Appendix 1:

The sound system of English

            This appendix is about sounds and their spellings.  Regardless of what level and what students a teacher is dealing with,  a minimum basic understanding of the sound system of English and its connection to the English spelling system is necessary in order to provide some understanding of the problems and difficulties our students face.   This appendix attempts to provide that minimum, but without including much that does not relate directly or indirectly to a teacher's needs.  

The sound system 

             Certainly, there is a relationship between the English sound system and the English spelling system.  However, the relationship between sound and spelling is neither straightforward nor obvious.  If it were,  many of us would spell more accurately than we do.  What is obvious is that the sounds of English are not the same as the letters of English.  

Note:  Although it is obvious in an intellectual sense that sounds and letters are not the same thing,  most students working through this appendix will on occasion make errors through mistaking sounds for letters. 

            The patterning found in the sound system of English is a reflection of  the physiology of the vocal tract.  The patterns of the English sound system  make sense in terms of how sounds are made (and, particularly, for vowels, how sounds are perceived). 

            The basic principle involved is modification of the air flow.  When making a sound air moves through the vocal cords in larynx, through the throat, and on out through the mouth or nose.  As it moves,  the air flow is modified through vibrating the vocal cords, by opening (or not opening) the velum to let part of the flow go out through the nose, and by constricting the air flow partially or completely in the mouth.

            Once the English sound system is understood,  it becomes easier to make sense out of the spelling system of English and it becomes possible to make some sense out of the problems all students have learning to spell and out of the problems speakers of other languages have in learning to pronounce English.   


            In this book, sounds are always found transcribed (not spelled!) between two slashes.  For example,  the four sounds  of the word things  would be transcribed between two slashes as /QINz/.   The six letters of the spelling things  do not correspond one-to-one to the four sounds in the word;  in the transcription /QINz/, each symbol corresponds to one sound.   

            A transcription is a representation of sounds—not an alternate spelling system.   Transcriptions are done by listening to the sounds in a word.  Not all of the letters in certain words correspond to sounds; some letters indicate not sounds but information about the word formation system.

            Note 1: Sometimes students try to "transcribe" not by listening and writing down symbols for the sounds but by looking at the spelling and writing down symbols for the letters.    This writing one symbol for another symbol is not a transcription nor does it produce the right answer. 

            Note 2: The process of writing a letter in one language for a letter in another language is called transliteration.   Something written in the Greek alphabet could be transliterated into the English alphabet by replacing each one of the Greek letters by one of the letters of the English alphabet.  Notice this process has no direct connection with the sounds of either language.

Minimal pairs

            Minimal pairs  are pairs of words which are nearly identical in sound, having only one sound contrast between them.   Thus, Pete /piyt/ and pit /pIt/ are minimal pairs not because of the spellings but because of the sounds (shown in the transcriptions).   Notice that the contrast in sounds between the two words is carried in the difference between the vowels /iy/ and /I/.

I. Consonants

II. Vowels

III. Mary Haas's transcription

IV. Classroom Applications