American English Pronunciation: Basic Vowel and Consonant Rules
Whether you are a native English speaker, or studying English as a second language, there is always room to brush up on your English pronunciation. Some speakers may find it a little difficult to conquer the correct American English pronunciation, especially if you have been trained in the distinctly different British English. America is a very large country, and as a result, there are dozens of different dialects across many different areas. This can lead to some confusion as to which way is the “right” way to pronounce certain words.
Regardless of regional accent, there are several key points to remember and practice when taking on the task of perfecting your American English pronunciation. What I have assembled here is a list of some of the most important (and also most tricky) vowel and consonant sounds particular to the American accent. Going over these rules, and practicing the sounds will help you sound more like a native speaker. Let’s begin…
Vowel Sound Sets
- Long Vowels: These sounds are often the easiest for non native English speakers to pronounce, because they are the same as their letter name. A, E, I, O, and U are the five vowel sounds in the English spelling system, and each has its own corresponding long form vowel sound.
Some examples of these sounds can be heard in the words “Say”, “He”, “Liar”, “Show” and “Use”.
- Short Vowels: It is important to remember that the term short does not refer to the length of time a vowel sound is held or said aloud. Rather, it is a label used to differentiate these sounds from long vowel sounds. The short vowel sounds are the sounds which occur when A, E, I, O, or U are used in a word with no silent E at the end. It can also be used if the vowel shows up alone between two consonants. These sounds are often more challenging for non native English speakers because they are more subtle than their long counterparts.
Examples of words with short vowel sounds are “Bat”, “Jest”, “Stick”, “Cop”, and “Sun”
- Other Vowels: There are five vowel sounds in American English which do not fit into either long or short sounds. They are therefore given their own category known as “other vowel sounds” to differentiate them further. These can also be somewhat difficult for non native speakers, as they are very close to short vowel sounds.
They are the “other u” (as in the word “put”), the “oo sound” (as in the word “spoon”), the “aw sound” (as in the word “dog”), the “oi sound” (as in the word coin), and the “ow sound” (as in the word “down”)
- Approximant Sounds: There are four sounds in American English which make up the approximants. They are “L”, “R”, “W”, and “Y”. The reason these sounds are set apart from other sounds is because they are neither fully open sounds like a vowel, nor are they stopped sounds with lips closed. It may be helpful to think of these as gliding sounds where the vocal track is constricted tightly, but still letting sounds through. They are:“L” as in “lot” – To achieve this sound, the tip of the tongue must be pressed to the upper front teeth, however sound is still able to pass freely around either side of the tongue, creating that distinct “L” sound.“R” as in “rip” – This sound calls for the back of the tongue to be bunched up and lifted slightly. The sides of the tongue should be touching the back teeth, as the “R” sound glides through.“W” as in “we” – For this sound, the lips are drawn into a tight circle (similar to when making the “oo” sound), and the back of the tongue is lifted to let the sound pass.
“Y” as in “yes” – Somewhat similar to the long E, this sound requires that the blade of the tongue be pressed tightly against the lower front teeth. Lips are pressed outward slightly at the corners.
- Stopped Sounds: Often referred to as just “stops”, these require that the sound be stopped at the beginning, followed by a puff of air to finish the sound. That puff of air is called the “aspiration”, and its subtlety can sometimes be a sticking point for American English learners. There are two kinds of stops called either “voiced” or “voiceless”.
- Voiced Stops: For these sounds, the puff of air released is slightly less noticeable than in voiceless stops. These sounds consist of “B” as in the word “boy”, “D” as in the word “do”, and “G” as in the word “go”. Each time, you will notice that these consonants form a hard sound, causing the air to stop flowing for a brief moment, however there is still a sound issuing along with the following puff of air. That sound is what gives these stops their “voice”.
- Voiceless Stops: Sometimes also called “unvoiced stops”, these sounds do not have any pronunciation associated with the aspiration which occurs after the stop. These sounds are “K” as in “kick”, “P” as in “pet”, and “T” as in “time”. In each of these cases, the puff of air is more noticeable than in voiced stops, because that air makes up a large portion of the sound itself.
- More Information on Stops: In the cases of the sounds “B” and “P”, the lips close completely to stop the sound. For the sounds “G” and “K”, the sound is stopped when the back of the tongue makes contact with the roof of the mouth. For the “D” and “T” sounds, the sound is stopped by touching the tip of the tongue to the back of the upper front teeth.
When speaking English, the syllables follow a rhythm of soft beats. A stressed syllable would be the parts of that rhythm which are emphasized to create the beat. Syllables come in three forms – stressed, unstressed, and secondarily stressed.
- Stressed Syllables: In mulch-syllabic words, there will be a single syllable within that word which is more emphasized than the others. We refer to that syllable as the stressed syllable. The vowel sound within the syllable being stressed is often pronounced louder and for slightly longer than the other sounds. It is also sometimes given a higher pitch. In the case of the word “Birthday”, the first syllable is stressed, making the pronunciation look a little more like this: “BIRTHday”
- Unstressed Syllables: These are the sounds often appearing after a stressed syllable. They are often not pronounced phonetically, and can sometimes even have a more neutral vowel sound (sometimes referred to as a “schwa”). In the word “Table”, the second syllable is unstressed, following the more emphasized “TA” part of the word.
- Secondarily Stressed Syllables: These are syllables which have more emphasis than unstressed syllables, but not as much as stressed syllables. They fall somewhere in the middle, and often occur two beats off of a stressed syllable. For example, in the word “organization”, the main stress actually falls on the fourth syllable, but there is also a slight emphasis placed on the first syllable. That first syllable would be an example of secondary stress.
English is sometimes referred to as a difficult language to learn, but don’t let that intimidate you. There are always great courses available at Udemy.com to help you learn. Check out “How to Speak Like an American” to get you started!
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