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Articulating English Sounds In Contexts



English Sounds

One of the things that make the learning of English sounds and the articulation of many words difficult is the fact that there is no one-to-one correspondence of sounds and letters in English.

Fascinatingly, having a letter does not necessitate having the sound it represents. For instance, on the one hand, the orthographic ‘w’ in vowel, towel, tower, bowel and many other similar words make many second-language users of English pronounce the words with the sound /w/; whereas the sound /w/ does not feature at all in all of these words, as the transcriptions below show:
Vowel /ˈvaʊəl/
Towel /ˈtaʊəl/
Tower /ˈtaʊə/

On the other hand, careful articulation of words such as ‘one’, ‘queen’ and ‘linguist’ would reveal the presence of /w/, even without the orthographic ‘w’. Beyond this direct sound-letter distinction, which had been rigorously discussed in a previous treatise, I shall concentrate on the articulation of inflections and consonant clusters in this piece.
Inflections are additions to the forms of words that reflect grammatical changes. The ‘s’ added to a noun, which reflects plurality (boys); the ‘d’ added to a verb, which reflects the past tense and the past participial form (danced); and the ‘er’ added to an adjective, which reflects comparison (taller), are examples of inflection. This piece will provide a guide on how the inflections in nouns and verbs should be pronounced, with a view to achieving appropriate articulation of words in context. Sounds are mainly divided into vowels and consonants. While all vowel sounds are said to be voiced sounds because they are articulated with prominence, consonants are either voiced or voiceless. Some of the voiceless consonants are /p/, /t/, /f/, /s/, and their voiced counterparts are /b/, /d/, /v/, /z/ respectively.

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In relation to nouns, singular nouns that end in voiceless consonants have their ‘–s’ inflection pronounced as /s/, whereas the ones that end in voiced consonants or vowels have their ‘–s’ inflection realised as /z/. This is indicated below with example words and their transcriptions:
Taps /taps/
Herbs /həːbz/
Rocks /rɒks/
Loads /ləʊdz/
Rats /rats/
Boys /bɔɪz/
Cars /kɑːz/
Cows /kaʊz/

The first set of words are those that end in voiceless consonants before the addition of inflexions and whose inflexions are realised as /s/, while the other set has words that end in voiced consonants and vowels, and whose inflections are realised as /z/. Moving on, when nouns end in hissing sounds such as /s/, /ts/, /sh/, which are technically called sibilant sounds, the ‘es’ inflection is articulated as /ɪz/ not /ɪs/. Example words and their transcriptions are shown below:
Classes /klɑːsɪz/
Clashes /klæʃɪz/
Churches /tʃɜːtʃɪz/
Watches /wɒtʃɪz/
Beaches /biːtʃɪz/

At the level of verbs, the ones that end in voiceless consonants have their past tense marker enunciated as /t/, while the ones that end in vowels or voiced consonants have their inflections realised as /d/, as exemplified below:
Slapped /slæpt/
bagged /bæɡd/
Worked /wɜːkt/
Kissed /kɪst/
Killed /kɪld/
Laughed /lɑːft/
Bowed /baʊd/
Cared /kɛəd/

Furthermore, when a verb ends in ‘t’ or ‘d’, the inflection is articulated as /ɪd/, not /ed/. Verbs in this category are:
Planted /plɑːntɪd/
Wanted /wɒntɪd/
Interested /ˈɪntrəstɪd/
Pleaded /pliːdɪd/
Offended /əˈfɛndɪd/
Waded / weɪdɪd/

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Articulating English Sounds In Contexts

The second aspect of this treatise will focus on consonant clusters. A consonant cluster encompasses the possibility of two or more consonant sounds occurring in immediate succession in a word. While it is easy to pronounce clusters when they are orthographically represented, as indicated with capital letters in words such as BRick, STRike and PRoMPTS, consonant clusters could be difficult to identify in words where they are not indicated by a letter.

Many Nigerian users of English flout the rule of clusters in three major ways because consonant clusters are not found in most Nigerian indigenous languages. The three major ways are omission, insertion and replacement. Omission happens when one of the two succeeding consonants in a word is dropped, as buttressed by the dropping of /k/ and /g/ in the following words: exam /ɪɡˈzæm/, exist /ɪɡˈzɪst/, accept /əkˈsept/, success /səkˈses/.

In insertion, a vowel sound is inserted within two succeeding consonants, as seen in the word written /ˈrɪtn/ which should not have /ɪ/ between /t/ and /n/. Another example is certain /sɜːtn/. Replacement occurs when one of the two consonants making the cluster is replaced with a vowel. A typical example is the word, bottle /ˈbɒtl/, where the final /l/ is replaced with the vowel /u/ by many second-language speakers.

This piece has discussed two major aspects of difficulty in spoken English, namely inflections and clusters. The aim is not to teach people to speak like natives of English but to help them speak fluently for the purpose of global intelligibility.

© 2021 Ganiu Abisoye Bamgbose (Dr GAB)
Department of English,
Lagos State University

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