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The Sound-Letter Distinction In English — Ganiu Bamgbose, PhD




English, Sound-Letter Distinction

Unlike many Nigerian languages, there is a sound-letter distinction between English letters and sounds. The English letters are 26, while the sounds are 44.

Anyone who hopes to perform excellently at the level of articulation must, thus, have the sounds at his/her fingertips. It should be mentioned that the structural difference between letters and sounds is that sounds are put in between slashes. There are sounds which do not exist as letters and vice versa. At other times, a letter generates more than one sound. For example, the letter c is capable of generating at least four English sounds. In the word, ‘cell’, it has the voiceless consonant /s/; in ‘cake’, it has the unvoiced /k/ sound; in the word shoe, it has the /ʃ/ sound, which is regarded as an unvoiced fricative; and in church, it has the /tʃ/ sound.

A letter, too, may consist of more than one sound, as seen in ‘x’, which is transcribed as three different sounds thus: /eks/. It is, therefore, instructive to know that while we see letters with our eyes, we process the sounds in our heads.

The Sound-Letter Distinction In English

More fascinatingly, a letter may not have its sound equivalent in a word, as much as a sound may not generate its letter equivalent. For example, the letter ‘w’ is present in the words ‘vow’, ‘vowel’, ‘towel’ and ‘tower’, whereas the sound /w/ is not articulated in those words. On the other hand, the sound /w/ is present in words like ‘one’, ‘queen’ and ‘linguist’, regardless of the fact that the letter ‘w’ is conspicuously missing. With that being said, this treatise will concentrate on some wrongly pronounced words in English, no thanks to the fallacy of letters.

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To begin with, a number of English words containing letter s have the /z/ sound. Classical examples of words in the foregoing circumstance are: has, visa, Moses, physical, deposit, Joseph, pause, resounding, resident, cosmetic, positive, cause, was, visitor, president, advise, nose, those, rose, news, ways, tells, please and many others. Furthermore, the /z/ sound is also found in words with letter ‘x’, as in exist /igzist/ and exam /igzam/. Funnily enough, there are some words that many a Nigerian misarticulates with the voiced consonant /z/, instead of the unvoiced consonant /s/. For instance, the chances are that a Nigerian who has not acquainted himself or herself with the ins and outs of phonetics will pronounce basic as /bei-zik/, whereas the appropriate enunciation is /bei-sik/. In the same breath, you are highly likely to hear such a person enunciate ‘kerosene’ as /ke-ro-zin/, instead of the apt version, /ker-uh-sin/. Having taken that into account, you should equally make mental note of the fact that letter ‘s’ should not be articulated in words such as corps, bourgeois, isle, debris and rendezvous. This brings us to a phenomenon in English phonetics called an aphthong. Aphthongs are letters or groups of letters that ought not to be vocalised in the course of pronouncing words.

For specifics, the ‘u’ in ‘build’ and ‘guilt’ is utterly silent; hence, the pronunciation /bild/ and /gilt/, respectively. In furtherance of that, the letter b in comb, tomb, climb, subtle, debtor, plumber, succumb and crumb, among a cocktail of other words, should not be vocalised.

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Next to that, ‘honour’, ‘honest’, ‘hour’ and ‘heir’ are quintessential examples of words that have the letter h but do not have the sound /h/. For good measure, it is about time you ceased to pronounce ‘apostle’ as /apostl/. Instead, simply dispense with /t/ and say /aposl/.

Other prime examples of words with the silent ‘t’ are Christmas, fasten, soften, nestle, chasten, mortgage, chestnut (only the first t is silent), rapport and so forth. To reinforce everything that has been mentioned in the foregoing regard, the ‘d’ in ‘Wednesday’ /wenz-dei/, the ‘l’ in almond /a-muhnd/, and the ‘p’ in ‘receipt’ /risit/ are silent. Meanwhile, it is essential to state that in few foreign words, especially those of Italian origin, those with the letter z are produced with the /s/ sound. Some of such words are: mezzo /met-so/, mozzarella /mot-suhrel-uh/, paparazzi /pa-pa-rat-si/ and pizza /pit-suh/.

This treatise has established that the letters of English cannot always serve as the parameter for the articulation of words. Therefore, it is of crucial importance to confirm the pronunciation of words, including their British and American variants, from reliable dictionaries like the Cambridge Advanced Learner’s Dictionary, through transcriptions or vocalisation.


© 2021 Ganiu Abisoye Bamgbose
Department of English,
Lagos State University

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