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The sounds of English and the International Phonetic Alphabet

This chart contains all the sounds (phonemes) used in the English language. For each sound, it gives:

  • The symbol from the International Phonetic Alphabet (IPA), as used in phonetic transcriptions in modern dictionaries for English learners — that is, in A. C. Gimson’s phonemic system with a few additional symbols.

    The chart represents British and American phonemes with one symbol. One symbol can mean two different phonemes in American and British English. See the footnotes for British-only and American-only symbols.

  • Two English words which use the sound. The underline shows where the sound is heard.
  • The links labeled Amer and Brit play sound recordings (Flash is required) where the words are pronounced in American and British English. The British version is given only where it is very different from the American version.

To print the chart, use the printable PDF version.

vowels
IPA examples listen  
ʌ cup, luck Amer  
ɑ: arm, father Amer / Brit  
æ cat, black Amer  
e met, bed Amer 1
ə away, cinema Amer 2
ɜ:ʳ turn, learn Amer / Brit 2
ɪ hit, sitting Amer  
i: see, heat Amer  
ɒ hot, rock Amer / Brit 3
ɔ: call, four Amer / Brit 4 5
ʊ put, could Amer  
u: blue, food Amer  
five, eye Amer  
now, out Amer  
say, eight Amer  
go, home Amer 6
ɔɪ boy, join Amer  
eəʳ where, air Amer / Brit 1 7
ɪəʳ near, here Amer / Brit 7
ʊəʳ pure, tourist Amer / Brit 7
consonants
IPA examples listen  
b bad, lab Amer  
d did, lady Amer  
f find, if Amer  
g give, flag Amer  
h how, hello Amer  
j yes, yellow Amer  
k cat, back Amer  
l leg, little Amer  
m man, lemon Amer  
n no, ten Amer  
ŋ sing, finger Amer  
p pet, map Amer  
r red, try Amer 8
s sun, miss Amer  
ʃ she, crash Amer  
t tea, getting Amer 9
check, church Amer  
θ think, both Amer  
ð this, mother Amer  
v voice, five Amer  
w wet, window Amer  
z zoo, lazy Amer  
ʒ pleasure, vision Amer  
just, large Amer  
  1. 1. Almost all dictionaries use the e symbol for the vowel in bed. The problem with this convention is that e in the IPA does not stand for the vowel in bed; it stands for a different vowel that is heard, for example, in the German word Seele. The “proper” symbol for the bed vowel is ɛ (do not confuse with ɜ:). The same goes for vs. ɛə.
  2. 2. In əʳ and ɜ:ʳ, the ʳ is not pronounced in BrE, unless the sound comes before a vowel (as in answering, answer it). In AmE, the ʳ is always pronounced, and the sounds are sometimes written as ɚ and ɝ.
  3. 3. In AmE, ɑ: and ɒ are one vowel, so calm and cot have the same vowel. In American transcriptions, hot is written as hɑ:t.
  4. 4. About 40% of Americans pronounce ɔ: the same way as ɑ:, so that caught and cot have the same vowel. See cot-caught merger.
  5. 5. In American transcriptions, ɔ: is often written as ɒ: (e.g. law = lɒ:), unless it is followed by r, in which case it remains an ɔ:.
  6. 6. In British transcriptions, is usually represented as əʊ. For some BrE speakers, is more appropriate (they use a rounded vowel) — for others, the proper symbol is əʊ. For American speakers, is usually more accurate.
  7. 7. In eəʳ ɪəʳ ʊəʳ, the r is not pronounced in BrE, unless the sound comes before a vowel (as in dearest, dear Ann). In AmE, the r is always pronounced, and the sounds are often written as er ɪr ʊr.
  8. 8. All dictionaries use the r symbol for the first sound in red. The problem with this convention is that r in the IPA does not stand for the British or American r; it stands for the “hard” r that is heard, for example, in the Spanish word rey or Italian vero. The “proper” symbol for the red consonant is ɹ.
  9. 9. In American English, t is often pronounced as a flap t, which sounds like d or (more accurately) like the quick, hard r heard e.g. in the Spanish word pero. For example: letter. Some dictionaries use the t ̬ symbol for the flap t.
special symbols
IPA what it means
ˈ The vertical line (ˈ) is used to show word stress. It is placed before the stressed syllable in a word. For example, /ˈkɒntrækt/ is pronounced like this, and /kənˈtrækt/ like that. Word stress is explained in our article about phonetic transcription.
ʳ

ʳ is not a sound — it is a short way of saying that an r is pronounced only in American English. For example, if you write that the pronunciation of bar is /bɑ:ʳ/, you mean that it is /bɑ:r/ in American English, and /bɑ:/ in British English.

However, in BrE, r will be heard if ʳ is followed by a vowel. For example, far gone is pronounced /ˈfɑ: ˈgɒn/ in BrE, but far out is pronounced /ˈfɑ: ˈraʊt/.

i i is usually pronounced like a shorter version of i:, but sometimes (especially in an old-fashioned British accent) it can sound like ɪ. Examples: very /ˈveri/, create /kriˈeɪt/, previous /ˈpri:viəs/, ability /əˈbɪlɪti/.
əl

əl means that the consonant l is pronounced as a separate syllable (the syllabic l, which sounds like a vowel), or that there is a short ə sound before it. Examples: little /ˈlɪtəl/, uncle /ˈʌŋkəl/.

Instead of the əl symbol, some dictionaries use an l with a small vertical line underneath, or simply l, as in /ˈlɪtl/.

ən

ən means that the consonant n is pronounced as a separate syllable (the syllabic n, which sounds like a vowel), or that there is a short ə sound before it. Examples: written /ˈrɪtən/, listen /ˈlɪsən/.

Instead of the ən symbol, some dictionaries use an n with a small vertical line underneath, or simply n, as in /ˈrɪtn/.

Does this chart list all the sounds that you can hear in British and American English?

No. This page contains symbols used in phonetic transcriptions in modern dictionaries for English learners. It does not list all the possible sounds in American or British English.

For example, this page does not list the regular t (heard in this pronunciation of letter) and the flap t (heard in this one) with separate symbols. It groups them under a single symbol: t. (In other words, it groups a number of similar sounds under a single phoneme, for simplicity. To understand how sounds are grouped into phonemes, read the article on phonemic transcription.)

So this page actually lists phonemes (groups of sounds), not individual sounds. Each symbol in the chart can correspond to many different (but similar) sounds, depending on the word and the speaker’s accent.

Take the phoneme p in the above chart. It occurs in the phonemic transcriptions of pin /pɪn/ and spin /spɪn/. In pin, this phoneme is pronounced with aspiration (breathing). This “aspirated p” sound has its own special symbol in the IPA: . In spin, the phoneme is pronounced “normally”; this “normal p” sound is represented by p in the IPA. So the p phoneme represents two sounds: p and . (This can be confusing, because p can mean both the p phoneme and the p sound.)

Typing the phonetic symbols

You won’t find phonetic symbols on your computer’s keyboard. How do you type them in a Word document, e-mail message, or SRS collection?

IPA fonts

To type IPA symbols on your computer, you need to use an IPA-enabled font. Fortunately, all modern operating systems have at least one font with IPA symbols. If IPA symbols are not working (for example, you’re getting squares or question marks instead of symbols), you should select an IPA-enabled font in your application. (This page has a list of recommended IPA fonts on various operating systems.)

However, in many (most?) cases, you won’t have to do anything – even if your current font is missing IPA symbols, many applications will automatically “borrow” missing symbols from a font which has them (this is called font substitution). These borrowed characters may not match the look of your current font, but at least they will be readable. For best results, use an IPA-enabled font from the start.

  • You can use my free IPA phonetic keyboard at ipa.typeit.org. It enables you to type your transcriptions online, and copy & paste them to your document. This works well if you type phonetic transcriptions occasionally. However, if you do it frequently, it is not very efficient because every time you want to type something, you have to switch to your browser, then copy & paste your text.
  • You can use my app – TypeIt for Windows ($12.50). It lets you type IPA phonetic transcriptions directly in any application or website. If you type phonetic transcriptions regularly, especially if you use them in your SRS, I would definitely recommend that you get the app, as it is inexpensive and it is the easiest, fastest way to type IPA symbols on your PC.

You can also use the ASCII Phonetic Alphabet, which represents IPA symbols with “normal” characters that you can type on your keyboard. The ASCII Phonetic Alphabet is not a standard system, but you can type it fast without special software.

Learning to pronounce the sounds

I have developed English pronunciation software called PerfectPronunciation which teaches learners to pronounce the most frequently used English words. It lets you listen to examples of English sounds, practice your pronunciation, and review your knowledge. PerfectPronunciation uses the ASCII Phonetic Alphabet.