z as in azure) sh
    r h

If we go down this list from the top to the bottom, we see that b is the most closed sound, while h is the most slight and open, and the others are graded in between (though not precisely as arranged above). These distinctions are important, because in making combinations of consonants in the same syllable or in successive syllables we cannot pass abruptly from a closed sound to an open sound, or the reverse, nor from a surd sound to a sonant, or the reverse. L, m, n, and r are called liquids, and easily combine with other consonants; and so do the sibilants (s, z, etc.). In the growth of the language, many changes have been made in letters to secure harmony of sound (as changing b to p in sub-port——support, and s, to f in differ?from dis and fero). Some combinations are not possible of pronunciation, others are not natural or easy; and hence the alterations. The student of the language must know how words are built; and then when he comes to a strange word he can reconstruct it for himself. While the short, common words may be irregular, the long, strange words are almost always formed quite regularly.

Most of the sonants have but one sound, and none of them has more than three sounds. The most important variations are as follows:

C and G have each a soft sound and a hard sound. The soft sound of c is the same as s, and the hard sound the same as k. The soft sound of g is the same as j, and the hard sound is the true sound of g as heard in gone, bug, struggle.

Important Rule. C and G are soft before e, i, and y, and hard before all the other vowels, before all the other consonants, and at the end of words.

The chief exceptions to this rule are a few common words in which g is hard before e or i. They include?give, get, gill, gimlet, girl, gibberish, gelding, gerrymander, gewgaw, geyser, giddy, gibbon, gift, gig, giggle, gild, gimp, gingham, gird, girt, girth, eager, and begin. G is soft before a consonant in judgment{,} lodgment, acknowledgment, etc. Also in a few words from foreign languages c is soft before other vowels, though in such cases it should always be written with a cedilla (ç).

N when marked ñ in words from the Spanish language is pronounced n-y (cañon like canyon).

Ng has a peculiar nasal sound of its own, as heard in the syllable ing.

N alone also has the sound of ng sometimes before g and k, as in angle, ankle, single, etc. (pronounced ang-gle, ang-kle, sing-gle).

Ph has the sound of f, as in prophet.

Th has two sounds, a hard sound as in the, than, bathe, scythe, etc., and a soft sound as in thin, kith, bath, Smith, etc. Contrast breathe and breath, lath and lathe; and bath and baths, lath andlaths, etc.

S has two sounds, one its own sound, as in sin, kiss, fist (the same as c in lace, rice, etc.), and the sound of z, as in rise (contrast with rice), is, baths, men's, etc.

X has two common sounds, one that of ks as in box, six, etc., and the other the sound of gs, as in exact, exaggerate (by the way, the first g in this word is silent). At the beginning of a word x has the sound of z as in Xerxes.

Ch has three sounds, as heard first in child, second in machine, and third in character. The first is peculiar to itself, the second is that of sh, and the third that of k.

The sound of sh is variously represented:

by sh{,} as in share, shift, shirt, etc.

by ti, as in condition, mention, sanction, etc.

by si, as in tension, suspension, extension, etc.

by ci, as in suspicion. (Also, crucifixion.)

The kindred sound of zh is represented by z as in azure, and s as in pleasure, and by some combinations.

Y is always a consonant at the beginning of a word when followed by a vowel, as in yet, year, yell, etc.; but if followed by a consonant it is a vowel, as in Ypsilanti. At the end of a word it is {al}ways a vowel, as in all words ending in the syllable ly.

Exercises. It is very important that the student should master the sounds of the language and the symbols for them, or the diacritical marks, for several reasons:

First, because it is impossible to find out the true pronunciation of a word from the dictionary unless one clearly understands the meaning of the principal marks;

Second, because one of the essentials in accurate pronunciation and good spelling is the habit of analyzing the sounds which compose words, and training the ear to detect slight variations;

Third, because a thorough knowledge of the sounds and their natural symbols is the first step toward a study of the principles governing word formation, or spelling and pronunciation.

For purposes of instruction through correspondence or by means of a textbook, the diacritical marks representing distinct sounds of the language afford a substitute for the voice in dictation and similar exercises, and hence such work requires a mastery of what might at first sight seem a purely mechanical and useless system.

One of the best exercises for the mastery of this system is to open the unabridged dictionary at any point and copy out lists of words, writing the words as they ordinarily appear in one column, and in an adjoining column the phonetic form of the word. When the list is complete, cover one column and reproduce the other from an application of the principles that have been learned. After a few days, reproduce the phonetic forms from the words as ordinarily written, and again the ordinary word from the phonetic form. Avoid memorizing as much as possible, but work solely by the application of principles. Never write down a phonetic form without fully understanding its meaning in every detail. A key to the various marks will be found at the bottom of every page of the dictionary, and the student should refer to this frequently. In the front part of the dictionary there will also be found an explanation of all possible sounds that any letter may have; and every sound that any letter may have may be indicated by a peculiar mark, so that since several letters may represent the same sound there are a variety of symbols for the same sound. For the purposes of this book it has seemed best to offer only one symbol for each sound, and that symbol the one most frequently used. For that reason the following example will not correspond precisely with the forms given in the dictionary, but a study of the differences will afford a valuable exercise.


*In this exercise, vowels before r marked in webster with the double curve used over the Spanish n, are left unmarked. Double o with the short sound is also left unmarked.

  The first place that I can well remember was a large,
  The first plas that I kan wel remember woz a lärj,

pleasant meadow with a pond of clear water in it. Some ples′nt medo with a pond ov kler woter in it. Sum

shady trees leaned over it, and rushes and water-lilies shadi trez lend over it, and rushez and woter-liliz

grew at the deep end. Over the hedge on one side we looked gru at the dep end. Over the hej on wun sid we lookt

into a plowed field, and on the other we looked over a intoo a plowd feld{,} and on the other we lookt over a

gate at our master's house, which stood by the roadside. gat at owr master'z hows, hwich stood bi the rodsid.

At the top of the meadow was a grove of fir-trees, and at
At the top ov the medo woz a grov ov fir-trez, and at

the bottom a running brook overhung by a steep bank. the bot′m a runing brook overhung bi a step bank.

  Whilst I was young I lived upon my mother's milk, as I could
  Hwilst I woz yung I livd upon mi muther'z milk, az I kood

not eat grass. In the daytime I ran by her side, and at night not et gras. In the datim I ran bi her sid, and at nit

I lay down close by her. When it was hot we used to stand
I la down klos bi her. Hwen it woz hot we uzd too stand

by the pond in the shade of the trees, and when it was cold bi the pond in the shad ov the trez, and hwen it woz kold

we had a nice, warm shed near the grove. we had a nis, wawrm shed ner the grov.

Note. In Webster's dictionary letters which are unmarked have an obscure sound often not unlike uh, or are silent, and letters printed in italics are nearly elided, so very slight is the sound they have if it can be said to exist at all. In the illustration above, all very obscure sounds have been replaced by the apostrophe, while no distinction has been made between short vowels in accented and unaccented syllables.

Studies from the Dictionary.

The following are taken from Webster's Dictionary:

Ab-dom′-i-nous: The a in ab is only a little shorter than a in at, and the i is short being unaccented, while the o is silent, the syllable having the sound nus as indicated by the mark over the u.

Less′en, (les′n), les′son, (les′sn), less′er, les′sor: Each of these words has two distinct syllables, though there is no recognizable vowel sound in the last syllables of the first two. This eliding of the vowel is shown by printing the e and the o of the final syllables in italics. In the last two words the vowels of the final syllables are not marked, but have nearly the sound they would have if marked in the usual way for e and o before r. As the syllables are not accented the vowel sound is slightly obscured. Or in lessor has the sound of the word or (nearly), not the sound of or inhonor, which will be found re-spelled (on′ur). It will be noted that the double s is divided in two of the words and not in the other two. In lesser and lessen all possible stress is placed on the first syllables, since the terminations have the least possible value in speaking; but in lesson and lessor we put a little more stress on the final syllables, due to the greater dignity of the letter o, and this draws over a part of the s sound.

Hon′-ey?comb (hun′y–kom): The heavy hyphen indicates that this is a compound word and the hyphen must always be written. The hyphens printed lightly in the dictionary merely serve to separate the syllables and show how a word may be divided at the end of a line. The student will also note that the o in -comb has its full long value instead of being slighted. This slight added stress on the o is the way we have in speaking of indicating that -comb was once a word by itself, with an accent of its own.

Exercise. Select other words from the dictionary, and analyse as we have done above, giving some explanation for every peculiarity found in the printing and marks. Continue this until there is no doubt or hesitation in regard to the meaning of any mark that may be found.