How many phonemes are there in English.

Blacksmith   Saturday, November 06, 2004, 01:58 GMT
Quote-''Fonemes-A lot of people ask this common question and there's a lot of different answers. It depends on your accent.''

Jim and Brian have a list of the phonemes that exist in their accents. Here they are,

Jim-''I'd say that I have about 44 including /tS/ and /dZ/ but excluding rare and foreign sounds like the "ch" in "loch" and the "r" in "karate". Have a look at my list.''

Here it is again but I've changed it a little. I'm considering /@:/ and /@/ to be a seperate phonemes rather than an allophones. I make the distinction between "can" the auxilary verb and "can" the noun. For me "bad" and "lad" don't rhyme. This isn't restricted to southern England. Also I've added the affricatives.

i) /o/ on, stop, salon, cough, often, long
ii) /../ ado, along, awake, alert
iii) /@/ ash, amber, ant, an
iv) /e/ egg, extra, empty, heaven, devil, ember
v) /i/ if, impossible, insane, imp, it
vi) /^/ up, other, umbrella, uncle, udder, ugly, uneventful
vii) /u/ whoops, wool, rook, put, pull, wood, good, books

viii) /@:/ bad, mad, sad, Ann
ix) /i../ here, beer, fear, near
x) /a:/ are, ark, art, heart, cart, tart, tar, ah, alms, drama, spa, lager, espionage
xi) /e../ air, fare, spare
xii) /e:/ turn, err, urge, urban
xiii) /i:/ easy, eat, Ian, East, keep, eel, even
xiv) /o:/ or, more, adore, door, awe, awful, trauma, hawk
xv) /u:/ ooze, loser, pool, booze

xvi) /ei/ age, eight, apron
xvii) /au/ out, owl, clown, drown, pounce, ounce
xviii) /ai/ ice, aisle, iron
xix) /oi/ oil, foyer, lawyer
xx) /Ou/ oak, hope, goal, bowl, ode, old, open

xxi) /j/ yea, yes, yellow, yard, young
xxii) /w/ woe, warm, wait, wing, whale, whirl, whew, whoosh

xxiii) /m/ mime, measure, moor, mirror
xxiv) /n/ none, nun, noon
xxv) /N/ hung, sing, English

xxvi) /l/ girl, table, mile,devil, lull, lamp, light, loco
xxvii) /r/ roar, rail, rook, raven

xxviii) /h/ ha-ha hey, hang, hello, hip, heart
xxix) /f/ fee, flower, freedom
xxx) /v/ vest, have, vow, vagabond
xxxi) /th/ thorn, thigh, thin, with,
xxxii) /TH/ there, thy, eth, they
xxxiii) /s/ so, suppose, spring, face
xxxiv) /z/ zoo, zeal, zebra
xxxv) /S/ share, sure, sheep, shilling
xxxvi) /Z/ measure, Jean, voyage, garage, treasure, triage

xxxvii) /p/ peep, post, poor, plant
xxxviii) /b/ bib, baby
xxxix) /t/ tot, tailor, tree
xl) /d/ dad, dud, did, dead, deed, dude, died
xli) /k/ kick, calf, kipper, cough, kook
xlii) /g/ gag, gun, gold

xliii) /tS/ church, chat, lunch, chears
xliv) /dZ/ judge, jest, lodge, jerk, general

There are still some puzzling things are the syllabic consonants phonemes? I guess they probably are. Then this adds three phonemes to my list.

xlv) /.l/ little, sprinkle, twinkle
xlvi) /.n/ shorten, often, happen
xlvii) /.m/ bossom, blossom, prism

A rare phoneme:

xlviii) /K/ loch, Bach

I make the distinction between "loch" and "lock". Admittedly I have to think about it (a little) and this is the only word I use the sound in ... then there are also names like "Bach" which include it but shouldn't I call it a phoneme?

I'm counting /i(:)/ and /u(:)/ as allophones of /i:/ and /u:/. Also because I rhyme "tour" and "cure" with "fewer" and "doer", I'm counting /u../ as just /u:/ followed by /../. I make no distinction between /u:../ and /u../. Were I not to count them this way ther'd be three more phonemes:

xlvix) /u../ tour, cure, pure, fewer, sewer, doer
l) /i(:)/ happy, merry, create, sloppy
li) /u(:)/ occupy, calculate

/W/ (otherwise known as /hw/) and /hj/ (otherwise known as /C/) are not phonemes in my accent, however, I'd say that there are accents where /hw/ is a phoneme and accents where /hj/ is one too ... maybe but I'm begining to have my doubts about that.


The phonemes in my accent,

1. /o/ on, stop, salon, cough, often, long
2. /i(:)/ happy, merry, create, sloppy
3. /@/ ash, cat, rat, lad, pad
4. /e/ egg extra, empty, heaven, devil, ember, brand X
5. /i/ if, impossible, insane, imp, it
6. /^/ up, other, umbrella, uncle, udder, ugly, uneventful
7. /u/ whoops, wool, rook, put, pull, wood, good, books
8. /../ ado, along, awake, alert
9. /u(:)/ calculator, occupy, ambulance
10. /1/ multiple, horrible, terrible, lenin, America, stupid ie. (/1/ from Sampa.
11. /œ/ hors doeuvre
12. /y/ rue, Cluny
13. /Y/ guidwillie
14. /ø/ mille feu
15. /a/ patte, a la


16. /@:/ bad, mad, sad
17. /a:/ father, pasta, Nevada, taco, Colorado, Pakistan
18. /e:/ colonal
19. /i:/ easy, eat, east, keep, even
20. /o:/ awe, awful, trauma, hawk, ought, thought, caught, all, ball
21. /u:/ ooze, loser, booze
22. /ju:/ cube, pew, beautiful, mute, computer, few, view, fusion, music, mew
23. /a2/ man, mansion, camp, ramp, tramp, stamp, stand, camp, lamp, rant

24. /au/ out, owl, clown, drown, pounce, ounce
25. /ei/ age, apron
26. /e../ air, fare, spare, err
27. /i../ here, beer, fear, near, idea
28. /ai/ ice, aisle, pipe
29. /oi/ foyer, lawyer, coin, join
30. /Ou/ oak, hope, ode, open, soap
31. /o../ core, four, hoarse, course, boar, tour, shore, board, wore, store, door, floor, sore
32. /u../ tour, cure, pure, skua, poor, Coor, sure
33. /iu/ new, tune, duke, luke, rude, brew, threw, suit, super, June, chew, cruise, crew, fruit, blue, sue, sewer, sewage, due, Tuesday

34. /ai../-fire, tire, lyre, inspire, wire, hire
35. /oi../-coir
36. /au../-flour, sour, hour

37. /ɝ/-burn, turn, fern, her, stir, heard, work, word, first
38. /ɚ/-center, meter, concert, winter, colder, heater, martyr, tapir, sulfur

i.e. [The ''er'' sound in ''fern'' and the ''er'' sound in ''better'' is one sound not an /e:/ followed by a /R/ and an /../ followed by a /R/]

39. /a:(n)/-grand prix, balm, palm, calm, psalm
40. /^(n)/-uh-uh, huh, uh-huh, ton, run, fun, gun, punt, trunk, stunk, bump
41. /i(n)/-vin
42. /e(n)-pen, ten, meant, lent, fence, again, any, lend, spend, rent, end, enter
43. /o(n)/-contretemps, on, don
44. /O(n)/-bon voyage
45. /..(n)-mitten, different, seven, even


46. /a2/-start, car, far, large, are, art, arm, chart, cart, farm, charm, starry
47. /o2/-corn, thorn, for, storm, or, orthography, order, cord, chord, sword


48. /a3/-ail, fail, sale, trail, hail, nail, stale, whale, hale, pale, sail, mail, jail
49. /e3/-feel, steal, shield, peel, heal, eel, reel, real, yield
50. /o3/-cole, coal, stole, fold, mold, old, sold, goal, hole, roll, mole, pole
51. /u3/-cool, pool, school, ghoul, tool, stool, fool
52. /u4/-bulb, dull, duller, multiple, multiply, result
53. /..2/-shovel, label, pencil, April

54. /j/ yea, yes, yellow, yard, young
55. /w/ woe, warm, wait, wing, wet, wish, want, wait
56. /W/ whale, whirl, whew, whoosh
57. /R/ car, carry, merry, fairy, fair, fire, core, form, cart, ear, steer, cure, pure, cart. fart. oar, air, care, scare, stair, arrow, terror, hard, flour, coir, sorry

58. /m/ mime, measure, moor, mirror
59. /n/ none, nun, noon
60. /N/ hung, sing, English
61. /J/ canyon, piñata, lasagna

62. /l/ lamp, light, loco, look, large, clock, clip, lip [light ''l'']
63. /5/ fill, cool, pool, bell, bulb, roll, coal, stole, stale, hale, tail, feel, real, tile, boil, owl, curl, world, cold, willy, really, filling, steel, mule [dark ''l'']
64. /r/ roar, rail, rook, raven
65. /L/ Llwyd

66. /h/ ha-ha hey, hang, hello, hip, heart
67. /f/ fee, flower, freedom
68. /v/ vest, have, vow, vagabond
69. /th/ thorn, thigh, thin, with,
70. /TH/ there, thy, eth, they
71. /s/ so, suppose, spring, face
72 /z/ zoo, zeal , zebra
73 /S/ share, sure, sheep, shilling
74. /Z/ measure, Jean, voyage, garage, treasure, triage
75. /K/ loch, Bach, Chanuka, chutzpah ''voiceless velar fricative''
76. /C/ ich
77. /B/-Cuba ''voiced bilabial fricative''
78. /P/-fuji ''voiceless bilabial fricative''
79. /G/-yogh ''voiced velar fricative''

80. /p/ post, poor, plant
81. /b/ bib, baby
82. /t/ top, tree
83. /d/ dad, dud, did, dead, deed, dude, died
84. /k/ kick, calf, kipper, cough, kook
85. /g/ gag, gun, gold
86. /?/ uh-oh, batman, department, football
87. /q/ Iraq, Qatar

88. /4/-matter, meter, ladder, Saturday, waiter, waiting, quarter, party, letter, better, lighter, writer, electricity, city, duty, forty, thirty

89. /tS/ church, chat, lunch, cheers
90. /dZ/ judge, jet

91. /.l/ little, sprinkle, twinkle
92. /.n/ bitten, written
93. /.m/ prism, vandalism, chasm
94. /.r/ oeuvre
95. /.N/ lock-and-key


96. /r2/-pero [''tapped ''r'']
97. /r3/-perro [''trilled or rolled ''r''] ''alvelar trill''.
98. /r4/-rouge, rue [''voiceless uvular fricative'']
99. /r5/-karate, karaoke [Japanese ''r'']
100. /r6/-Italian-''mare'' [uvular trill]


There are 99 phonemes in my accent.
Paul V.   Monday, November 15, 2004, 02:42 GMT
I get by with about 60.
I differentiate the Rhotic marked Vowels.
And also the vowels accentuated with a Glottal Stop.
Most people can't recognize a Glottal stop even in words like Hawai'i,
FBI and uh-oh.

Regards, Paul V.
P.S. If you like I can give you a list
Reggie   Monday, November 15, 2004, 03:37 GMT
Wow such a long list. How long did it take you to compile it?
Jim   Monday, November 15, 2004, 03:43 GMT
I'm sure he's been slaving away for months on it painsakingly piling one "phoneme" upon another until he came up with that magic number: 99 ... or wasn't it 100?
Mxsmanic   Monday, November 15, 2004, 04:02 GMT
You can be understandable with about three dozen phonemes.

The dividing line for a phoneme isn't completely precise, because it depends on how many minimal pairs or sets you require for two phonemes before you're willing to call them phonemes. If you set the bar at anything about zero, the list of phonemes becomes very long, and it changes significantly for every regional pronunciation. If you set the bar at thousands of minimal pairs or sets, you won't find more than 25-35 phonemes.

When learning or teaching English, it's important to start with the phonemes that form the greatest number of minimal pairs or sets, and then work down from there. That way you get maximum comprehension in a minimum period of time.

For example, students really have to master /D/, because it participates in many thousands of minimal pairs. However, the distinction between /D/ and /T/ is scarcely important at all, because there are practically no words distinguished exclusively by a contrast between these two phonemes (one rare example: ether vs. either).
Jim   Monday, November 15, 2004, 04:35 GMT
Here are a couple more:


Also /S/ verses /Z/ forms very few pairs.