Grammarbites part 7 – Pronunciation

Part 1 – introduction

Part 6 – sentence types

Part 5 – nouns

Part 2 – auxiliary and modal verbs

Part 3 – regular and irregular main verbs

this part goes in here

Part 4 – consonant clusters

1 – The basic sounds of English

Standard English uses 44 basic sounds (phonemes). They all occur in the following sentence:

Catching weary waterfowl on thin ice gives surly polar bears huge pleasure and ensures they enjoy good meat unharmed.

(This sentence was written by Richard Gunton and posted to the blog Literal Minded.)

meat; unharmed — on; thin; and; ensures; enjoy; unharmed — catching

polar — bears — waterfowl; meat — and; good; unharmedcatching — gives; good

catching — huge; enjoy

thin — they — waterfowl — gives — ice; surly — gives; bears; ensures — ensures — pleasure — huge; unharmed

weary; waterfowl — waterfowl; surly; polar; pleasure — weary — h(y)uge

catching; thin; gives — pleasure; ensures; enjoy — catching; and — unharmed — on — good — polar; pleasure

weary; surly; meat — surly — unharmed — waterfowl — huge

theyice — enjoy — weary — bears — ensures — waterfowl — polar

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“I ate Madonna for breakfast”

My college is around the corner from a branch of a well-known fast-food restaurant chain (no name, no free publicity, even though it’s perfectly obvious who I’m writing about). Several years ago, a student arrived in class and told us “I ate Madonna for breakfast”.

The pronunciation issue is consonant clusters. All languages have rules about what consonants and consonant clusters can occur at the beginning, in the middle or at the end of a word. Some languages allow none, some a very limited number and some many. English allows a moderately high number of consonant clusters, so most of my students speak languages which allow fewer.

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Fox in Socks – pronunciation and spelling





So begins Fox in Socks, by Dr Seuss (Theodore Seuss Geisel), a series of increasingly intricate tongue-twisters. Along the way, whether Seuss intended it to or not, it illustrates many points of English pronunciation and spelling.

Each of the words has four phonemes (distinct sounds) in pronunciation, represented by three, four or five letters in spelling, so immediately there is not a direct correspondence between sound and spelling. Each of the words starts with one consonant phoneme /f/, /s/, /b/ and /n/. The first three are represented by one letter, but the last is represented by two letters kn – the k is silent. It used to be pronounced but now it isn’t (long story). (In fact, the k is silent in all English words starting with kn.)

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The Axe of the Apostles

At church this morning (Easter Day), the first reading was from The Axe of the Apostles – sorry, The Acts of the Apostles. English allows final consonant clusters of two, three and four consonants, but almost everyone simplifies these in some way (natives speakers probably only the three- or four-consonant clusters; second language speakers/learners even two-syllable clusters. I have even noticed that some students tend to drop any consonant at the end of a word.). Acts = /ækts/. I suspect that most native English speakers reduce to this to /æks/ = axe most of the time, even in the very formal setting of a major historic parish church on Easter Day. (The reader was otherwise impeccably enounced.) Many second language speakers/learners, on the other hand, drop the s, especially if plural marking is optional or non-existent in their language and/or it does not allow many/any final consonant clusters and/or /s/ is not permitted at the end of those which are allowed.