Consonant and vowel phonemes

The speech chain

The speaker on R has idea “a short tree” → lexical lookup “bush” → string of 3 phonemes → pop + note + hiss Listener on L receives pop + note + hiss → /b, ʊ, ʃ / → Wernicke’s area → Wernicke’s area → “bush”

Vowels of Modern English

You only need to feel where your tongue is. Vowels are described as Open vs Close, Front vs Back. “ee” is front and close; “a” is front and; “o” is back and open; “oo” is back and close. All other vowels can be located in this quadrilateral space.

Infants recognise all their parents’ phonemes by 12 months, then lose interest. A vowel is like a trombone note.

Accents are mostly vowels

There are many English accents, but few have sufficiently different syntax to be called “a dialect”. The Birmingham accent is the same as London and RP, except for the “a” in “bath”. The New Zealand accent replaces “e” by “i”, which then forces the “i” to become “u”. Example “Phil says the weather will be wet and windy” becomes ” fʊl sɪz ðə ˈwɪðə wʊl biː wɪt ənd ˈwʌndiː”. The Scots accent has about six different vowels plus continuing “ch” and trilled “r”.

Comparison of English and Chinese consonants

Consonants are described by the Latin name of where the obstruction is. English has nine hisses (fricatives) and six pops (stops, plosives) and nine others. The column headings in the following table are places of articulation.

LabialDenti- alveolarRetroflexAlveolo- palatalVelarGlottal
Fricativef         fv  Θ                θv  s                   svʃ          ʃvh
Stopp       pv   t                   tvk         kv 
Affricate   ʧ                   ʧv  
Approximant    ɹ                l jw 
Nasalm   n  ŋ 
English  24 consonant phonemes

The /v/ notation above, meaning voiced, is not standard IPA. The place of articulation (i.e. the column headings above) is not exactly correct for English, so /f/ would be labio-dental in English. 

LabialDenti- alveolarRetroflexAlveolo- palatalVelar
Fricativefsʂ (ʐ)(ɕ)x~h
StopP        pʰt                 tʰk        kʰ
Affricatet͡s               t͡sʰʈ͡ʂ             ʈ͡ʂʰ(t͡ɕ)           (t͡ɕ)ʰ  
Nasalmn  ŋ
Mandarin 19 consonant phonemes

Those in brackets are sometimes not separate phonemes; they are alveolar-palatal consonants (pinyin j, q, x) standardly pronounced [t͡ɕ, t͡ɕʰ, ɕ]. Alveolo-palatals consist of a consonant followed by a palatal glide [j] or [ɥ]. Glides (or semivowels) are not included in the table above. Some Chinese vowels can also be viewed as approximants: /i, u, y/ may also be analysed as underlying glides; if so, there are two Chinese vowels, not six.

An English speaker needs to acquire aspiration as a contrastive feature. In “pin” the /pʰ/ is aspirated because it is in the onset of the syllable and the vowel is stressed. In “spy” the /p/ is unaspirated in the nucleus. Placing the hand in front of the mouth allows the breath to felt only in “pin”. These are allophones, but in Chinese [p] vs [pʰ] is contrastive.

The phoneme inventories seems to be the same in: three stops that are neither voiced nor aspirated /p t k/; three nasals /m n ŋ / (though I have had misunderstandings about “dinn(g)er”); one approximant /l/. If this is correct, 17 English consonant phonemes are not found in Chinese. Teaching Mandarin might contrast minimal pairs: aspirated vs unaspirated stops; and the six affricates.


In rapid speech 50% of vowels → schwa; h-dropping, -g dropping; loss of rhoticity; stop →  glottal. “Are you having a good time?”  ɑː jɪ avin ə ɡʊd taɪm?

Final consonants are essential in single syllable words; any elision gives phonemic error   

Stress and pitch

Stress is loudness + length + pitch. The basic Germanic word level pattern is {stress, un-} or {stressed, un- un-}

Loanwords from French are fitted into this template “I am student at Brussels University”

Sentence level stress is only to show speaker’s attitude, usually questioning; Liverpool, Australia may differ. Irony is conveyed by SLS.