The Speech Sounds that our Letters Represent
By: Autumn Bryant, M.A., CCC-SLP/L
Phonemes are the smallest meaningful units of speech. They are the sounds represented by the letters in our alphabet but not the letters themselves.
In English, the phoneme /f/ can be represented by letters "f," (as in "fish"), "ph" (as in "telephone"), or "gh" as in "cough"). No matter how we spell it, the sound to be produced in each of these words is /f/.
Because spelling varies, trained speech coaches and linguists represent these sounds using the International Phonetic Alphabet (IPA). IPA symbols are consistent across words and do not vary the way that spelling conventions do. Each symbol is representative of one phoneme, regardless of language or a word's dictionary spelling. (Click here to use an IPA keyboard).
Every language has it's own set of sounds. Some sounds are shared by various languages. Other sounds may be unique to a just a few languages. Though babies are born with the ability to detect the sounds of any language, as we learn our native language our ability to detect speech sounds not used in that language weakens.
A speech coach can help you re-train your ears to notice subtle differences between similar phonemes and train you on the three key elements of how to produce each speech sound.
PLACE - where you must place each of your articulators (parts of the mouth) to form the sound.
MANNER - how you must move your articulators to form the sound (e.g., a continuous stream of air, stopping the stream of air, open airway with no constriction, etc.).
VOICING - whether your vocal chords should be vibrating or not.
If any one of these three elements is changed, the sound will be affected. When these phonemes are produced within a word, some changes may not have an effect on the word's meaning. These changes are called "allophonic variations." We hear the difference, but it does not change the meaning. For example, in some asian languages /l/ and /r/ are interchangeable. They are allophones, so using one in place of the other will not change the meaning of the word. However, in English /l/ and /r/ are not allophones of each other. Using an /l/ sound in place of an /r/ sound or vice versa does change the meaning of a word (as in "lot" and "rot"). Because /l/ and /r/ are allophones in some languages, people who speak such languages may substitute these sounds for each other when speaking English without realizing that they have done so or without knowing how to produce them differently from each other. These substitutions can make their messages unclear or confusing to native English speakers and create communication breakdowns.
To produce phonemes accurately, speakers must use the correct place, manner, and voice for each one.
We use the placement of our articulators to form the vocal tract shapes necessary to produce each speech sound. Consonants sounds are those involving a point of contact between articulators. By contrast, vowels are phonemes that involve an open vocal tract.
Use the buttons on the sides of this page to view animations of the inside of the mouth as it changes shape to produce each phoneme - allowing you to see how the tongue, lips, teeth, jaw, uvula, and vocal folds must work together to produce each of the speech sounds of American English. (Animations from Tools for Clear Speech at Baruch College and anatomy is from Sounds of Speech at the University of Iowa). For convenience, each buttons shows a typical American English spelling that could be used to represent each sound, followed by the IPA symbol for each phoneme. The buttons are arranged in alphabetical order by conventional spellings. However, you should begin to familiarize yourself with the IPA symbols accompanying these spellings because while spellings vary from word to word, IPA symbols do not. You may now find IPA spellings for words listed in online dictionaries, such as Dictionary.com. Knowing these symbols will give you valuable information on how to pronounce words that you have looked up in an online dictionary.