English phonology

Like many other languages, English has wide variation in pronunciation, both historically and from dialect to dialect. In general, however, the regional dialects of English share a largely similar (but not identical) phonological system. Among other things, most dialects have vowel reduction in unstressed syllables and a complex set of phonological features that distinguish fortis and lenis consonants (stops, affricates, and fricatives).

Phonological analysis of English often concentrates on or uses, as a reference point, one or more of the prestige or standard accents, such as Received Pronunciation for England, General American for the United States, and General Australian for Australia. Nevertheless, many other dialects of English are spoken, which have developed independently from these standardized accents, particularly regional dialects. Information about these standardized accents functions only as a limited guide to all of English phonology, which one can later expand upon once one becomes more familiar with some of the many other dialects of English that are spoken.

A phoneme of a language or dialect is an abstraction of a speech sound or of a group of different sounds which are all perceived to have the same function by speakers of that particular language or dialect. For example, the English word through consists of three phonemes: the initial "th" sound, the "r" sound, and a vowel sound. The phonemes in this and many other English words do not always correspond directly to the letters used to spell them (English orthography is not as strongly phonemic as that of many other languages).

The number and distribution of phonemes in English vary from dialect to dialect, and also depend on the interpretation of the individual researcher. The number of consonant phonemes is generally put at 24 (or slightly more). The number of vowels is subject to greater variation; in the system presented on this page there are 20–25 vowel phonemes in Received Pronunciation, 14–16 in General American and 19–20 in Australian English. The pronunciation keys used in dictionaries generally contain a slightly greater number of symbols than this, to take account of certain sounds used in foreign words and certain noticeable distinctions that may not be—strictly speaking—phonemic.

The following table shows the 24 consonant phonemes found in most dialects of English, plus /x/, whose distribution is more limited. Fortis consonants are always voiceless, aspirated in syllable onset (except in clusters beginning with /s/), and sometimes also glottalized to an extent in syllable coda (most likely to occur with /t/, see T-glottalization), while lenis consonants are always unaspirated and un-glottalized, and generally partially or fully voiced. The alveolars are usually apical, i.e. pronounced with the tip of the tongue touching or approaching the roof of the mouth, though some speakers produce them laminally, i.e. with the blade of the tongue.[1]

The following table shows typical examples of the occurrence of the above consonant phonemes in words.

In most dialects, the fortis stops and affricate /p, t, tʃ, k/ have various different allophones, and are distinguished from the lenis stops and affricate /b, d, dʒ, ɡ/ by several phonetic features.[21]

English, much like other Germanic languages, has a particularly large number of vowel phonemes, and in addition the vowels of English differ considerably between dialects. Consequently, corresponding vowels may be transcribed with various symbols depending on the dialect under consideration. When considering English as a whole, lexical sets are often used, each named by a word containing the vowel or vowels in question. For example, the LOT set consists of words which, like lot, have /ɒ/ in Received Pronunciation and /ɑ/ in General American. The "LOT vowel" then refers to the vowel that appears in those words in whichever dialect is being considered, or (at a greater level of abstraction) to a diaphoneme, which represents this interdialectal correspondence. A commonly used system of lexical sets, devised by John C. Wells, is presented below; for each set, the corresponding phonemes are given for RP and General American, using the notation that will be used on this page.

For a table that shows the pronunciations of these vowels in a wider range of English dialects, see IPA chart for English dialects.

The following tables show the vowel phonemes of three standard varieties of English. The notation system used here for Received Pronunciation (RP) is fairly standard; the others less so. The feature descriptions given here (front, close, etc.) are abstracted somewhat; the actual pronunciations of these vowels are somewhat more accurately conveyed by the IPA symbols used (see Vowel for a chart indicating the meanings of these symbols; though note also the points listed below the following tables).

Listed here are some of the significant cases of allophony of vowels found within standard English dialects.

Unstressed syllables in English may contain almost any vowel, but in practice vowels in stressed and unstressed syllables tend to use different inventories of phonemes. In particular, long vowels are used less often in unstressed syllables than stressed syllables. Additionally there are certain sounds—characterized by central position and weakness—that are particularly often found as the nuclei of unstressed syllables. These include:

Vowel reduction in unstressed syllables is a significant feature of English. Syllables of the types listed above often correspond to a syllable containing a different vowel ("full vowel") used in other forms of the same morpheme where that syllable is stressed. For example, the first o in photograph, being stressed, is pronounced with the GOAT vowel, but in photography, where it is unstressed, it is reduced to schwa. Also, certain common words (a, an, of, for, etc.) are pronounced with a schwa when they are unstressed, although they have different vowels when they are in a stressed position (see Weak and strong forms in English).

Some unstressed syllables, however, retain full (unreduced) vowels, i.e. vowels other than those listed above. Examples are the /æ/ in ambition and the /aɪ/ in finite. Some phonologists regard such syllables as not being fully unstressed (they may describe them as having tertiary stress); some dictionaries have marked such syllables as having secondary stress. However linguists such as Ladefoged[68] and Bolinger (1986) regard this as a difference purely of vowel quality and not of stress,[69] and thus argue that vowel reduction itself is phonemic in English. Examples of words where vowel reduction seems to be distinctive for some speakers[70] include chickaree vs. chicory (the latter has the reduced vowel of HAPPY, whereas the former has the FLEECE vowel without reduction), and Pharaoh vs. farrow (both have the GOAT vowel, but in the latter word it may reduce to [ɵ]).

Lexical stress is phonemic in English. For example, the noun increase and the verb increase are distinguished by the positioning of the stress on the first syllable in the former, and on the second syllable in the latter. (See initial-stress-derived noun.) Stressed syllables in English are louder than non-stressed syllables, as well as being longer and having a higher pitch.

In traditional approaches, in any English word consisting of more than one syllable, each syllable is ascribed one of three degrees of stress: primary, secondary or unstressed. Ordinarily, in each such word there will be exactly one syllable with primary stress, possibly one syllable having secondary stress, and the remainder are unstressed. For example, the word amazing has primary stress on the second syllable, while the first and third syllables are unstressed, whereas the word organization has primary stress on the fourth syllable, secondary stress on the first, and the second, third, and fifth unstressed. This is often shown in pronunciation keys using the IPA symbols for primary and secondary stress (which are ˈ and ˌ respectively), placed before the syllables to which they apply. The two words just given may therefore be represented (in RP) as /əˈmeɪzɪŋ/ and /ˌɔːɡənaɪˈzeɪʃən/.

Some analysts identify an additional level of stress (tertiary stress). This is generally ascribed to syllables that are pronounced with less force than those with secondary stress, but nonetheless contain a "full" or "unreduced" vowel (vowels that are considered to be reduced are listed under English phonology § Unstressed syllables above). Hence the third syllable of organization, if pronounced with /aɪ/ as shown above (rather than being reduced to /ɪ/ or /ə/), might be said to have tertiary stress. (The precise identification of secondary and tertiary stress differs between analyses; dictionaries do not generally show tertiary stress, although some have taken the approach of marking all syllables with unreduced vowels as having at least secondary stress.)

In some analyses, then, the concept of lexical stress may become conflated with that of vowel reduction. An approach which attempts to separate these two is provided by Peter Ladefoged, who states that it is possible to describe English with only one degree of stress, as long as unstressed syllables are phonemically distinguished for vowel reduction.[71][72] In this approach, the distinction between primary and secondary stress is regarded as a phonetic or prosodic detail rather than a phonemic feature – primary stress is seen as an example of the predictable "tonic" stress that falls on the final stressed syllable of a prosodic unit. For more details of this analysis, see Stress and vowel reduction in English.

For stress as a prosodic feature (emphasis of particular words within utterances), see § Prosodic stress below.

Phonotactics is the study of the sequences of phonemes that occur in languages and the sound structures that they form. In this study it is usual to represent consonants in general with the letter C and vowels with the letter V, so that a syllable such as 'be' is described as having CV structure. The IPA symbol used to show a division between syllables is the dot [.]. Syllabification is the process of dividing continuous speech into discrete syllables, a process in which the position of a syllable division is not always easy to decide upon.

Most languages of the world syllabify CVCV and CVCCV sequences as /CV.CV/ and /CVC.CV/ or /CV.CCV/, with consonants preferentially acting as the onset of a syllable containing the following vowel. According to one view, English is unusual in this regard, in that stressed syllables attract following consonants, so that ˈCVCV and ˈCVCCV syllabify as /ˈCVC.V/ and /ˈCVCC.V/, as long as the consonant cluster CC is a possible syllable coda; in addition, /r/ preferentially syllabifies with the preceding vowel even when both syllables are unstressed, so that CVrV occurs as /CVr.V/. This is the analysis used in the Longman Pronunciation Dictionary.[73] However, this view is not widely accepted, as explained in the following section.

The syllable structure in English is (C)3V(C)5, with a near maximal example being strengths (/strɛŋkθs/, although it can be pronounced /strɛŋθs/).[B] From the phonetic point of view, the analysis of syllable structures is a complex task: because of widespread occurrences of articulatory overlap, English speakers rarely produce an audible release of individual consonants in consonant clusters.[74] This coarticulation can lead to articulatory gestures that seem very much like deletions or complete assimilations. For example, hundred pounds may sound like [hʌndɹɪb paʊndz] and jumped back (in slow speech, [dʒʌmptbæk]) may sound like [dʒʌmpbæk], but X-ray[75] and electropalatographic [76][77][78] studies demonstrate that inaudible and possibly weakened contacts or lingual gestures may still be made. Thus the second /d/ in hundred pounds does not entirely assimilate to a labial place of articulation, rather the labial gesture co-occurs with the alveolar one; the "missing" [t] in jumped back may still be articulated, though not heard.

Division into syllables is a difficult area, and different theories have been proposed. A widely accepted approach is the maximal onset principle:[79] this states that, subject to certain constraints, any consonants in between vowels should be assigned to the following syllable. Thus the word leaving should be divided /ˈliː.vɪŋ/ rather than */ˈliːv.ɪŋ/, and hasty is /ˈheɪ.sti/ rather than */ˈheɪs.ti/ or */ˈheɪst.i/. However, when such a division results in an onset cluster which is not allowed in English, the division must respect this. Thus if the word extra were divided */ˈɛ.kstrə/ the resulting onset of the second syllable would be /kstr/, a cluster which does not occur initially in English. The division /ˈɛk.strə/ is therefore preferred. If assigning a consonant or consonants to the following syllable would result in the preceding syllable ending in an unreduced short vowel, this is avoided. Thus the word comma (in RP) should be divided /ˈkɒm.ə/ and not */ˈkɒ.mə/, even though the latter division gives the maximal onset to the following syllable.

In some cases, no solution is completely satisfactory: for example, in British English (RP) the word hurry could be divided /ˈhʌ.ri/ or /ˈhʌr.i/, but the former would result in an analysis with a syllable-final /ʌ/ (which is held to be non-occurring) while the latter would result in a syllable final /r/ (which is said not to occur in this accent). Some phonologists have suggested a compromise analysis where the consonant in the middle belongs to both syllables, and is described as ambisyllabic.[80][81] In this way, it is possible to suggest an analysis of hurry which comprises the syllables /hʌr/ and /ri/, the medial /r/ being ambisyllabic. Where the division coincides with a word boundary, or the boundary between elements of a compound word, it is not usual in the case of dictionaries to insist on the maximal onset principle in a way that divides words in a counter-intuitive way; thus the word hardware would be divided /ˈhɑː.dweə/ by the M.O.P., but dictionaries prefer the division /ˈhɑːd.weə/.[82][83][84]

In the approach used by the Longman Pronunciation Dictionary, Wells[73] claims that consonants syllabify with the preceding rather than following vowel when the preceding vowel is the nucleus of a more salient syllable, with stressed syllables being the most salient, reduced syllables the least, and full unstressed vowels ("secondary stress") intermediate. But there are lexical differences as well, frequently but not exclusively with compound words. For example, in dolphin and selfish, Wells argues that the stressed syllable ends in /lf/, but in shellfish, the /f/ belongs with the following syllable: /ˈdɒlf.ɪn, ˈself.ɪʃ/[ˈdɒlfɪ̈n, ˈselfɪ̈ʃ], but /ˈʃel.fɪʃ/[ˈʃelˑfɪʃ], where the /l/ is a little longer and the /ɪ/ is not reduced. Similarly, in toe-strap Wells argues that the second /t/ is a full plosive, as usual in syllable onset, whereas in toast-rack the second /t/ is in many dialects reduced to the unreleased allophone it takes in syllable codas, or even elided: /ˈtoʊ.stræp/, /ˈtoʊst.ræk/[ˈtoˑʊstɹæp, ˈtoʊs(t̚)ɹæk]; likewise nitrate /ˈnaɪ.treɪt/[ˈnaɪtɹ̥eɪt] with a voiceless /r/ (and for some people an affricated tr as in tree), vs night-rate /ˈnaɪt.reɪt/[ˈnaɪt̚ɹeɪt] with a voiced /r/. Cues of syllable boundaries include aspiration of syllable onsets and (in the US) flapping of coda /t, d/ (a tease /ə.ˈtiːz/[əˈtʰiːz] vs. at ease /ət.ˈiːz/[əɾˈiːz]), epenthetic stops like [t] in syllable codas (fence /ˈfens/[ˈfents] but inside /ɪn.ˈsaɪd/[ɪnˈsaɪd]), and r-colored vowels when the /r/ is in the coda vs. labialization when it is in the onset (key-ring /ˈkiː.rɪŋ/[ˈkiːɹʷɪŋ] but fearing /ˈfiːr.ɪŋ/[ˈfɪəɹɪŋ]).

Certain English onsets appear only in contractions: e.g. /zbl/ ('sblood), and /zw/ or /dzw/ ('swounds or 'dswounds). Some, such as /pʃ/ (pshaw), /fw/ (fwoosh), or /vr/ (vroom), can occur in interjections. An archaic voiceless fricative plus nasal exists, /fn/ (fnese), as does an archaic /snj/ (snew).

Several additional onsets occur in loan words (with varying degrees of anglicization) such as /bw/ (bwana), /mw/ (moiré), /nw/ (noire), /tsw/ (zwitterion), /zw/ (zwieback), /dv/ (Dvorak), /kv/ (kvetch), /ʃv/ (schvartze), /tv/ (Tver), /tsv/ (Zwickau), /kdʒ/ (Kjell)[dubious ], /kʃ/ (Kshatriya), /tl/ (Tlaloc), /vl/ (Vladimir), /zl/ (zloty), /tsk/ (Tskhinvali), /hm/ (Hmong), /km/ (Khmer), and /ŋ/ (Nganasan).

Some clusters of this type can be converted to regular English phonotactics by simplifying the cluster: e.g. /(d)z/ (dziggetai), /(h)r/ (Hrolf), /kr(w)/ (croissant), /(ŋ)w/ (Nguyen), /(p)f/ (pfennig), /(f)θ/ (phthalic), /(t)s/ (tsunami), /(ǃ)k/ (!kung), and /k(ǁ)/ (Xhosa).

Others can be replaced by native clusters differing only in voice: /zb ~ sp/ (sbirro), and /zɡr ~ skr/ (sgraffito).

Most (in theory, all) of the following except those that end with /s/, /z/, /ʃ/, /ʒ/, /tʃ/ or /dʒ/ can be extended with /s/ or /z/ representing the morpheme -s/-z. Similarly, most (in theory, all) of the following except those that end with /t/ or /d/ can be extended with /t/ or /d/ representing the morpheme -t/-d.

Wells (1990) argues that a variety of syllable codas are possible in English, even /ntr, ndr/ in words like entry /ˈɛntr.i/ and sundry /ˈsʌndr.i/, with /tr, dr/ being treated as affricates along the lines of /tʃ, dʒ/. He argues that the traditional assumption that pre-vocalic consonants form a syllable with the following vowel is due to the influence of languages like French and Latin, where syllable structure is CVC.CVC regardless of stress placement. Disregarding such contentious cases, which do not occur at the ends of words, the following sequences can occur as the coda:

For some speakers, a fricative before /θ/ is elided so that these never appear phonetically: /fɪfθ/ becomes [fɪθ], /sɪksθ/ becomes [sɪkθ], /twɛlfθ/ becomes [twɛlθ].

The prosodic features of English – stress, rhythm, and intonation – can be described as follows.

Prosodic stress is extra stress given to words or syllables when they appear in certain positions in an utterance, or when they receive special emphasis.

According to Ladefoged's analysis (as referred to under Lexical stress § Notes above), English normally has prosodic stress on the final stressed syllable in an intonation unit. This is said to be the origin of the distinction traditionally made at the lexical level between primary and secondary stress: when a word like admiration (traditionally transcribed as something like /ˌædmɪˈreɪʃən/) is spoken in isolation, or at the end of a sentence, the syllable ra (the final stressed syllable) is pronounced with greater force than the syllable ad, although when the word is not pronounced with this final intonation there may be no difference between the levels of stress of these two syllables.

Prosodic stress can shift for various pragmatic functions, such as focus or contrast. For instance, in the dialogue Is it brunch tomorrow? No, it's dinner tomorrow, the extra stress shifts from the last stressed syllable of the sentence, tomorrow, to the last stressed syllable of the emphasized word, dinner.

Grammatical function words are usually prosodically unstressed, although they can acquire stress when emphasized (as in Did you find the cat? Well, I found a cat). Many English function words have distinct strong and weak pronunciations; for example, the word a in the last example is pronounced /eɪ/, while the more common unstressed a is pronounced /ə/. See Weak and strong forms in English.

English is claimed to be a stress-timed language. That is, stressed syllables tend to appear with a more or less regular rhythm, while non-stressed syllables are shortened to accommodate this. For example, in the sentence One make of car is better than another, the syllables one, make, car, bett- and -noth- will be stressed and relatively long, while the other syllables will be considerably shorter. The theory of stress-timing predicts that each of the three unstressed syllables in between bett- and -noth- will be shorter than the syllable of between make and car, because three syllables must fit into the same amount of time as that available for of. However, it should not be assumed that all varieties of English are stress-timed in this way. The English spoken in the West Indies,[92] in Africa[93] and in India[94] are probably better characterized as syllable-timed, though the lack of an agreed scientific test for categorizing an accent or language as stress-timed or syllable-timed may lead one to doubt the value of such a characterization.[95]

Phonological contrasts in intonation can be said to be found in three different and independent domains. In the work of Halliday[96] the following names are proposed:

These terms ("the Three Ts") have been used in more recent work,[97][98] though they have been criticized for being difficult to remember.[99] American systems such as ToBI also identify contrasts involving boundaries between intonation phrases (Halliday's tonality), placement of pitch accent (tonicity), and choice of tone or tones associated with the pitch accent (tone).

Example of phonological contrast involving placement of intonation unit boundaries (boundary marked by comma):

Example of phonological contrast involving placement of tonic syllable (marked by capital letters):

Example of phonological contrast (British English) involving choice of tone (\ = falling tone, \/ = fall-rise tone)

There is typically a contrast involving tone between wh-questions and yes/no questions, the former having a falling tone (e.g. "Where did you \PUT it?") and the latter a rising tone (e.g. "Are you going /OUT?"), though studies of spontaneous speech have shown frequent exceptions to this rule.[100] Tag questions asking for information are said to carry rising tones (e.g. "They are coming on Tuesday, /AREN'T they?") while those asking for confirmation have falling tone (e.g. "Your name's John, \ISN'T it.").

The pronunciation system of English has undergone many changes throughout the history of the language, from the phonological system of Old English, to that of Middle English, through to that of the present day. Variation between dialects has always been significant. Former pronunciations of many words are reflected in their spellings, as English orthography has generally not kept pace with phonological changes since the Middle English period.

The English consonant system has been relatively stable over time, although a number of significant changes have occurred. Examples include the loss (in most dialects) of the [ç] and [x] sounds still reflected by the ⟨gh⟩ in words like night and taught, and the splitting of voiced and voiceless allophones of fricatives into separate phonemes (such as the two different phonemes represented by ⟨th⟩). There have also been many changes in consonant clusters, mostly reductions, for instance those that produced the usual modern pronunciations of such letter combinations as ⟨wr-⟩, ⟨kn-⟩ and ⟨wh-⟩.

The development of vowels has been much more complex. One of the most notable series of changes is that known as the Great Vowel Shift, which began around the late 14th century. Here the [iː] and [uː] in words like price and mouth became diphthongized, and other long vowels became higher: [eː] became [iː] (as in meet), [aː] became [eː] and later [eɪ] (as in name), [oː] became [uː] (as in goose), and [ɔː] became [oː] and later [oʊ] (in RP now [əʊ]; as in bone). These shifts are responsible for the modern pronunciations of many written vowel combinations, including those involving a silent final ⟨e⟩.

Many other changes in vowels have taken place over the centuries (see the separate articles on the low back, high back and high front vowels, short A, and diphthongs). These various changes mean that many words that formerly rhymed (and may be expected to rhyme based on their spelling) no longer do.[101] For example, in Shakespeare's time, following the Great Vowel Shift, food, good and blood all had the vowel [uː], but in modern pronunciation good has been shortened to [ʊ], while blood has been shortened and lowered to [ʌ] in most accents. In other cases, words that were formerly distinct have come to be pronounced the same – examples of such mergers include meet–meat, pane–pain and toe–tow.

The phonemic status of the velar nasal consonant [ŋ] is disputed; one analysis claims that the only nasal phonemes in English are /m/ and /n/, while [ŋ] is an allophone of /n/ found before velar consonants. Evidence in support of this analysis is found in accents of the north-west Midlands of England where [ŋ] is only found before /k/ or /ɡ/, with sung being pronounced as [sʌŋɡ]. However, in most other accents of English sung is pronounced [sʌŋ], producing a three-way phonemic contrast sumsunsung /sʌm sʌn sʌŋ/ and supporting the analysis of the phonemic status of /ŋ/. In support of treating the velar nasal as an allophone of /n/, Sapir (1925) claims on psychological grounds that [ŋ] did not form part of a series of three nasal consonants: "no naive speaker of English can be made to feel in his bones that it belongs to a single series with /m/ and /n/... it still feels like ŋɡ."[102] More recent writers have indicated that analyses of [ŋ] as an allophone of /n/ may still have merit, even though [ŋ] may appear both with and without a following velar consonant; in such analyses, an underlying /ɡ/ that is deleted by a phonological rule would account for occurrences of [ŋ] not followed by a velar consonant.[103][104][105] Thus the phonemic representation of sing would be /sɪnɡ/ and that of singer is /sɪnɡə/; in order to reach the phonetic form [sɪŋ] and [sɪŋə], it is necessary to apply a rule that changes /n/ to [ŋ] before /k/ or /ɡ/, then a second rule that deletes /ɡ/ when it follows [ŋ].

In the above cases, the /ɡ/ is not deleted. The words are all single morphemes, unlike singer and singing which are composed of two morphemes, sing plus -er or -ing. In theory, there is a minimal pair consisting of hangar ('shed for aircraft'), which, containing no internal morpheme boundary, is pronounced [ˈhæŋɡə] and hanger ('object for hanging clothes'), which comprises two morphemes and is pronounced [ˈhæŋə]. Not all speakers use these pronunciations consistently, however. Rule 2 can be amended to include a symbol # for a morpheme boundary (including word boundary):

This rule then applies to sing, singer and singing but not to anger, finger, or hunger.

However, there are exceptions in the form of comparative and superlative forms of adjectives, where Rule 2 must be prevented from applying. The ending -ish is another possible exception.

As a result, there is, in theory, a minimal pair consisting of longer ([lɒŋɡər] 'more long') and longer ([lɒŋər] 'person who longs'), though it is doubtful that native speakers make this distinction regularly.[106] Names of persons and places, and loanwords, are less predictable. Singapore may be pronounced with or without [ɡ]; bungalow usually has [ɡ]; and Inge may or may not have [ɡ].[107]

It is often stated that English has a particularly large number of vowel phonemes and that there are 20 vowel phonemes in Received Pronunciation,[108] 14–16 in General American, and 20–21 in Australian English. These numbers, however, reflect just one of many possible phonological analyses. A number of "biphonemic" analyses have proposed that English has a basic set of short (sometimes called "simple" or "checked") vowels, each of which can be shown to be a phoneme and which can be combined with another phoneme to form long vowels and diphthongs. One of these biphonemic analyses asserts that diphthongs and long vowels may be interpreted as comprising a short vowel linked to a consonant. The fullest exposition of this approach is found in Trager & Smith (1951), where all long vowels and diphthongs ("complex nuclei") are made up of a short vowel combined with either /j/ (for which the authors use the symbol ⟨y⟩), /w/ or /h/ (plus /r/ for rhotic accents), each thus comprising two phonemes.[109] Using this system, the word bite would be transcribed /bajt/, bout as /bawt/, bar as /bar/ and bra as /brah/. One attraction that the authors claim for this analysis is that it regularizes the distribution of the consonants /j/, /w/, and /h/ (as well as /r/ in non-rhotic accents), which would otherwise not be found in syllable-final position. Trager & Smith (1951) suggest nine simple vowel phonemes to allow them to represent all the accents of American and British English they surveyed, symbolized /i, e, æ/ (front vowels); /ᵻ, ə, a/ (central vowels); and /u, o, ɔ/ (back vowels).

The analysis from Trager & Smith (1951) came out of a desire to build an "overall system" to accommodate all English dialects, with dialectal distinctions arising from differences in the ordering of phonological rules,[110][111] as well as in the presence or absence of such rules.[112] Another category of biphonemic analyses of English treats long vowels and diphthongs as conjunctions of two vowels. Such analyses, as found in Sweet (1877) or Kreidler (2004) for example, are less concerned with dialectal variation. In MacCarthy (1957), for example, there are seven basic vowels and these may be doubled (geminated) to represent long vowels, as shown in the table below:

Some of the short vowels may also be combined with /i/ (/ei/ bay, /ai/ buy, /oi/ boy), with /u/ (/au/ bough, /ou/ beau) or with /ə/ (/iə/ peer, /eə/ pair, /uə/ poor). The vowel inventory of English RP in MacCarthy's system therefore totals only seven phonemes. Analyses such as these could also posit six vowel phonemes, if the vowel of the final syllable in comma is considered to be an unstressed allophone of that of strut. These seven vowels might be symbolized /i/, /e/, /a/, /o/, /u/, /ʌ/ and /ə/. Six or seven vowels is a figure that would put English much closer to the average number of vowel phonemes in other languages.[113]

A radically different approach to the English vowel system was proposed by Chomsky and Halle. Their Sound Pattern of English (Chomsky & Halle 1968) proposed that English has lax and tense vowel phonemes which are operated on by a complex set of phonological rules to transform underlying phonological forms into surface phonetic representations. This generative analysis is not easily comparable with conventional analyses, but the total number of vowel phonemes proposed falls well short of the figure of 20 often claimed as the number of English vowel phonemes.