Is English pronunciation unique?

Vivian Cook 
Cook's Consonant Test

Sound System of Language

Rough draft

One of the things that people often say about the English language is that its pronunciation is particularly tricky. Foreigners never seem to master it fully. The Japanese never get over their problems with ‘l’ and ‘r’, confusing words like lip and rip. The Germans have problems with /s/ and /z/, confusing peace and peas. Almost everyone but the native speaker of English born and bred has problems with the "th" sounds /q / and / /, for instance whether they can distinguish thigh from thy. At best foreigners end up sounding like Henry Kissinger or Jean-Paul Gaultier—highly fluent English with a marked foreign accent. Nobody seems to master English who wasn’t born to it. At least so the story goes.

English pronunciation is then believed to be special. But what are the aspects of English pronunciation that could conceivably be unique? One peculiarity might be the intonation of English—the way that the voice goes up and down as people speak. Take the difference between three ways in which people can say John: ´John, `John and é John; on ´John the voice goes up; on `John it goes down; on é John it goes first down and then up. Each of these variations conveys a slightly different shade of meaning, whether a question ´John, or a statement `John, or that there is some doubt in the speaker’s mind é John.

Or take the difference between It’s hot æ isn’t it? and It’s hot ´isn’t it? In one version, It’s hot æ isn’t it?, the voice goes down at the end; æ isn’t it? This falling intonation almost prevents the listener from saying no: It’s hot æ isn’t it? brooks no denial; it sounds final. In the other version, the voice goes up at the end: It’s hot ´isn’t it. In this case it is open to the listener whether they want to say yes or no; there isn’t the same pressure on them to agree. Falling intonation suggests something final and decided, rising something temporary and uncertain. English intonation then gives out clues to what speakers think about what they are saying, such as whether they expect the listener to agree or not.

The Chinese language, however, has a very different system. If someone goes in to a shop and asks for some ä li zi they would get pears; asking for é li zi would get them plums, and asking for æ li zi would get them chestnuts. The different intonation patterns signal different words, as different from each other as the words pear, plum and chestnut are in English. There is a great difference between the English style of intonation, which affects the meaning of sentences and phrases, and the Chinese style, which affects the meaning of words alone. English is called an intonation language, Chinese a tone language.

Perhaps therefore it is English intonation that is the stumbling-block for foreigners, except perhaps for the Dutch who have a very similar system. It is common to meet non-natives whose intonation makes them sound aggressive: it is very dangerous to say Good ç bye if you actually mean Good ä bye. But English is far from being the only language with this type of intonation. Languages as diverse as Italian and Hungarian use intonation rather than tone. While each of these languages has its own peculiarities, their systems work in the same kind of way to show the grammar of the sentence and the speaker’s attitude to what they are saying. Nor is Chinese the only language of its kind, other examples being Thai and the Bantu languages. Indeed a majority of the world’s languages are said to be tone languages. So, while the precise difference in meaning between ç isn’t it and å isn’t it may be specific to English, this general approach to using intonation is found in many varieties in the world’s languages and not unique.

Perhaps it is not so much the intonation patterns of English that are different from other languages as the actual sounds, the phonemes as they are called by linguists. The total number of English phonemes is about 44, the exact number depending on the speaker’s accent. In terms of the languages of the world, the smallest number of phonemes known to exist is the 11 of Rotakas, an Indo-Pacific language. The largest is the 141 of !Xu, a language spoken in southern Africa; the average number of phonemes in a language is in fact 31. About 70% of languages have between 20 and 37 phonemes. So the 44 phonemes of English come slightly above the middle of the range for a language but do not stand out in sheer number.

Nor is English unusual in terms of its sheer number of vowels and consonants. The minimum number of vowels found in a language is three, namely /i/, /u/, and /a/, for example in Arabic, and Dyribal, an Australian Aboriginal language. Some languages have 24 vowels; thirteen languages have more than 16. The commonest number of vowels in a language is in fact five, as in Greek. British English has eleven or twelve pure vowels in speech, the difference depending on whether the long /‘:/ of bird is counted as a different vowel from the short // of asleep. The proportion of consonants to vowels in English is 1.27 to one, slightly lower than the world average of 2.5 to one; that is to say, proportionately English has rather more vowels than most languages. Again there is nothing very extreme about English in terms of how many sounds it has.

Perhaps, however, English has specific phonemes that other languages do not. In terms of plosive consonants for example English has three pairs of consonants; one pair at the lips as in bit and pit; one pair in which the tongue contacts the teeth ridge behind the teeth as in dim and Tim; and a third pair in which the tongue contacts the soft palate at the back of the mouth, as in got and cot. But 98.4% of languages have the same three pairs of consonants at the lips, the teeth ridge and the soft palate. English lacks the rare positions say of the uvular plosive of Arabic right at the back of the mouth or the dental plosive of Tamil right forward at the teeth. The plosives of English are fairly standard in the world’s languages.

Statistically speaking two types of English sounds are comparatively rare in other languages. One type is the fricatives made by the tongue on the teeth, the /¶/ of this and the /q / of thick. The unvoiced /q / sound of thick is nevertheless found in 18% of languages and the voiced / / of this in 21. Even if the majority of languages do not have them, this hardly makes them unique to English.

Perhaps, however, it is in the way that sounds are put together into syllables that makes English distinctive. In languages like Japanese virtually all the syllables consist of a Consonant followed by a Vowel, as can be seen in such familiar brand-names as Toyota, Mitsubishi, and YamahaTo yo ta, Mi tshu bi shi, Ya ma ha. So all Japanese syllables are Consonant Vowel, just like English word such as see and buy.

In English the syllables, however, can also consist of a sequence of Consonant Vowel Consonant. That is to say as well as syllables like bee there are also syllables that begin and end with a Consonant like the words cat, dog and mouse. When English words are used in Japanese, they get transformed in odd ways. Boss for example becomes bosu so that it does not end with a final consonant bvut with a vowel. The Japanese word sutoraiki turns back into the English word strike once its extra vowels are stripped off. So one feature of English syllables is that they have Consonants at the end as well as the beginning. But such Consonant Vowel Consonant syllables are found in many languages, not just English.

There are also clear-cut restrictions in English on which consonants can come first or last in the syllable. An English word can end with an / /, as in sing, but it cannot begin with an / / as in ngis. An English syllable can start but not finish with an /h/; we can say hot but even if we succeeded in saying toh with a final ‘h’, no-one would notice it. In some languages like Persian, however, these limitations do apply and there is a final [h] sound in words like /mah/ meaning ‘moon’. In other words specific sounds cannot occur in the first and last positions in the syllable in English. But again this is so in any language.

It does not seem then that English sounds are intrinsically different from those of any other language. Some English sounds are common, like /t/, some are rarer, like / /. The repertoire of sounds for English is certainly unique. But then so is the repertoire for any language. On the one hand languages choose from the limited set of possibilities that are permitted by the human mouth and vocal cords; on the other they are restricted both by the powers of the human ear to hear sounds and the ability of human children to learn sounds Turning the dial on a radio to dip into several radio stations may give one the impression of an infinite range of possibilities. But, while speech sounds may be combined in a variety of ways, the number of possibilities is limited.

Another argument for the uniqueness of English is the question of foreign accent. Why do foreigners always sound foreign in English? Why can we tell a German from an Italian, a Chinese from an Indian and so on, even if they have lived in England most of their lives? One reason is simply that people carry over the sounds from their first language. Because Japanese people make no difference between ‘l’ and ‘r’ in Japanese they cannot make the difference in English. In this sense any language is going to be as difficult as any other in one aspect or another—English people learning Japanese have as many problems as Japanese learning English. It’s not English that’s the problem as much as the universal problem that learning a second language means reconciling one set of sounds from the first language with another set of sounds from the second.

So many people quote the famous foreigners who never lose their accent—Henry Kissinger or Arnold Schwarzenegger—as signs that nobody can learn to speak English like a native speaker. The obvious question is: why should they? Unless they want to abandon their own cultures and their previous selves entirely, there’s no reason why foreigners shouldn’t sound different from native speakers. The users of second languages are communicating their unique personality through English, just as people with Glasgow accents, or Texan drawls show their origins. Losing one’s native accent totally when learning English may be pointless, and may be a denial of one’s identity rather than a victory over a second language.

And of course the people who do succeed in losing their foreign accent simply become invisible. We don’t remark how good Audrey Hepburn is or how good Robert Maxwell was at speaking English because we simply accept them as native speakers. Indeed if a certain percentage of people could not manage to pass successfully as natives then the job of anti-espionage services would have been much easier during the Cold War. There may be general issues about learning a second language in general but there’s nothing specially difficult about English.

Except perhaps because of its international status. Unlike Japanese spoken only in Japan or Finnish spoken only in Finland, some languages cross many national frontiers. Arabic is an official language in 18 countries, French in 28, but English is used in 43. English belongs to the select group of international languages used across many countries, originally for colonial reasons and later on for economic ones. The truly unique feature of English pronunciation is not inherent in its actual sounds but in its wide distribution around the word. It is spoken with a variety of accents from every part of the world, both as a first language and as a second. It seems impossible to learn simply because because so many people have made the attempt to learn it.