A PHONEMIC TRANSCRIPTION KEY


FOREWORD

The function of this page has changed since it was first created in the nineties.  Originally, it dealt with a transcription of my accent into Kirshenbaum ASCII‐IPA, the seven‐bit encoding I was using as a substitute for raw phonetic symbols back in the days when web browsers couldn't be trusted to handle Unicode characters like ə and ʃ, at least when they carried stacks of diacritics.  By 2013 I was finally in a position to stop using ASCII‐IPA on any of my other pages, which meant I could retire it here as well.

The part that's still applicable is that this page is intended to complement the rest of my site in two ways: for British non‐linguists it's a rough guide to how a phonemic transcription works, while for non‐British linguists it's an introduction to my accent.  If you are already familiar with both the International Phonetic Alphabet and twentieth‐century RP you're unlikely to find it very useful; and on the other hand if you don't know what I mean either by “O as in bother” or by “ɒ as in ˈbɒðə” then there's no convenient way I'm going to be able to get the leverage to explain either – or at any rate, not without knowing whether you're from Auckland, Kingston, or Chicago.

This page is fairly technical, but that can't be helped: attempts to explain details like this purely in terms of “hard TH” and “long A sounds” just spread confusion.  You may imagine that all I would need to do is add some audio examples; and indeed I may some day get round to doing that, but it's not a high priority, because the sad fact is that they wouldn't help much.  If you haven't been trained to listen, your ears wouldn't take in the unfamiliar features of my pronunciations any more than your eyes would be likely to notice a trivial typo you're not actively looking for – instead your mother‐tongue perceptual filters automatically reinterpret everything to fit the phonological categories you're used to.

The list of example words and sentences that used to be part of this file hypertrophied uncontrollably and has been broken out into an A to Z of JBR RP, which should mean I'll have room to add some extra material here.


TERMINOLOGY

Throughout this essay, example spellings and so forth are as usual marked out as follows… (The brackets won't be visible if your browser is ignoring my CSS.)

Key to Notation
Orthodox spellings: angle‐bracketed like this
Phonemic transcriptions: slant‐bracketed IPA lɑɪk ðɪs
Phonetic details: square‐bracketed IPA lɑɪk ðɪs

And before I get started I'll need to explain some of the labels I'm sticking on things:

Phonetic
Of or pertaining to the precise articulatory and acoustic properties of speech sounds, irrespective of the way they're used in particular languages.  For instance, the first T in tents is released with a little puff of breath as , while the second isn't.  We can hear the difference if we listen, but we don't normally pay any attention to it.
Phonemic
(Here I go again trying to define “phoneme” in a nutshell… compare the attempts on my Espe‐Ranto, Spelling Reform and Futurese pages)
Of or pertaining to phonemes, the sounds treated as basic units in a given lingo.  What the two Ts in tents have in common is that both “count as” forms of one English phoneme, t: the phonetic space between them is never used for telling English words apart (so English‐speakers learn to disregard it).  The difference between tents and dents, on the other hand, is that the first begins with t and the second with a voiced d – a subtle phonetic distinction that English does recognise as phonemically significant.
IPA
The alphabet of the International Phonetic Association, providing a standard notation of symbols and diacritics for representing the sounds of human languages, either on a phonemic level or in phonetic close‐up.  Not to be confused with radiotelephony codes such as the so‐called “NATO Phonetic Alphabet” on the one hand or with India Pale Ale (and indeed IsoPropyl Alcohol) on the other.
RP
“Received Pronunciation”, an accent better known perhaps as “BBC English”.  Like “General American” it is socially dominant as a standard “educated” accent; but unlike GA, RP is strongly associated with a particular region and social class, that of the southern English (upper‑)middle class.
JBR RP
As the son of a Church of England vicar, I myself am definitively middle‐class; I went to a primary school in rural Norfolk, then was unlucky enough to win a scholarship at a public (i.e. private) secondary school in Norwich before coming to Edinburgh.  As a result my accent is fairly “posh”, though by no means up to Hollywood villain standards.  It has a few traceably East Anglian traits, and lacks several features that have become common in more southern areas; see my listed pronunciations of Norwich, quarter, valleyed.
Standard English
… Has nothing to do with this.  I'm not talking about “correct” grammar, or vocabulary, and certainly not spelling; I'm talking about accent, meaning how things are pronounced – you can quote Bob Marley or P. G. Wodehouse in any accent!
Voiced/voiceless
Standard labels for consonants, classifying them in terms of whether they are accompanied by vocal‐cord buzzing.  If you don't recognise this idea, clutch your throat and go “SSS‑ZZZ‐SSS‑ZZZ”!
Bilabial/dental/velar/etc.
Standard labels for consonants, classifying them in terms of the part of the mouth involved (teeth‐ridge, soft palate, or whatever).  These you probably can just pick up from the examples.
Plosive/fricative/approximant
Standard labels for consonants, classifying them in terms of how thoroughly airflow is blocked.  During a plosive like “T”, no air can escape the mouth (until it's abruptly released); it scrapes through turbulently in fricatives like “F”; and approximants like “W” hardly impede the airflow at all.
Nasal/affricate/lateral
Three kinds of special exception to the above.  Nasals are like plosives, but involve air escaping through the nose (“MMM”); affricates turn from plosive to fricative (“TCH”); and laterals involve airflow around the sides of a central blockage (“LLL”).
Front/central/back
Standard labels for vowels, classifying them in terms of where in the mouth they are articulated; that is, whether the front or back of the tongue is held closer to the palate.  Again, you may never have noticed this; but say “AY‑OH‐AY‑OH” and pay attention to what your tongue's doing.
Close/close‐mid/open‐mid/open
Standard labels for vowels, classifying them in terms of the gap between tongue and palate at its narrowest point – smallest in “close” vowels like “OOO” and greatest in “open” vowels like “AAH”.
Rounded/unrounded
Standard labels for vowels produced with or without lip‐rounding.  This distinction is obvious in vowels like “OOO‐EEE”, but trickier in the middle – Americans are likely to have trouble following my “AW sounds”.

INVENTORY

JBR RP features the following supply of consonants and vowels, here listed in an order which is more or less “systematic” rather than quasi‐alphabetic.

b as in EBB, BIB
characteristically a voiced bilabial plosive
d as in ED, DID
characteristically a voiced alveolar plosive
as in EDGE, JUDGE
characteristically a voiced postalveolar affricate (counts as one item)
ɡ as in EGG, GAG
characteristically a voiced velar plosive
 
p as in UP, PIP
characteristically a voiceless bilabial plosive
t as in AT, TOT
characteristically a voiceless alveolar plosive
as in ETCH, CHURCH
characteristically a voiceless postalveolar affricate (counts as one item)
k as in OAK, KICK
characteristically a voiceless velar plosive
 
v as in OF, VERVE
characteristically a voiced labiodental fricative
ð as in EITHER, THE
characteristically a voiced dental fricative (distinct from θ below)
z as in AS, ZOOS
characteristically a voiced alveolar fricative
ʒ as in SEIZURE, VISION
characteristically a voiced postalveolar fricative
 
f as in IF, FIFE
characteristically a voiceless labiodental fricative
θ as in ETHER, THIRTIETH
characteristically a voiceless dental fricative (distinct from ð above)
s as in US, SAUCE
characteristically a voiceless alveolar fricative
ʃ as in ASH, SISH
characteristically a voiceless postalveolar fricative
 
m as in AM, MUM
characteristically a voiced bilabial nasal
n as in AN, NUN
characteristically a voiced alveolar nasal
ŋ as in INK, HANGING
characteristically a voiced velar nasal
l as in ILL, LULL
characteristically a voiced alveolar lateral
 
r as in FRY, RAH‑RAH
characteristically a voiced alveolar approximant (not the US retroflex or the Scots rolled R; strictly speaking the phonetic symbol is ɹ)
j as in VIEW, YO‑YO
characteristically a voiced palatal approximant (not written y)
w as in QUIT, WAH‑WAH
characteristically a voiced labiovelar approximant
h as in HUE, HA‑HA
characteristically a voiceless glottal approximant
 
ɪ as in IT, BID
characteristically a short near‐close front unrounded vowel
ɛ as in EGG, BED
characteristically a short open‐mid front unrounded vowel
æ as in AT, BAD
characteristically a short near‐open front unrounded vowel
ə (“schwa”) as in UP, BUD
characteristically a short open central unrounded vowel
ɒ as in ON, BOD
characteristically a short open back rounded vowel
ʊ as in HOOD, BULL
characteristically a short near‐close back rounded vowel
 
ɪə as in HERE, BEARD
characteristically a glide from ɪ towards ə
ɛə as in HAIR, BARED
characteristically a glide from ɛ towards ə, or long hybrid vowel
ɑː as in HEART, BARD
characteristically a long open back unrounded vowel
ɜː as in HER, BIRD
characteristically a long open‐mid central unrounded vowel
ɔː as in HAWK, BOARD
characteristically a long open‐mid back rounded vowel
ʊə as in MOOR, CURED – uncommon, often replaced by ɔː
characteristically a glide from ʊ towards ə, or long hybrid vowel
 
as in HEAT, BE
characteristically a long close front unrounded vowel
ɛɪ as in HATE, BAY
characteristically a glide from ɛ towards ɪ
ɑɪ as in HEIGHT, BY
characteristically a glide from ɑ towards ɪ
ɔɪ as in HOIST, BOY
characteristically a glide from ɔ towards ɪ
 
æʊ as in HOUSE, BOUGH
characteristically a glide from æ towards ʊ
əʊ as in HOSE, BEAU
characteristically a glide from ə towards ʊ
as in HOOT, BOO
characteristically a long close back rounded vowel

COMPLICATIONS

“Characteristically”
My use of this weasel‐word signals that I'm ignoring some phonetic subtleties.  For example, while everyone more or less agrees on the prototypical phonetic realisation of t, there is some disagreement in specific contexts such as glottal.  Many US accents prescribe a “flapped D” there, and many UK accents use a “glottal stop”; JBR RP has a clearcut “T” in that particular context, but allows a glottalised t in a more limited family of words.
Phonetically Long
When I say something is stressed or long, that doesn't necessarily mean what you think.  Stressed vowels are loud and rather high‐pitched; long vowels are characterised by prolonged duration; but the difference between, say, mad and made isn't one of stress or length – the two are simply different vowels (mæd, mɛɪd).
Phonemically Long
That said, the length‐marker ː that forms part of the symbol for (e.g.) the phoneme ɔː does not mean that it always takes longer to say than (e.g.) the phoneme ɛ; only that length is one of its distinguishing features.  All other things being equal – as in the pair bought/bet – I take more time over the former; but other things very rarely are equal.
Complex and Compound Sounds
English has several other kinds of genuinely “long” sounds, including affricates like j (=) and diphthongs like oy (=ɔɪ).  A case could be made for splitting each of these into subcomponents, but at least for my own accent I find such analyses unnatural.
Conspicuously Absent
The typical pronunciations of the letters X and Q do not correspond to single phonemes (the sounds are transcribed as the sequences ks, kw).  Likewise, the sound of U as in unit is just “YOO” – j followed by  – and needs no separate sign of its own.
Stress‐marking
The difference between the adjective ABstract and the verb abSTRACT is shown in my transcriptions by ˈ marks before stressed syllables: ˈæbstrækt, æbˈstrækt.  Secondary stress (not as emphatic as the word's main stress, but stronger than neighbouring syllables) receives a preceding ˌ mark – thus CHAracteRIStically is ˌkærəktəˈrɪstɪkliː.
Schwa
The symbol ə stands for three distinct sounds, each of which occurs in abundance, əˈbəndəns.  In phonetic terms, that's əˈbɐ̃ndn̩s; and for many accents it makes sense to consider the three forms as separate entities.  However, they don't seem to be used contrastively as phonemes in my own speech: the pronunciation of ə is always predictable from the surrounding context.  Accordingly, I am treating them as one phoneme, and standardising my phonemic notation here on the symbol for the neutral vowel known as the “schwa”.

LEXICAL SETS

Okay, so I've told you what phonemes my accent uses, but what words do I use which phonemes in?  Originally, this was where I included my wordlists, now broken out into the A to Z; in their place I'm quoting a standard system of phonological equivalence classes for English dialectology.  This table was devised by J. C. Wells back in 1982, and in retrospect I should have been taking advantage of it all along, but somehow I didn't notice how useful it was until bloggers started using it in the noughties.

set examples jbr rp
01: KIT ship, kid, limp, myth, build ɪ
02: DRESS step, ebb, tent, bread, friend ɛ
03: TRAP tap, rag, hand, lapse, plaid æ
04: LOT stop, odd, box, swan, wash ɒ  (=08)
05: STRUT cup, bud, lump, come, touch ə  (=2627)
06: FOOT put, bush, good, wolf, could ʊ
07: BATH staff, class, ask, fasten, laugh ɑː (=1221)
08: CLOTH off, cross, soft, cough, Austin ɒ  (=04)
09: NURSE hurt, birth, church, verb, word ɜː
10: FLEECE creep, need, cheese, brief, field   (=25)
11: FACE tape, fade, waist, play, reign ɛɪ
12: PALM calm, ma, hurrah, façade, Java ɑː (=0721)
13: THOUGHT cause, taunt, hawk, chalk, broad ɔː (=2223)
14: GOAT soap, joke, host, toe, mauve əʊ
15: GOOSE loop, mood, tomb, two, fruit
16: PRICE ripe, side, child, try, eye ɑɪ
17: CHOICE boy, noise, spoil, employ, hoist ɔɪ
18: MOUTH out, crowd, cow, round, bough æʊ
19: NEAR beer, here, pier, fear, pierce ɪə
20: SQUARE share, fair, bear, where, scarce ɛə
21: START far, sharp, carve, heart, safari ɑː (=0712)
22: NORTH for, orb, form, quart, cord ɔː (=1323)
23: FORCE fore, soar, floor, court, sword ɔː (=1322)
24: CURE moor, your, sure, gourd, fury ʊə
25: happY copy, khaki, movie, coffee, money (=10)
26: lettER paper, sugar, standard, anchor, martyr ə (=0527)
27: commA quota, visa, panda, sofa, saga ə (=0526)

This selection of words is enough to give a good general idea of how an accent behaves, though it doesn't account for subtleties like the Scots who put a KIT vowel in birth but not berth, or idiosyncrasies like the strange way I pronounce eggplant; for details like that, see the lists.

You might think I'd also need to say something here about which words have which consonant phonemes, but this is an area where English dialects are much less variable, so I can save my notes explaining why newborn has a j and no r for that extra material that's probably coming soon.


2014 POSTSCRIPT

Recently, the people who write to me asking for audio versions have also started insisting I should answer the following list of questions, which apparently are part of a YouTube fad for amateur dialectology.

What is it called when you throw toilet paper on a house?
A “psychotic break”.  Or are you implying this is something sane people have been known to do?
What is the bug that when you touch it, it curls into a ball?
That's not a bug, it's a feature!  Presumably you're thinking of woodlice, or maybe pill millipedes; but those aren't even insects, let alone specifically bugs.
What is the bubbly carbonated drink called?
What, you only have one in your country?  Over here they're called by their names, which we arrange to have conveniently printed on the packaging, and the nearest thing to a generic term is “fizzy drink”.
What do you call gym shoes?
Either “plimsolls” (as worn by schoolchildren doing PE) or “trainers” (as worn by people who never go near a gym).
What do you say to address a group of people?
I say “hello!”, but I suspect what you meant to ask is what pronoun I use to refer to a group of people while I'm talking to them.  That's “you”, that is.
What do you call the kind of spider that has an oval‐shaped body and extremely long legs?
Well, you're closer!  Harvestmen aren't spiders, but at least they're arachnids.  Unless you mean spider crabs.
What do you call your grandparents?
Is this another identify‐the‐species round, or do you want to know how I addressed my individual grandparents before they went extinct?  If it's the latter, “Granma” and “Grandad”.
What do you call the wheeled contraption in which you carry groceries at the supermarket?
At first I assumed you meant “shopping trolley”, but if I wasn't putting my groceries in a basket, I wouldn't claim to be carrying them, so the solution to your riddle must be “mobility scooter”.
What do you call it when rain falls while the sun is shining?
The only word I know for drizzly but incompletely overcast weather is “summer”!  Do you call it “time to add another layer of toilet paper to the roof” or something?  Come to think of it, maybe this is another trick question – rain always falls (if it isn't falling, we don't call it rain), and the sun won't stop shining for aeons.
What is the thing you change the TV channel with?
I remember the days when it used to be “the dial”.  Then it was “a channel button”, then “whatever you call that remote controller thing, wherever it's gone”, then “no, the other remote, the one for the set‐top thingy”, but now if there was ever any telly I wanted to watch it would be “the mouse”.

You may have gathered that I'm not hugely impressed by these questions.  I grew up surrounded by people who spoke a genuinely obscure rural English dialect – one that gets so little media exposure that I can't think of a single celebrity or well‐known fictional character that I could suggest as an example of a Norfolk accent (or even of the dilute version common in Norwich).  But there's only one question in this survey that would be answered interestingly by the broadest of East Anglian regional dialect speakers: that toype o' creepy‐crawly wut cull up in a ball, thass a “chaarleypig”.