P is for Phonemic Chart

8 08 2010

(That’s phonEMIC, not phonETIC, by the way. There’s a big difference!)

Ever since I’ve been teaching in the US I’ve been challenged by the need to devise a chart of the phonemes of American English (General American or GA) that can be used in the same way as the original British English (RP) chart, both as a training and a teaching tool. (Incidentally, it’s an often overlooked fact that the layout of the original RP chart – along with lots of ways of exploiting it in class – is due to the work of Adrian Underhill).

Adrian Underhill’s ‘Sound Foundations’ Chart (Macmillan)

In fact, the search for a GA equivalent goes back even earlier, to 1995, when I was assessing a CELTA course here in New York and was surprised to find that the language analysis trainer was trying to knock the round peg of GA sounds into the square hole of the RP chart. Fifteen years later I discover that not much has changed: another large training organisation here is using an “Americanized” version of the original RP chart, but one which not only includes five more vowel sounds than GA is normally credited with having, but adds two diphthongs ( /ʌɪ/ and /ɔʊ/) that, as far as I know, belong to no known variety of English!

Of course, the problem of devising a GA chart is complicated by the fact that – unlike the case of RP – there is no single, agreed upon, system of transcribing American vowels. (Compare any two American learners’ dictionaries, for instance). This is probably due to the fact that, while there is less accent variation across North America than there is within the British Isles, there is no single variety that can (or is allowed to) claim the prestigious status that RP enjoys.

In 2007, while teaching at SIT in Brattleboro, Vermont, I came up with a chart that was based closely on the description in Celce-Murcia et al. (1996) – see inset below (click to expand).

GA chart (after Celce-Murcia et. al., 1996)

The layout of the chart attempts to reflect the elegance of Adrian’s RP chart, with the consonants ranged from front-of-mouth to back-of-mouth obstruction, and the vowels roughly mapped on to the classic (Daniel Jones?) vowel quadrant. In terms of the symbols, the consonants were not a problem: the only change involved changing the symbol /j/ for a /y/. The vowels were another story.

First of all the layout had to be reconfigured to accommodate the fewer vowel sounds of GA (16 vs 20 in RP). While the three ‘heterogenous’ diphthongs are separated out and colour-coded, no attempt was made to distinguish the simple vowels from the vowels with an adjacent glide (/iy/, /ey/, /ow/) since the latter, technically, are not diphthongs.  Nor were combinations with /r/ (such as /ır/ and /or/) included, since, technically, these are not individual phonemes but are attempts to represent the way certain vowel sounds are “colored” by the consonants that follow them (which may be /r/, /l/ or /rl/). The only exception I made was the case of /ɜr/ which, as Celce-Murcia et al. point out, is used “to capture a significant difference in quality between the /ʌ/ in bud and the /ɜr/ in bird” (p. 105) and which they include as their “15th phoneme” of North American English (the 16th being the schwa).  Finally, an optional superscript /r/ was added to the schwa, because the combination of schwa and post-vocalic /r/ is often distinguished from schwa, phonetically, by being transcribed with a different symbol (ɚ). This represents the (phonemic) difference in GA between the final vowels in cheeta and cheater, for example. Note also that both /ɔ/ and /ɑ/ are represented in the chart, in deference to those varieties of GA that do distinguish between caught and cot.

This chart has served OK over the years, but I’ve not been entirely happy with it – not least because of the use of the consonant symbols /y/ and /w/ to flag lengthening and lip rounding, as well as the clumsy superscript [r]s. So I revisted the literature, and came up with a new one, based on the description in Roca and Johnson (1999). The consonants remain as they were. The main differences to the vowels is that I’ve abandoned the /y/ and /w/ add-ons, susbtituting symbols that more accurately realise the phonetic qualities of the homogeneous (adjacent glide) and heterogeneous (non-adjacent glide) diphthongs, colour-coding these respectively, as well as substituting the symbol ɚ for the r-coloured schwa alternative, and /ɝ/ for the r-coloured vowel in bird. I’ve also re-positioned /ʌ/ so that its central and back quality is more accurately represented, and turned the division between /ɔ/ and /ɑ/ into a dotted line to flag that, in some varieties, these two sounds are not distinguished. : chart v5

All comments will be gratefully received and acknowledged.


Celce-Murcia, M., Brinton, D.M., and Goodwin, J.M. (1996) Teaching Pronunciation. Cambridge University Press.

Roca, I., and Johnson, W. (1999) A Course in Phonology. Oxford: Blackwell.


Click here ( US phonemic chart ) to see a pdf version of Adrian Underhill’s GA Chart – mentioned in his comments below. (Thanks, Adrian!)