Letters and sounds

We often tend to think about English in terms of the written language, because of its importance in our society and in our education system. However, spoken language is really much more basic to us as human beings:

  • We learn to talk with others as very young children, just through social interactions, long before we go to school and make special efforts to learn to read and write.
  • In terms of history, spoken languages existed first, and writing was developed later as a way to record spoken language. In fact, many languages in the world today are spoken but have no written form.

When we talk about spelling, we need to keep in mind the difference between the written language and the spoken language. It’s important to be clear about the difference between letters and sounds – how we write words and how we say them. For example:

  • There are 26 letters in the English alphabet.
  • But in spoken English we use around 44 different sounds (the number varies slightly depending on our accent).

This means that the 26 letters have to be used to represent a much larger number of sounds. So sounds and letters don’t always match up neatly.

We also need to be careful in using the terms vowel and consonant. Often, these terms are used to talk about the letters of the alphabet:

  • The letters a, e, i, o, u are often said to be vowels.
  • The other letters of the alphabet (b, c, d, f etc.) are often said to be consonants.

However, the same terms are also used to talk about sounds. Here it will be helpful to think briefly about how we make the sounds of our language.

When we talk, we use our vocal organs – parts of our mouth and throat, such as our lips, teeth, tongue and larynx (voice box). This whole area of the body is called the vocal tract.

  • To make a consonant sound, we position some of our vocal organs together or close to each other. For example, our lips come together when we make the first sound in the word pie.
  • To make a vowel sound, we position the vocal organs further apart. The vocal tract is more open. For example, the word I is pronounced as a vowel sound (the same one as the second sound in pie).

Together, vowel sounds and consonant sounds make up syllables. A syllable typically has one vowel sound as its core, and it may have one or more consonants as well. A syllable forms one beat in the rhythm of speech. For example:

  • These words all have one syllable: I, tie, print, on, ant.
  • These words all have two syllables: inner, target, pillow, expect, lion.
  • And these all have three syllables: happiness, terrible, amusing, frustration, exhausted.

Consonant sounds come at the edges of a syllable. They can come in sequences of two or more, e.g. in train, lisp, strand.

Now that we have discussed vowel sounds and consonant sounds, let’s see how they relate to letters. We’ll look at vowels first.

Certainly, each of the letters a, e, i, o or u can be used to represent a vowel sound. But there are many more than five vowel sounds in English – around twenty, in fact! This means there are some complications.

First, we sometimes use two of these letters together to write one vowel sound, e.g. beach, shout, coin, loop. These words each have only one syllable (one beat). Compare lion, where the two vowel letters spell two vowel sounds, giving two syllables (two beats).

A second complication is the ‘magic e’ that is often found at the end of a word, e.g. in mate. This e is not pronounced as a separate vowel – instead, it acts as a useful indicator telling us how to pronounce the vowel before the final consonant. For instance, compare mat and mate – both one syllable, but with different vowel sounds.

Third, some of the ‘consonant letters’ are sometimes used to write or help write vowel sounds:

  • The letter y represents a vowel sound in syllable, party.
  • The letters w and y help to represent vowel sounds by combining with other letters in throw, play.

There are other words where y and w represent consonant sounds:

  • yellow, yes, young
  • wave, wonderful, wise

In fact these sounds are not typical consonant sounds – they are somewhat vowel-like consonant sounds because the vocal organs do not come very close together in making them. However, they behave as consonants – they don’t form the core of a syllable.

Let’s look now at other consonant sounds. There are a few complications here too in the way that letters relate to sounds.

Sometimes two or more consonant letters are used to represent a single consonant sound:

  • th in teeth, sh in shower, ch in chew, tch in hatch

Consonant doubling is often used to indicate that the preceding vowel is short (rather than that the consonant is long). Compare, for example:

  • shaming (long a sound), shamming (short a sound)
  • doting (long o sound), dotting (short o sound)

The single letter x represents a sequence of two consonant sounds: a k sound and an s sound, e.g. box sounds like ‘boks’.

Because of this peculiarity of x, it is excluded from doubling patterns. For example, box has a short o sound, but we don’t double the x in boxing.

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