The International Phonetic Alphabet is fascinating from a linguistic standpoint, but chances are that you’re a teacher who doesn’t need all the details about voiced vs unvoiced, fricatives, nasal sounds, plosives, and so forth. What you need is simply to know how to pronounce a sound written in IPA, or perhaps vice-versa.
This can be tricky, even for native English speakers. For some reason, our 26 letters (plus a few letter combinations) line up with 44 different sounds (depending on the dialect). Check out this graph below on all of our sounds (minus a few vowel combinations) in the order of our alphabet, then keep reading to see the key things you need to remember.
By the way, we’re considering American sounds in this post, so some of what you’ll see here is a little different from British resources. From here on out, we’ll use [ ] to designate sounds as dictated by the IPA and capital letters to designate letters of the English alphabet.
Most Are What You’d Expect
The sound for B is [b], the sound for F is [f], and so on. Of the 21 consonants in our alphabet:
- 16 have IPA symbols that match their lowercase letters,
- 3 (C, Q, and X) borrow sounds from other consonants, and
- only 2 (J and Y) have IPA symbols you might not expect.
So the good news is that there’s a lot less for you to remember (beyond what you already know of the alphabet. Here are the key things you should learn:
‘J’ vs [j]
The [j] sound is associated with our Y. Fun fact: in Slavic languages, you should read a written ‘j’ as if it were a ‘y’ instead.
The letter J is designated with [dʒ], which is something most native English speakers aren’t familiar with. That’ll take some getting used to. As will the letter combinations.
We have six sounds associated with letter combinations, or digraphs, in the English language. The IPA symbols that represent them are a little different from what we’re used to.
[ʃ] is paired with the SH digraph and is found in words like ‘hush’, ‘shower’, and ‘wish’.
[tʃ] is paired with the CH digraph and is found in words like ‘church’ and ‘watch’. You’ll notice that it sounds like the SH sound but with a harsher start, which is why it’s expressed with a [t] before the [ʃ].
[ʒ] does not have a standard pairing, but it is sometimes expressed with the digraphs TI, SI, SU, ZU, and GE as in ‘vision’, ‘beige’, and ‘pleasure’. If you were to give the sound a harsher start, you’d get our J sound, which is why the letter J (and sometimes G) is associated with [dʒ].
[Ɵ] is one of two sounds paired with the TH digraph. It’s the more common and softer of the two TH sounds and is found in words like ‘both’, ‘three’, and ‘thanks’.
[ð] is one of two sounds paired with the TH digraph. It’s the less common and harsher of the two TH sounds and is found in words like ‘there’, ‘mother’, and ‘those’.
[ŋ] is paired with the NG digraph and is found in words like ‘song’, ‘boring’, and ‘flung’.
Out of the 24 consonant sounds, there are only 8 that you need to learn:
[Ɵ], [ð], [ʃ], [tʃ], [ʒ], [dʒ], [j], and [ŋ]
The other 2/3 of the consonant sounds are just what you’d expect them to be!
Vowels are an entirely different beast, so check out our next post for that.