52 phonemes of English?

Laurence Horn laurence.horn at YALE.EDU
Wed Nov 23 18:14:55 UTC 2011

On Nov 23, 2011, at 12:47 PM, James A. Landau <JJJRLandau at netscape.com> wrote:

> Learn the 52 sounds you need to speak English correctly
> On  Tue, 22 Nov 2011 15:26:34 +0000   (Tom, are you writing from London, England?)
> Tom Zurinskas <truespel at HOTMAIL.COM> initiated a Topic:
>> Are there 52 Phonemes of English?  I count 40.
>> http://www.englishclub.com/pronunciation-power/
> [which reads: Learn the 52 sounds you need to speak English correctly]
> Tue, 22 Nov 2011 15:32:51 +0000 (also from London)
> "Gordon, Matthew J." <GordonMJ at MISSOURI.EDU> replied:
>> They don't say 52 phonemes; they say 52 sounds. Those aren't the same
>> thing.
> to which Tom Zurinskas counter-replied:
>> Gotcha.  hickups is a sound too.  sneezes.  raspberries.  nose blowing.
>> But not the French n, Spanish r, or Hebrew k.  Those aren't English
>> sounds.
> ^^^^^^^^^^^^^^^^^^^^^^^^^^^^^^^^^^^^^^^^^^^^^^^^^^^^^^^^^^^^^^^^^^^^
> I have in front of me the 1963 Webster's New World Dictionary, which in the pronunciation guide on page viii
> lists 46 sounds used in English.  To stay within ASCII, I will give the examples for each supposed sound:
>     VOWELS
> 1. fat,lap
> 2. ape, date
> 3. bare, care
> 4. car, father  "this synmbol represents essentially the sound of a in far but may also represent the a intermediate between 1. and 4. occasionally heard in New england for bath"
> 5. ten, let
> 6. even, meet
> 7. here, dear
> 8. over, under
> 9. is, hit
> 10. bite, mile
> 11. lot, top
> 12. go, tone
> 13. horn, fork
> 14. tool,troop
> 15. look, moor
> 16. oil, boy
> 17. out, doubt
> 18. up, cut
> 19. use, cute
> 20. fur, turn
> 21. [schwa] a in ago, e in agent, i in sanity, o in comply, u in focus
> 22. bed, dub
> 23. did, had
> 24. fail, off
> 25. got, dog
> 26. he, ahead
> 27. joy, jump
> 28. kill, bake
> 29. let, ball
> 30. met, trim
> 31. not, ton
> 32. put, tap
> 33. red, dear
> 34. sell, pass
> 35. top, hat
> 36. vat, have
> 37. will, always
> 38. yet, yard
> 39. zebra, haze
> 40. chin, arch
> 41. ring, drink
> 42. she, dash
> 43. thin, truth
> 44. then, father
> 45. azure, leisure
> 46.  [before l, m, n indicates that this consonant has formed a syllable with no appreciable vowel sound, as in apple or season]
>      To the Webster's New World list above, we can add:
> 47. 41 needs to be split into the -ng of ring and the -nk of drink.

Not sure I agree.  The WNW illustrations are misleading, but if the words in question are /rIN/ and /drINk/, there's no addition to the list.

> 48. Some people such as Dennis Preston carefully distinguish the "wh" of "while", "whale" etc from the "w" of "we"
> 49, The above list lacks the glottal stop, very much alive in English in "uh-oh" and "unh-uh" (meaning "no")

Agreed on those two.

> 50. Arguably not a part of English, but still encountered, the initial /ts/ of "tzadik" (Hebrew, a righteous person) and "tsetse" (African, an unrighteous insect)
Or "tsar".  Of course this raises the question of one phoneme vs. two, but I suppose for consistency the same choice should be made here as for #40.  IPAists would classify both as two sounds phonetically, but that doesn't answer the phonemic issue.

> 51. Strictly a regional dialect item, but well-known to all naive English-speakers in the US, the Brooklyn /ui/ as in "Tuity-Tuid and Tuid Avenue"

Also in New Orleans, for some speakers.

> 52. Arguably not a part of English, but still encountered, the notorious /kh/ sound, in Hebrew "chai necklace", Yiddish "chutzpah", German "ach du lieber", Scottish "loch", Mexican place names such as "Oaxaca" (and "Mexico" istelf)

True for Spain.  Isn't /h/ more likely in Mexico? Well, anyway, I think "chutzpah", "(big) macher", and "loch" are more likely suspects. And "Bach". And "Chanukah" for some speakers.  And "Khrushchev".

> , and for some people English "ugh".

or "yuccch".  I've always read "ugh" as /@g/, but that may be a spelling pronunciation.

>  Note: this phoneme for some people is two or even three separate sounds:  after a front vowel, German "ich"; after a back vowel, German "ach"; in Spanish what always sounds to me like a half-hearted version of the German "ach" sound.
> 52 already, and if I felt like it I could continue, e.g. the way some English English-speakers prouncoune "very" as /eddy/.

The flap is also in U. S. English, for me in both "ladder" and "latter".  But this is arguable (like the below) not a phoneme, but a conditioned allophone, or whatever it's called now.  Of course I agree that if we're counting sounds, not phonemes, these all count, as do the clicks in "whoa", "giddyup", and "tsk-tsk", corresponding to the retroflex <q>, lateral <x>, and dental <c> clicks in Xhosa.


>  BTW, the same thing happens in Spanish when a single "r" occurs in the middle of a word.  There is also the "rolled r", which is not actually part of English but is an affectation on the part of many English speakers.
>    - James A. Landau
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