Masaryk University Faculty of Arts

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2.1. Segmental level

2.1.1. Vowels

In English there is a large number of vowels. The term covers monophtongs, which are pure vowels, as well as diphthongs, which are gliding vowels (Pavlík, 2000, p. 61). English has twelve (relatively) pure vowels which can be, according to Roach (1991), divided into short and long monophtongs (pp. 14, 18):

Short monophtongs:

ɪ as in pit

e as in pet

æ as in bad

ɒ as in not

ʊ as in put

ʌ as in bus

ə as in ago

Long monophtongs:

iː as in see

uː as in too

ɑː as in car

ɔː as in door

ɜː as in word

However, these are only relatively short and relatively long vowels as “the length of all English vowel sounds varies very much according to context (such as the type of sound that follows them) and the presence or absence of stress“ (Roach, 1991, p. 18). Nevertheless, it is practical to divide the vowels in this manner to see certain phonetic and phonological relationships between them (Pavlík, 2000, 65):

sit – seat / ɪ - i: /

cut – cart / ʌ - ɑ: /

full – fool / ʊ - u: /

don – dawn / ɒ - ɔ: /

for (weak form) – fur / ə - ɜ: /

bet – bat / e – æ /

Pavlík (2000) states, “Special attention should be paid to the sound /æ/ which compared to the length of the rest of English vowels, is sometimes classified as neutral, that is, neither short nor long” (p. 65). The sound will be analysed more in detail later as well as sound /ə/ which occurs only in unaccented syllables (Gimson, 2008, p. 92).

As already mentioned the length characteristic of vowels in English very much depends on the sound that directly follows the vowel. If the following sound is a voiceless consonant (/ p, t, k, , f, θ, s, ʃ /) the quantity of the preceding vowel is shortened, like in the word cat /kæt/ the vowel /æ/ is short and curt. On the contrary, if vowel is placed before a voiced consonant (/ b, d, g, dʒ, v, ð, z, ʒ, m, n, ŋ, l /) its length does not get shorter and it sounds distinctly longer, like in a word bad /bæd/ (Melen, 2010, p. 14). This means that short vowel followed by voiced consonant gets the same length as has long vowel before voiceless consonant. Because of this dependence of the quantity on the neighbouring sounds, the attribute cannot serve as a primary distinguishing characteristic of the vowels (Skaličková, 1974, pp. 12-13).

English has eight diphthongs, sounds which involve movement or glide between two vowels (Roach, 1991, p. 20). According to their endings they can be divided into three groups (Gimson, 2008, p. 92):

Those with glide to /ɪ/ eɪ aɪ ɔɪ

Those with glide to /ʊ/ əʊ ɑʊ

Those with glide to /ə/ ɪə eə ʊə

When the length is taken into consideration, diphthongs can be assigned as long vowels. Roach (1991) claims that:

Perhaps the most important thing to remember about all the diphthongs is that the first part is much longer and stronger than the second part; for example, most of the diphthong aɪ (as in the words ‘eye’, ‘I’) consists of the a vowel, and only in about the last quarter of the diphthong does the glide to ɪ become noticeable. As the glide to ɪ happens, the loudness of the sound decreases. As a result, the ɪ part is shorter and quieter. Foreign learners must, therefore, always remember that the last part of English diphthongs must not be made too strongly. (p. 20) Vowel /æ/

The sound /æ/ is a very specific sound of English phonetic system. It does not appear in Czech or Russian language, the two of Slavic languages involved in the thesis, and only similar form of the sound can be found in Slovak language, yet it is very rarely used. That is why it can make difficulties to the foreign learners, and so it is important to look at the vowel in more details.

Because of the raising of the front part of the tongue when æ is pronounced, the sound is an open front vowel. The description of the vowel according to Gimson (2008) is:

The mouth is more open than for /e/; the front of the tongue is raised to a position midway just above open, with the side rims making a very slight contact with the back upper molars; the lips are neutrally open. (p. 112)
The English /æ/ has always been considered to be a ‘short’ vowel. However, besides some of the features of the short vowels, it also shows some attributes of long vowels. For instance, just as the other short vowels, it cannot take a final position and it occurs before /ŋ/. On the other hand, similarly as the long vowels, it is not included as an element in the gliding vowels or diphthongs and its quantitative attributes classify it more as the long vowels (Skaličková, 1974, p. 30). According to Gimson (2008), “The length of the vowel /æ/ varies considerably and is often almost as long as that of the long vowels” (p. 92). He also states, “Such lengthening is particularly apparent before voiced consonants, e.g. in cab, bad, bag, badge, man; /æ/ in these contexts is almost equivalent to the long vowels, so badge /bædʒ/ and barge /bɑːdʒ/ have vowels of similar length” (Gimson, 2008, p. 113). He argues that “length is dependent on individual speakers usage, on the context, and on the characteristic pronunciation of particular words” (Gimson, 2008, p. 92). Vowel /ə/

From the frequency point of view, the mixed vowel /ə/ or schwa is the most common sound in English (Melen, 2010, p. 20). As Gimson (2008) and Skaličková (1974) state in their works it is a very typical vowel of English unaccented syllables and both of them define it as a central vowel with neutral lip position (p. 132; p. 40). However, pronunciation of schwa in various words is not exactly the same. Gimson (2008) discusses two main variations of the articulation of schwa. The first one is in non-final positions, as in the words ɑlone or afterwɑrds, which means raising of the tongue between open-mid and close-mid. The other one is in final positions, as in the words mother or doctor, where “the vowel may be articulated in the open-mid central position. The acoustic formants of /ə/ are, therefore, likely to be similar to those for /ɜ:/ or /ʌ/ according to the situation” (p. 132). Skaličková (1974) describes the feature as the light a-ish timber: sofa [ˈsəʊfə] (p. 40).

The schwa sound is often used in unstressed grammar words such as articles and prepositions: the, for, from, above... It can also replace any vowel sound if a syllable which includes the vowel becomes unstressed (Skaličková, 1974, p. 41). For example in the word ‘man’ the letter ‘a’ is pronounced with its full sound /æ/ but in the word ‘fireman’ the syllable ‘man’ is not stressed and the /æ/ sound is replaced by schwa.

2.1.2. Consonants

In English we can find 24 consonantal units. Consonants are generally defined by their positions in syllables as the units that form the edges of the syllables (Melen, 2010, p. 27). Besides that, in most of the realizations, articulation of consonants is accompanied by formation of obstructions of the airstream caused by closure or narrowing of the vocal tract, resulting in production of a noise component (Gimson, 2008, p. 157; Melen, 2010, p. 27). When investigating consonants in more detail, the question of defining the consonantal sounds proves to be not so clear. For example, although the sound /h/ does not block the airstream more than some vowels do, it ranks among the consonants. Another more complex units are the sounds /j/ and /w/ which are formed in a similar way as vowels and are sometimes called semi-vowels, and /r, l, m, n, ŋ/ which can have sonant quality typical of vowels (Melen, 2010, p. 27). However, the thesis does not follow up all these issues. Similarly, as in the section on vowels, the consonants with their main aspects are briefly introduced and only few sounds are examined in detail. These are the sounds that do not exist in the phonetic systems of Czech, Russian and Slovak languages and may be difficult to learn and put into practical use.

Consonants are usually distinguished by the place and manner of their articulation as it is shown in the table below:

Table 1: The distinctive consonants of English







p, b




f, v


θ, ð


t, d

s, z






tʃ, dʒ

ʃ, ʒ









Source: Gimson (2008, p. 157)

Based on their sonority they can be classified into voiced and voiceless consonants (Melen, 2010, p. 28). The tables below show the review of the consonants and examples of words which they occur in:

Table 2a and 2b: The review of voiced and voiceless consonants



































































































However, the sonority of the voiced consonants can be very weak. Especially in initial and final position it is scarcely audible at all. Thus some phoneticians suggest using the terms lenis and fortis which regard more the aspect of the articulatory strength. Lenis with the meaning ‘weak’ is used for voiced consonants since they are produced with less articulatory energy and last shorter. Voiceless consonants are then called fortis which means ‘strong’ because they last longer and more force is needed for their production (Roach, 1991, p. 33).

Particular attention should be also paid to the aspect of aspiration. Aspiration happens where /p, t, k/ are in initial position of a syllable and especially in accented syllables followed by a vowel (Gimson, 2008, p. 161). Pavlík (2000) defines it as “an additional puff of air (audible release of breath) accompanying a sounds articulation” (p. 88). Missing aspiration can change the meaning of the word since it is a main feature that distinguishes voiceless plosives from the voiced ones (Pavlík, 2000, p. 88). If for example a word pet is pronounced without aspiration, that is [pet] instead of [phet], the initial plosive may not be correctly recognised, and the word will more likely sound like bet. The most conspicuous aspiration occurs with /k/, and the weakest with /p/ (Melen, 2010, p. 30). The aspiration also operates when /p, t, k/ are followed by /l, r, j, w/, by the devoicing of /l, r, j, w/ such as in the words try, class, crab compared with dry, glass, grab (Gimson, 2008, p. 162). On the other hand, voiceless plosives lose the aspiration when they follow /s/ in a stressed position, e.g. in stay, sky, speak (Pavlík, 2000, p. 88).

It is important to observe that even though the voiced or lenis consonants lose their voicing when they stand in final position, they do not become completely voiceless and cannot be pronounced as their voiceless pairs. As Gimson (2008) explains the reason is shortening of vowels before voiceless consonants while keeping the full length of vowels preceding the voiced consonants, so for example, the /ʌ/ of bug is longer compared with the same vowel in buck (p. 162). English voiced /ð/ and voiceless /θ/

Both of these sounds are formed in a following way, described by Gimson (2008):

The soft palate being raised and the nasal resonator shut off, the tip and rims of the tongue make a light contact with the edge and inner surface of the upper incisors and a firmer contact with the upper side teeth, so that the air escaping between the forward surface of the tongue and the incisors causes friction (such friction often being very weak in the case of /ð/). (p. 195)
Skaličková (1974) in her work states that there are textbooks which describe formation of /ð/ and /θ/ as interdental (p. 99) which means that the position of tip of the tongue is in between the teeth. However, Roach (1991) claims it is a way of teachers to teach their students to make the sound (p. 49). Correctly the tongue should be placed behind the teeth (Melen, 2010, p. 34). The lip position varies a little according to the adjacent vowel. For example, for the word thief the lip is spread but for the word truth it is more rounded (Gimson, 2008, p. 195).

The sound /θ/ is voiceless, longer and shortens the preceding vowel; /ð/ is voiced, shorter and does not shorten the preceding vowel (Melen, 2010, p. 35). The spelling of the two dental fricatives is always th. The rules for pronouncing /ð/ or /θ/ when th occurs in a word are a bit complex. Here are a few examples which Melen (2010) gives in his work (p. 35):

Table 3: Pronunciation of /ð/ or /θ/ when th occurs



TH word-initial

In grammar words such as the articles, pronouns, conjunctions: the, this, that, than, though

In the other cases:

think, thumb, thought

TH word-medial

In the words of Germanic origin:

father, brother, gather

In the words of non Germanic origin: method, author, sympathy

TH word-final

When there is ‘e’ written at the end:

bathe, clothe

Most frequently in verbs:

to mouth, smooth, bequeath

In some other words:

path, cloth, fourth /w/

The sound /w/ does not occur in any of the three Slavic languages and its pronunciation should be examined to prevent replacing it with simple /v/ which is familiar to all three languages. In English there is a huge difference between /w/ and /v/. They are completely different sounds and interchanging them might alter the whole meaning of a word. For example, pronunciation of the word wet with /v/ at the beginning would result in substitution of the word for vet.

/w/ has common relations with the u-ish articulations and as it was already mentioned before /w/ is sometimes classified as semivowel (Skaličková, 1974, p. 95). In the initial phase of /w/ the lips are strongly rounded similarly as when /u:/ is pronounced. Characteristic of this sound is its final stage which makes the basic difference and that is when the lips come loose and at the same time the switch to the first phase of the following vowel is realised. /w/ is produced with both lips, so it is a bilabial articulation in contrast to labiodental /v/ (Melen, 2010, p. 35). /ŋ/

Although the sound /ŋ/ is not completely unknown to the three Slavic languages, in neither of them it exists as a separate phoneme (Skali

ková, 1974, p. 115). The production of /ŋ/ in Gimsons (2008) description is similar to /k, g/ when by touching the velum by the back of the tongue a closure is formed. The soft palate is lowered, allowing the air to escape through the nasal cavity. The lip position varies depending on the preceding vowel. Apart from a few cases of devoicing, /ŋ/ bears an attribute of voiced consonant (p. 212).

/ŋ/ does not occur in initial positions but medial and final positions are frequent. In those two latter positions /ŋ/ is sometimes pronounced with a plosive following it and sometimes without it. Words including written ‘nk’ such as ankle, sink or thinker are pronounced with /ŋk/. However, it gets more complicated with words containing the letters ‘ng’. When ‘ng’ occurs in the final position it is pronounced as /ŋ/ without /g/ at the end of the word: tongue - [tʌŋ], long - [lɒŋ], sing - [sɪŋ], etc. (Roach, 1991, pp. 57-58). Medially Roach (1991) distinguishes a few basic rules according to which ‘ng’ is pronounced as (p. 57):

  1. /ŋg/ if it occurs inside of a morpheme, which means that the word is grammatically further indivisible as in the words finger, hunger

  2. /ŋg/ in the comparative and superlative forms of the adjectives such as in longer, longest, stronger, strongest

  3. /ŋ/ if the word can be grammatically divided so that /ŋ/ is found at the end of a morpheme for instance in a word singer

Skaličková in her work adds another case of ‘ng’ or ‘nk’ occurring in a word. She states that if a prefix con- appears before /k, g/, its pronunciation depends on the stress position in the word. If the stress is on the syllable which follows the prefix, pronunciation is usually with alveolar /n/ as in a word congratulate - [kənˈgrætjʊˌleɪt], but if the syllable following the prefix is unstressed, the prefix is usually pronounced as /ŋ + k,g/ such as in a word congress [ˈkɒŋgres] (Skaličková, 1974, p. 116).

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