The long and short of it

One difference between the S4 and IPA phonetic symbol sets is the way long and short vowels are shown. In S4, as in the Japanese JSL system, long vowels are symbolized by double characters:

  • aa (car)
  • ee (Mary)
  • ii (reach)
  • uu (food)
  • oo (door)
  • əə (bird)

And the short versions are simply:

  • a (cut) 
  • e (let)
  • i (kit)
  • u (foot)
  • o (lot)
  • ə (banana)

With the short vowels, the airflow is cut off in the throat to end them (a glottal stop).

Colon-like length marks are not used.

Students find this logical and easy.



The dark side

When I attended the UCL Summer Course in 2003, I had difficulty in accepting the way syllabic consonants were represented using a schwa. I have lived most of my life in France and I am particularly sensitive to the way the French try to pronounce my name in the “English” way (Symeunn). In English, it seems to me, that in this instance, the vowel sound between the “m” and the “n” is extremely short, virtually non-existent. The same applies to words like “twinkle”, “candle” and “little”. This appears to me to correspond to the dark-l (aka. a syllabic-l), and not to / əl / To my ear, the latter sounds like a whiny child’s way of speaking. I would not say that there is a schwa-sound before the final L in little.

Sometimes, elsewhere, syllabic consonants are represented by a short vertical line underneath. I prefer to move the mark to above and left of the character in the form of an apostrophe, the meaning of which readily suggests itself to the uninitiated.

Once you accept the idea of using a syllabic l, a whole range of other syllabic consonants appear:

  • a dark-n as in “written” rit‛n
  • a dark- as in “rhythm” rið‛m
  • a dark- as in “little” (very hard for foreigners to pronounce) lit‛l
  • a dark-w as in “little” pronounced with a cockney accent li·‛w
  • and, best of all, a dark-r, as in “bird” pronounced rhotically: b‛rd




“Isn’t it” is actually  pronounced “isn tit” and  “it’s not” is pronounced “it snot”. I must admit that I thought this was unbearably funny when I was ten years old. This is “liaison” in action.

Liaison (aka. “linking” and “sandhi” but no one knows how to pronounce it) is the name for what happens when, in speech, a word merges with an adjoining one.

For instance, “stop it” is pronounced “sto pit”.

This occurs very often, and in S4, to avoid breaking up words and ensure that they can be recognized as units, the break between the words as written in conventional spelling is replaced by a hyphen.

Thus, “stop it” is thus written stop-it (and not sto pit). And “the importance of education” can be written ðiiy-i‛mpoot‛ns-əv-edʒəkeiʃ‛n (the word breaks are preserved but the pronunciation spills over, also, there is an intrusive “ye” sound between breaking up the vowels between the first two words).

Liaison is systematically used in French, but many English speakers are quite unaware that they are using it, and even believe it is wrong. Very few of those whose native language is Chinese ever get to understand it at all. Teachers of English as a foreign language need to be very clear about liaison.