My dialect of English

23 Mar 2024

This article is a brief phonological analysis of American English, focusing exclusively on my own dialect (which is pretty close to “General American”), and ignoring all other dialects.


There are 24 consonant phonemes:

Nasal m   n   ŋ  
Stop p b   t d tʃ dʒ k g  
Fricative f v θ ð s z ʃ ʒ   h
Approximant     r l j w  
  • /p/ and /k/ are aspirated at the start of a word and at the start of a non-reduced syllable, unless preceded by within-morpheme ‘s’ as in ‘aspect’, ‘despair’, ‘mascot’. Note that ‘passcode’, ‘crisscross’, ‘discomfort’ have aspirated [kʰ], since the /s/ is not within the same morpheme. I believe the underlying reason for why /s/ can suppress aspiration is that /sp/ and /sk/ are valid syllable onsets, so the /s/ in words like ‘aspect’ mentally “straddles” the syllable boundary and causes the stop to not be fully at the start of the syllable.

  • /t/ follows the same aspiration pattern as /p/ and /k/, except that it has four additional allophones:

    • affricated [tʃ] before within-morpheme /r/
    • voiced and tapped [ɾ] when preceded by a vowel or /r/ and followed by a reduced vowel, or an out-of-morpheme vowel, other than /ən/
    • often, silent [∅] when preceded by /n/ and followed by a reduced vowel, or an out-of-morpheme vowel, other than /ən/
    • unreleased [tʔ] or glottal [ʔ] when preceded by a vowel, /r/, /l/, or /n/, and followed by /ən/, a consonant other than intra-morpheme /r/ or /s/, or a “hard boundary” such as the end of an utterance or sometimes a word boundary

    These rules are pretty complicated, and I might have missed some edge cases. They can stretch forward (but not backward) [REWORD THIS] across word boundaries; for example, the ‘t’ in “a bit of” is pronounced as a tap.

  • /d/ has two additional allophones:

    • affricated [dʒ] before within-morpheme /r/
    • tapped [ɾ] when preceded by a vowel or /r/ and followed by a vowel (MENTION WORD BOUNDARIES), unless at the start of a stressed syllable

    In certain contexts, /t/ and /d/ are both pronounced as a voiced tap. However, these can still be said to be different phonemes, for two reasons. First of all, some instances of [ɾ] alternate with /t/, while others alternate with /d/. For instance, while ‘coating’ and ‘coding’ are pronounced the same, ‘coat’ and ‘code’ are pronounced differently, and ‘coats’ and ‘codes’ are pronounced differently. So it makes sense to analyse ‘coating’ as /kotɪŋ/ and ‘coding’ as /kodɪŋ/. Second of all, the tap allophone of /t/ triggers raising of preceding /aɪ/, while the tap allophone of /d/ does not. So ‘writing’ is pronounced [ɹʷəɪɾɪŋ], while ‘riding’ is pronounced [ɹʷaɪɾɪŋ].

    That said, within a morpheme, the distinction between tapped /t/ and tapped /d/ is neutralized, unless the tap is preceded by /aɪ/ or followed by /ən/. (In the latter case it must be /d/.) It doesn’t make sense to transcribe ‘ladder’ and ‘latter’ differently; both are simply /læ(t~d)ər/.

  • /r/ is a postalveolar approximant with varying degrees of labialization. It is fully rounded at the start of a non-reduced syllable (as in ‘red’), and partially rounded in other prevocalic contexts (as in ‘green’, ‘spirit’). The rounding may also come with a slight degree of velarization or pharyngealization. It is not rounded if there is no vowel after it.

  • /l/ is fully velarized [ɫ] in all positions.


There are 16 vowel phonemes:

i ĭ   u
ɪ   ʊ
e ə o oɪ
ɛ   ʌ
æ æʊ a aɪ ɒ

Two of these phonemes (/ə/ and /ĭ/) are reduced vowels, and the rest are non-reduced (or full) vowels. Of the full vowels in a word, one carries primary stress, and the rest carry secondary stress. The transcriptions above, especially for the “back” vowels, are only approximate. My dialect of English (and American English more generally) stands out among the world’s languages for its near lack of any back rounded vowels. The only fully rounded syllable nuclei are the first parts of /oɪ/, /or/, /ol/, and /ul/.

  • /əl/ and /ər/ are pronounced as syllabic [ɫ̩], [ɹ̩]. Other sonorants may sometimes be syllabic after /ə/, but this is inconsistent. Syllabic liquids can also occur in non-reduced syllables, as in ‘bull’, ‘term’. Phonemically, these are best analyzed are /ʊl/ and /ʊr/, in my opinion. (The /ʊl/ analysis is bog-standard; the /ʊr/ analysis is, as far as I’m aware, my own innovation.)

  • /ə/ and /ĭ/ (the latter of which is found in words like ‘happy’, ‘axiom’) are the only reduced vowels. In my dialect, the second vowels in ‘hammock’ and ‘music’ are pronounced the same, as are the second vowels in ‘gallop’ and ‘turnip’. All are transcribed in my analysis as /ə/. The realization of /ə/ in the first pair is slightly farther forward (closer to /ɪ/) than in the second pair; generally, this fronting takes place when /ə/ is followed by a non-bilabial consonant at the end of a morpheme. The standard transcriptions of ‘music’ and ‘hammock’ appear to be /mjuzɪk/ and /hæmək/. That is nonsense, at least where I am from. It is /mjuzək/, /hæmək/, /gæləp/, /tʊrnəp/, and so on.

  • The vowels /ɪ/, /ʊ/, /ɛ/, /ʌ/, /æ/, and /a/ rarely or never occur word-finally.

    • /ɪ/, /ʊ/, and /æ/ never occur word-finally.
    • /ɛ/ and /ʌ/ occur word-finally only in very marginal words such as ‘meh’, ‘uh’, ‘bruh’, and one pronunciation of the Vietnamese loan word ‘pho’.
    • /a/ occurs more often word-finally, for instance in ‘bra’ (which does not rhyme with ‘raw’ /rɒ/; those vowels are not merged for me), and in some French loan words and names such as ‘mardi gras’, ‘Fermat’. Note, however, that none of these are “normal” words (‘bra’ is an abbreviation), and word-final /a/ is still very rare.
  • /ɪ/ is rather lax. Unlike in many other languages, in which /ɪ/ is perceived as a shorter or laxer form of /i/, I have always perceived them as totally distinct vowels.

  • /e/ and /o/ are usually diphtongs [eɪ], [əʊ]. They are only monophthongs before the liquids /l/ and /r/. Examples are given by the following:

    • ‘fair’ /fer/ [feɹ]
    • ‘fate’ /fet/ [feɪt]
    • ‘lore’ /lor/ [ɫoɹ]
    • ‘lower’ /lo.ər/ [ɫəʊ.ɹ̩]

    Note how the syllabic forms of /l/ and /r/ do not trigger monophtongization, since they are phonemically preceded by /ə/.

    The monophthongal realization of /e/ may be slightly lower than the corresponding cardinal vowel, but it is certainly not as low as /ɛ/. The standard transcription of “fair” as [fɛɹ] has always baffled me, and /e/ and /ɛ/ contrast before /l/. The monophthongal realization of /o/ is somewhat lower than that of /e/, and is best described as mid rather than close-mid. The same observation applies to the first component of /oɪ/.

  • /a/, including the first component of /aɪ/, is typically an open central vowel, the same as the Spanish, French, and German pronunciations of the letter ‘a’. This vowel occurs in words such as ‘lock’ and ‘father’. Before /r/, it pronounced further back as [ɑ].

  • Before phonemically voiceless consonants (including the tap allophone of /t/), the diphthong /aɪ/ is raised to /əɪ/. This stretches across word boundaries in certain common phrases, such as ‘high school’, which is pronounced [həɪskuɫ] (One could argue, then, that ‘high school’ is really one word, despite having a space in the middle.)

    An issue arises when looking at raising of /aɪ/ before morpheme-internal taps. I pronounce ‘spider’, ‘cider’, ‘idol’, ‘idle’, ‘Poseidon’, and a number of other words with /əɪ/, despite the tap being spelled with a ‘d’. For most of these words, you can fix the problem by analyzing the tap as /t/, despite the spelling. For example, you can analyse ‘spider’ as /spaɪtəɹ/, which under regular allophonic rules becomes [spəɪɾɹ̩]. However, this doesn’t work for ‘Poseidon’, because /pəsaɪten/ is realized as [pəsəɪʔən], not [pəsəɪɾən], under regular allophonic rules. You could salvage this by stating that morpheme-internal taps always trigger raising of /aɪ/, regardless of whether they come from /t/ or /d/. But I don’t always pronounce /aɪ/ as [əɪ] before morpheme-internal taps. For example, I pronounce ‘Biden’ as [baɪɾən]; ‘Poseiden’ and ‘Biden’ do not rhyme. So we are forced to conclude that [aɪ] and [əɪ] are actually distinct phonemes in my idiolect!

    That said, this problem goes away if we ignore the single word ‘Poseiden’, so I will continue to analyze [əɪ] as an allophone of /aɪ/. Then we can analyze ‘spider’ as /spaɪtəɹ/ and so on, and pretend that I pronounce ‘Poseiden’ as [pəsaɪɾən], even though I don’t. It is clear, however, that [əɪ] is on its way to becoming a phoneme in certain parts of America.

    As a side note, I pronounce the word ‘tidal’ with [əɪ] in the phrase ‘tidal wave’, and sometimes in other phrases such as ‘tidal forces’, even though I pronounce it as [tʰaɪɾɫ̩] in isolation. This is probably because I learned the phrase ‘tidal wave’ at a young age, and didn’t immediately realize the connection to the word ‘tide’.

  • /ɒ/ is only slightly rounded. This vowel occurs in words such as ‘boss’, ‘fog’, and ‘dawn’.

    My mom, and certain other people I know, pronounce ‘fog’ as /fag/ but ‘dog’ as /dɒg/. (I’m not sure where this distinction came from originally.) However, I pronounce every ‘-og’ word with /ɒ/.


Vowel-consonant restrictions

Pronunciations of specific words