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What Are the Elements of English Phonology?

By Karize Uy
Updated May 23, 2024
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Generally, all the elements of English phonology have to do with the creation of sound and of pronouncing the English words correctly to convey a certain meaning. One of the elements is the English alphabet, which are the building blocks of the words. The alphabet consists of 26 letters, five of which are the vowels, and 21 are consonants. In the English sound system, consonants and vowels are categorized according to how the sounds are produced. For example, the sound of the letter “m” is said to be bilabial — since it uses the two lips to create the sound — and is also nasal, as the nose’s passageway should be open to make the sound.

Another important element in English phonology is the stress. Stress determines which words or syllables are accented. This is especially important in the formation of meaning, particularly in heteronyms, words that have the same spelling, but have different pronunciations. For example, in the word “present,” when the “pre” is stressed, the word means “a gift.” If the syllable “sent” is stressed, the word changes its meaning to “to give.”

One more element in English phonology that is similar to stress is intonation. In this case, the word as a whole is given emphasis, often within a sentence. Consider the sentence, “I love you.” When the word “you” is emphasized, the speaker is pointing out that it is “you” that he loves, and not somebody else. If the word “love” is stressed, the speaker may want to say that is the emotion he is feeling for the person, and not any other emotion.

The intonation is also important when it comes to the different kinds of sentences. An asking sentence, or an interrogative, usually has a lilting upward tone towards the end, such as in “Are you coming home?” An exclamatory sentence, on the other hand, tends to have an erupting intonation of sorts, like in the sentence, “I’m so happy for you!” In these examples, one can see that intonation is important not just in conveying meaning, but also in expressing an emotion within the words.

English phonology also has the syllable as one of its element, a very important one as it is the unit of sound that makes up the word. Without it, the English language — or any language, for the matter — may be unintelligible. Such as in “atom,” the syllables would be “a” and “tom.” The syllable in English phonology generally follows a rule of thumb wherein consonants and vowels are alternated to also alternate the closing and opening of the articulators to make a distinct sound. One can notice this consonant-vowel pattern in words such as “holiday” and “electricity.”

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Discussion Comments

By Grivusangel — On Jan 24, 2014

As is the case with many aspects of English -- it being such a "borrowing" language -- the only hard and fast rule is that there is an exception to nearly every one of them.

Distinctive regional dialects complicate the phonology issue, as least as far as pronunciation of U.S. English is concerned. The word "dog" may be pronounced "dohg," "darg," "daahg," "dawg" or "doe-ag," depending on where the speaker is from in the country. It does make learning the language challenging, to say the least. It also explains the need for “broadcast English,” or mostly unaccented English one hears on the national television news.

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