All the sounds of mainstream American and British Speech

S4 stands for Simplified Standard Sound Symbols. They are a simplified sub-set of the academic International Phonetic Alphabet (IPA) symbol set, optimized for teaching the pronunciation of English.

The sounds used in mainstream American and British have long been identified by linguists. For instance, the sounds of British English can be found on the University College London website here.

The following examples mainly correspond to British speech. US examples are indicated individually. This list gives the S4 symbol, the IPA symbol, the name of the sound and some examples of its use.

  1. a, ʌ, Short A, strut, mud, love, blood
  2. aa, ɑː, Long A, start, father, bath
  3. e, ɛ, Short E, dress, bed, head, many
  4. ee, ɛː, Long E, square, fair, various
  5. i, ɪ, Short I, kit, bid, him, minute
  6. ii, iː, Long I, fleece, sea, machine
  7. o, ɒ, Short O, lot, odd, wash
  8. oo, ɔː, Long O, thought, law, north, war
  9. u, u, Short U, foot, good, put
  10. uu, uː, Long U, goose, two, blue, group
  11. æ, æ, Ash, apple, trap, bad
  12. ə, ə, Short Schwa, about, soda, America
  13. əə, ɜː, Long Schwa, nurse, stir, learn, refer
  14. ei, ei, E-I Diphthong, face, day, break
  15. ou, əʊ, O-U Diphthong, goat, show, no
  16. ai, aɪ, A-I Diphthong, price, high, try
  17. au, aʊ, A-U Diphthong, how, now, brown, cow

    the mainstream consonant sounds
    Note: Consonants are sounds the come before or go after vowel sounds and most cannot really be pronounced alone. Therefore in the following audio examples they are spoken with a schwa sound (ə) before or after them as the case may be.
  18. l, l, Clear L, light, lip, line
  19. ‛l, l̩, Dark L, middle, metal, people
  20. m, m, Clear M, more, mouse, money
  21. ‛m, m̩, Dark M, blossom, system, rhythm
  22. n, n, Clear N, nose, no, name
  23. ‛n, n̩, Dark N, woman, sun, town
  24. r, r, Clear R, red, right, wrong
  25. ‛r, ɹ̩, Dark R, hair, letter, mother
    Note: not used in British English
  26. p, p, P Sound, pen, copy, happen
  27. b, b, B Sound, back, baby, job
  28. t, t, T Sound, tea, tight, button
  29. d, d, D Sound, day, ladder, odd
  30. k, k, K Sound, key, clock, school
  31. g, g, G Sound, get, giggle, ghost
  32. ʃ, ʃ, Esh Sound, ship, shore, national
  33. ʒ, ʒ, Ezh Sound, pleasure, vision
  34. , tʃ, T-Esh Sound, church, match, nature
  35. , dʒ, D-Ezh Sound, judge, age, soldier
  36. þ, θ, Thorn Sound, thing, author, path

    Why use a Greek letter when the Old English one is free?
  37. ð, ð, Eth Sound, this, other, smooth

    This is an Old English letter (like Thorn)
  38. f, f, F Sound, coffee, rough, photo
  39. v, v, V Sound, view, heavy, move
  40. s, s, S Sound, soon, cease, sister
  41. z, z, Z Sound, zero, music, roses, buzz
  42. y, y, Y Sound, yet, use, beauty, few
  43. w, w, W Sound, wet, one, when, queen
  44. h, h, H Sound, hot, whole, ahead
  45. ŋ, ŋ, Eng Sound, ring, anger, thanks, sung

non-mainstream sounds

Note: Here are a few of the common ones, though many more are heard.

Features of S4 and how and why it differs from IPA

S4 stands for Simplified Standard Sound Symbols. They are a simplified sub-set of the standard academic International Phonetic Alphabet (IPA) symbol set, optimized for teaching the pronunciation of English.

The sounds used in mainstream American and British have long been identified by linguists. For instance, the sounds of British English can be found on the University College London website here. Purely American variants have been added to this list.

In S4, a clear distinction is made between long and short vowels, as well as between clear and dark consonants. As concerns long and short vowels, for teaching purposes it is practical to consider the short vowel sounds to be "stopped" versions of the long ones. For instance, it is easy to think of the difference between "ship" and "sheep" as being that the former contains a Short I and the latter contains a Long I. As concerns clear and dark consonants, the word "little" can be considered to begin with a Clear L and end with a Dark L. Thus, S4 offers a logical symmetry that facilitates memorization.

S4 text is always written in blue to make it immediately recognizable as such.

Some of the main features of S4 are given below.

 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 IPA phonetic script fang marks (like this ː) are used to indicate long vowels. As  in the Japanese JSL system, in S4 long vowels are symbolized by double characters:

And the short versions are simply:

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

Students find all 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 (ə). 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 (like this: ). 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 M as in "rhythm" rið‛m

    •    a Dark L as in "little" (very hard for non-native speakers 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


Stops and Linking

Speech consists of a sequence of sounds. Some of these sounds are easier to make than others. And, sometimes, they are difficult to pronounce in succession. When sounds are difficult to pronounce in succession, the result is a stop.

Stops occur in many languages. By way of an example, here is a Japanese phrase that means something like "wait a moment", which is written in Roman letter transcription as chotto matte kudasai. The syllable breaks are as follows chot·to·mat·te·ku·da·sa·i  This phrase therefore has three stops: one between the first two Ts, one between the second two Ts and one in the last word. Click to hear it.

Another example can be found in the way pizza is pronounced in Italian. Here is a link to a pronunciation website for this word. The transcription given there for pronunciation is "[pìz-za] /ˈpiːtʦa/". Personally, I would transcribe what I hear as biit·za in S4.

In English, stops occur frequently. To avoid them, linking is used. This covers  a range of methods. Sometimes, a consonant is added to separate two vowels. For instance, "the egg" may be pronounced þiiy eg by adding a Y-Sound between the words, and "your egg" can be pronounced yoor eg by saying the final R of "your", which is unspoken in mainstream British English. Also, to separate consonants,  one of them can omitted, as in "what did you say" which is often pronounced wo did yuu sei, where the T at the end of "what" is omitted. Another method of avoiding a stop is to say the final consonant of a word and if were the first letter of the next word when it begins with a vowel. For instance, "Isn't it" is often 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.

Linking is systematically used in French, but many English speakers are quite unaware that they are using it, and even believe that 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 linking.

Here are the technical terms for this: In phonology, epenthesis means the addition of one or more sounds to a word, especially to the interior of a word. The word epenthesis comes from epi- "in addition to" and en "in" and thesis "putting". Epenthesis may be divided into two types: excrescence, for the addition of a consonant, and svarabhakti, or anaptyxis, for the addition of a vowel. The opposite process, where one or more sounds are removed, is referred to as elision.

Phonetic text makes teaching and learning accurate English pronunciation far quicker and easier. Here are some corresponding resources.

I provide online accent reduction courses, using phonetic text to ensure the process as clear and cost-effective as possible. This makes it possible to find out exactly what you need to do to improve your pronunciation, and set your step-by-step goals.

To book a free getting-started session or a paid learning-lesson on-line, click here.

I look forward to meeting you,
Simon Vickers.


Every EFL teacher needs to consciously know the sounds of standard American and British speech
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