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The phonetic structure of the English language


The English phonetic structure is systemic in character. It is made of the following components:

1) The system of English phonemes;

2) The syllabic structure of English words;

3) The accentual structure of words;

4) The intonational structure of English sentences.

The phonemic component includes not only the system of English phonemes but also the combination of their allophones, which occur in words. The character of this component means that phonemes and their allophones may occur only in definite positions in words. Definite allophones of phonemes may occur only in definite positions. This phenomenon is called distribution of allophones.

e.g. /twais/ - the rounded allophone of the /t/ phoneme is used before /w/;

/eito/ - the dental allophone of the /t/ phoneme is used before /o/;

/trai/ - the post-alveolar allophone of the /t/ phoneme is used before /r/

/ritn/ - the nasally released allophone of the /t/ phoneme is used before /r/ etc.

The same can be said about combinations of consonants and vowels. Their usage is determined by some regular rules of the language. For example, the combination of consonants /tl, dl, tn, dn/ never occurs at the beginning of English words. They may occur at the end or in the middle of words. (In Russian, on the contrary, they may come at the beginning and in the middle of words, but never at the end, eg. Тлеть, длина, атлас, отлично, дни, одна и т.д. In Kazakh such combinations of consonants are impossible.

To the phonemic component also belong different methods of joining sounds together in words and at the junction of words. We may speak of the following four types of sound transitions in English:

CV transitions, as in /ti:/, /mai/, /ka:/ etc.

VC transitions, as in /it/.

CC transitions, as in /lukt/, /trai/.

VV transitions, as in /mai a:nt/.

VC transitions are reflected in syllable division of English words. The short stressed vowels are always checked. They can only occur in closed type of syllable.

Loss of plosion may serve an instance for CC transitions, as in October, effect, helped, strict, next day, wanted to come, blackboard, etc. Compare the similar Russian and Kazakh combinations of two plosives, which are pronounced with two plosions, as in: куртка, аптека, откуда, отбор, сковородка; өкпе, айтқайб сатпақ

In VV transitions we may have two different ways of joining vowels, with and without the glottal stop between them.

The second componentof the phonetic system of English is syllabic structure of its words in isolation and in phrases and sentences. This component may be viewed from two points – its syllable formation and its syllable division.

The third component of the phonetic system of English is the accentual structure of its words. It may be studied from three aspects:

1) the physical nature of word accent;

2) the position of word accent in different words;

3) the degree of word accent.

Languages may differ in the accentual structure of words as well. The most important of the three aspects enumerated above is the position of accent in disyllabic and polysyllabic words in English and in Russian, because these languages have the so-called free word accent. It means that the accent may rest on any syllable in different words, eg. Fellow, repeat, represent, representation – завтра, сегодня, посвящать, позавчера и т.д. In Kazakh language the word accent is fixed on the last syllable, eg. Бала, балалар, балалық, баласы.

The fourth component of the phonetic system of English is the intonation structure of sentences. Intonation is a complex unity of speech melody, prominence of words, tempo and voice-tamber which serve to express the speaker’s thoughts, emotions, feelings and attitudes towards reality.

Intonational structure of English, Russian and Kazakh differ greatly.

All the four components of the phonetic system of English (phonemic, syllabic, accentual and intonational) constitute the English pronunciation.



3 Speech mechanisms

Speech sounds are the results of various movements and positions of human speech organs. They are products of the complicated work of the speech mechanisms.

According to their main sound-producing function the speech organs can be divided into the following 4 groups: the power mechanism, the vibrator mechanism, the resonator mechanism, and the obstructer mechanism.

These 4 mechanisms are closely interconnected, because in the process of production of a sound several speech mechanisms function simultaneously. Besides, one and the same speech organ may belong to different mechanisms.

The main speech organs of speech belonging to the power mechanism are as follows: the lungs, the windpipe, the glottis, the pharynx, the oral cavity and the nasal cavity.

In order to speak we need breath. Hence, the function of the power mechanism is to supply the organs of speech with energy in the form of air pressure, and to regulate it during speech.

Breathing consists of 2 phases – inhalation and exhalation. Breathing may be of two kinds: 1) ordinary biological breathing which takes place when we are silent, and 2) sound-producing breathing.

In ordinary breathing both phases are nearly of the same duration. In sound-producing breathing the phases are of different duration: inhalation is quick and deep, whereas exhalation is longer and drawn out. During speech the air goes out in spurts corresponding to syllables, words and sense-groups. All the speech sounds in English, Russian, Kazakh and many other languages are made during exhalation.

In ordinary breathing the stream of air flows out freely: the vocal cords are apart and the glottis is widely open, the soft palate is lowered letting the air through the nasal cavity.

In sound-producing breathing the out flowing air undergoes some modifications in the glottis, in the pharynx and in the mouth cavity.

The vocal cords and the glottis constitute the vibrator mechanism. The vocal cords are situated in the upper part of the windpipe, called larynx. The vocal cords resemble 2 muscular folds which run in horizontal direction from back to front. The opening between the folds is called the glottis.

The vocal cords may take up different positions:

1) When they are kept apart, the glottis is wide open and the breath can pass them by being checked. Sounds formed with the glottis thus open are known as voiceless sounds. In ordinary breathing the vocal cords are also drawn apart.

2) When the vocal cords are pulled close together and the glottis reduced to a mere slit, they become an obstacle to the out flowing breath. The air pressure below the vocal cords becomes very strong. As it passes through the narrow slit into the outer air, it makes the vocal cords vibrate. Such vibrations are heard as voice. All English vowels and many English consonants are voiced.

3) The vocal cords may be drawn together tightly, so that the air cannot pass between them. In this case the voc. Cords fulfill the function of an obstructer mechanism.

To the resonator mechanism belong: the pharynx, the oral cavity and the nasal cavity. All the 3 resonance cavities (or resonators) have boundaries or walls. By changing the position of the movable boundaries we may modify the shape and size of the resonators.

The nasal cavity is fixed, while the pharynx and the oral cavity are modifiable.

The direction in which the air flows depends on the position of the soft palate. When the soft palate is lowered the air passes through the nasal resonator. When it is held in its raised position the air stream is directed towards the oral cavity. The majority of speech sounds in English, Russian and Kazakh are articulated in the oral cavity.

It is due to the different movements and positions of the tongue and the lips that the oral resonator may take up various shapes and sizes. The oral resonator is responsible for the articulation of vowels. Movements of the tongue in different directions provide a basis for classification of vowels according to two important principles:

1) according to the horizontal movement of the tongue;

2) according to the vertical movement of the tongue.

The particular quality of a vowel sound depends not only on the position of the tongue but also on that of the lips. The lips perform a double function. The natural resonance is determined not only by the shape and size of the resonator but also by the shape and size of the opening of the resonator.

When the lips are spread the front boundary of the oral resonator is formed by the teeth; when the lips are rounded the front boundary is formed by the lips themselves. In this case the oral resonator is lengthened. This is one of the functions of the lips. (i. E. to form the front boundary of the oral resonator). Another function of the lips consists in forming the front opening of the oral resonator. Consequently, the position of the lips is included into the vowel classification.

Some vowels in English are pronounced with a fixed resonator (the tongue and the lips do not change their position), others are articulated with a modified resonator (the tongue and the lips move from one position to another). The former resonator corresponds to monophthongs, the latter corresponds to diphthongs. This principle is included into the classification of vowels in accordance with the stability of articulation.

In the articulation of vowel sounds no obstruction is made. The obstructor mechanism is responsible only for the production of consonants. To the obstructor mechanism belong the following active and passive speech organs: the tongue, the lips, the teeth, the alveoli, the palate, the back boundary of the pharynx and the vocal cords.

When articulating sounds the organs of speech may occupy one or the other position. There are several types of articulatory obstruction: complete, incomplete and intermittent.

The obstruction is complete when the articulating organs are in close contact. The air passage is completely blocked. Consonants articulated with this type of obstruction are called occlusive.

The obstruction is incomplete when the organs of speech are not blocked but only constricted, or narrowed leaving a passage for the air to go through. Consonants produced with this type of obstruction are called constrictive.

The obstruction is intermittent when the 2 articulating organs form a series of rapid intermittent taps. Consonants articulated in this way are known as rolled, like the Russian /p/ or the Scottish /r/ of the American English /t/.

There also may a complicated type of obstruction, beginning and ending with an incomplete one. Consonants produced with this type of obstruction are called occlusive-constrictive or affricates.

The type of obstruction is one of the main principles in the classification of consonants. Different organs of speech participate in production of different consonants. An articulatory obstruction may be formed either by two active speech organs, or by an active organ in conjunction with a passive one. In consonant classification this principle is called “according to the active organ of speech and the place of obstruction”.

The lips, the tongue and the back boundary of the pharynx (and also the vocal c-s) are the active speech organs. Hence, depending on the active speech organs consonants may be: labial, lingual and pharyngeal.

According to the place of obstruction (or the passive speech organs) consonants may be: dental, alveolar, palatal and velar.

As has been said already the vocal c-s may also function as part of the obstructor mechanism to produce consonantal noises. The vocal c-s form a complete obstruction to the out flowing stream of air. By quickly separating the vocal c-s a speech sound is produced which is called the glottal stop. Consonants may come up against one or two articulatory obstructions. Those with one obstruction are called unicentral. Consonants with two centers of obstruction are known as bicentral. Most consonants in English are unicentral.

The second articulatory obstruction may be formed either by raising the middle part of the tongue towards the hard palate, or by raising the back part of the tongue towards the soft palate. They are distinguished as the front secondary obstruction, and the back secondary obstruction. Palatalization makes the consonants “softer” as in the English /l, ∫/ while velarization makes the consonants “harder”, as in the English /ł, w/. In Russian almost all the consonants may be either palatalized or velarized.

People belonging to different races and nationalities possess an identical speech apparatus. That’s why in all existing languages there are typologically identical sounds, such as consonants, vowels and sonorant. For instance, in all European languages and there are such typologically identical sounds as /a, o, u, i, e, t, m, k, l/ etc. And, yet, not a single sound of one language is absolutely identical spectrally with a typologically identical sound of another language.

This is due to the fact that people use their speech organs differently, or as phoneticians say, it is due to the difference in the articulation basis.

The articulation basis may be defined as the general tendencies (or habits) in the way native speakers use their speech organs both during speech and at rest.

The articulation basis influences the phonemic system of a language.

The articulation basis of one language may differ from the art-n basis of another language. Though the articulation basis of English, Kazakh and Russian have not yet been studied we may only speak about the most characteristic features of RP art-n basis as compared with the Kazakh and Russian Standard art-n bases.

Difference in the art-n bases of English, Kazakh and Russian, reflected in the system of consonants, are as follows:

1) The English have a tendency to hold the tip of the tongue in neutral position at the level of the alveoli (or teeth-ridge), whereas the Russians and the Kazakhs keep it much lower, at tooth level. That is why there are about 50% of all the consonants in RP which are articulated with the tip of the tongue against the alveoli, as in /t, d, n, l, s/ etc. they are alveolar, palato-alveolar and post-alveolar in accordance with the place of obstruction. The tip of the tongue in the articulation of Russian and Kazakh forelingual consonants occupies dental position.

2) the English and the Kazakhs have a general habit to hold the bulk of the tongue in neutral position a little further back, lower and flatter than the Russians. This may be observed in the art-n of the consonants /h, ŋ/ in British RP and /h, ң, қ, ғ/ in Kazakh.

3) The English have a specific way of articulating final consonants. Voiced consonants in final position are always weak in English (even partially devoiced). They are called lenis. Voiceless consonants in final position, on the contrary, are strong. They are called fortis. In Russian voiced consonants are impossible in final positions (except sonorant), and voiceless cons-s in final position are always weak. In Kazakh sonorant and /з/ are possible in final position, e. g. көз.

4) There is a specific way of articulating voiceless plosive cons-s in English. When they are followed by a stressed vowel they are aspirated, as in ‘teacher’, ‘paper’. In Kazakh and Russian they are non-aspirated.

5) There is a tendency to lengthen the English word-ending sonorant before a pause, especially when they are precede by a short vowel. As in Tom, doll, long. The similar Russian and Kazakh sonorants are short in the same position.

Difference in the art-n bases of English, Kazakh and Russian, reflected in the system of vowels, are as follows:

1) The positions and movements of the lips are very peculiar. On the one hand, when an English is silent, his lips occupy the so-called flat-type position, they are more or less tense and the corners are raised as in a smile. A Russian and a Kazakh keep the lips rather lax with the corners of the lips lowered. Spreading of the lips for front vowels is rather typical of English. In Russian and Kazakh the lip position for unrounded vowels is neutral. On the other hand, in the production of the Russian vowels /o, у/ and the Kazakh /o, e, у, ү, ұ/ the lips are considerably protruded. In English such protrusion does not take place, as in /o, o:, u, u:/.

2) In the production of English vowels the bulk of the tongue is more often at the back of the mouth; in the production of Russian and Kazakh vowels the tongue is mostly in the front part of the mouth. Besides, the tongue may occupy more positions when articulating English vowels than in Russian or Kazakh vowel production.

3) English and Kazakh vowels are more tense than Russian. This is especially felt in unstressed syllables. In English and Kazakh an unstressed vowel does not always differ greatly from a stressed one. In Russian it is always short, lax and reduced.

4) There are in English short and long vowels which are different both in quality and quantity. There are no such phonemic oppositions in the Russian and Kazakh languages.

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