Update: 2011-12-31 05:36 PM +0630


English Phonetics and Phonology for Burmese-Myanmar speakers


by U Kyaw Tun (UKT), M.S. (I.P.S.T., U.S.A), Tun Institute of Learning (TIL),  http://www.tuninst.net Not for sale. Prepared for staff and students of TIL.

based on Peter Roach. English Phonetics and Phonology, a practical course. 2nd ed., 4th printing 1993, Cambridge University Press. ISBN 0-521-40718-4. pp 262 . For my reference, the printed book was digitized (type-copied) by Daw Khin Wutyi, B.Sc., TIL Computing and Language Center, Yangon, Myanmar. 2009. Page references to the original book are shown in my text for easy reference.

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Contents of this page

03.02 Diphthongs
Centring diphthongs
Closing diphthongs
Notes on problems and further reading
Written exercises

UKT notes

Noteworthy words in this file :
Foreign learners must, ... always remember that the last part of English diphthongs must not be made too strongly.

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03.02 Diphthongs

UKT: Most Myanmars are not familiar with diphthongs, because Burmese is mostly monophthongal Burmese. Diphthongs just like other vowels can either be free or checked.

RP has a large number of diphthongs, sounds which consist of a movement or glide from one vowel to another. A vowel which remains constant and does not glide is called a pure vowel; and one of the most common pronunciation mistakes that result in a learner of English having a "foreign" accent is the production of pure vowels where a diphthong should be pronounced.

UKT: A native-English speaker pronouncing a Burmese word (particularly place names and personal names) tends to pronounce the monophthongal Burmese in diphthongs. The worst scenario is when a Burmese name has been transcribed into English and then re-transcribed into Burmese: even the native-Burmese speakers can no longer identify the word.
   Most of the Myanmars, myself included on my first trip to the United States, find that they cannot identify their own names when a native-English speaker call out their names, and there have been many unfortunate incidents particularly at the airports.

In terms of length, diphthongs are like the long vowels described above. Perhaps the most important thing to remember about all the diphthongs is that the first part is much longer and stronger than the second part; for example, most of the diphthong /aɪ/ (as in the words <eye>, and the personal pronoun < I > : the "best" transcription I could come up at this stage is {eih}) consists of the /a/ vowel, and only in about the last quarter of the diphthong does glide to /ɪ/ become noticeable. As the glide to /ɪ/ happens, the loudness of the sound decreases. As a result, the /ɪ/ part is shorter and quieter. Foreign learners must, therefore, always remember that the last part of English diphthongs must not be made too strongly.

UKT: The diphthongs are like the "long" vowels in terms of length. They can be "free" or be followed by a consonant, i.e. "checked".

Caveat: Transliteration of English words to Burmese-Myanmar through IPA and Romabama, are just guidance for pronunciation subject to discussion by Burmese-Myanmar peers. Please remember that they are not transcriptions.

The total number of diphthongs is eight. The easiest way to remember them is in terms of three of three groups divided as in the diagram:

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Centring diphthongs

The centring diphthongs glide towards the /ǝ/ (schwa) vowel, as the symbols indicate.

/ɪə/ - example words:

<ear> - /ɪəʳ/ (US) /ɪr/ --> {i:r} / {ir}
  - UKT: RP pronunciation /ɪəʳ/ is a diphthong where /ʳ/ may be pronounced ever so softly. In GA, /r/ is pronounced prominently.

<beard> - /bɪəd/ --> {bi-aad}
  - the part "i-aa" to be pronounced rapidly with emphasis on "i". Compare this to
  <bird> - /bɜːd/ --> {b:d}
<Ian> - /ˡiː.ən/ --> {i-aan}
  - "Ian" is a man's name
<fierce> - /fɪəs/ --> {fi-aas}

The starting point is a little closer [{higher}] than /ɪ/ in
  - <bit> /bɪt/ --> {bt}
  - <bin> /bɪn/ --> {bn}  



/eə/ - example words:

<air> - /eəʳ/ (US) /er/ --> {:r}
<aired> - /eəʳd/ (US) /erd/ --> {-aad} (US) {rd}

<cairn> - /keəʳn/ --> {k-aan}

<scarce> - /skeəs/ (US) /skers/ --> {sk-aas} (US) {sk:s}

This diphthong begins with the same vowel sound as the /e/ of
  - <get> /get/ --> {gt}
  - <men> /men/ --> {mn}


/ʊə/ - example words:

<moored> - /mɔːʳd/ , /mʊəʳd/ (US) /mʊrd/ --> {mo:d} , {mo-aad} (US) {mord}

<tour> - /tʊəʳ/ --> {tu-aa}

This has a starting point slightly closer ["closer" means "higher in the vowel diagram] than /ʊ/ in
  - <put> /pʊt/ --> {pwut} / {pu:t}
  - <pull> /pʊl/ --> {pu:l}


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Closing diphthongs

The closing diphthongs have the characteristic that they all and with a glide towards a closer vowel. Because the second part of the diphthong is weak, they often do not reach a position that could be called close. The important thing is that a glide from a relatively more open towards a relatively more close vowel is produced.

Three of the diphthongs glide towards /ɪ/, as described below:

/eɪ/ - example words:

<paid> /peɪd/ --> {paid}

<pain> /peɪn/ --> {pain:}

<face> /feɪs/ --> {f:s}

The starting point is the same as the /e/ of
   <get>  /get/ --> {gt}
   <men> /men/ --> {mn}


/aɪ/ - example words:

< I > /aɪ/ --> {eih} . You might be tempted to transcribe < I > as {eing}. Resist the temptation because IPA would be /aɪŋ/

<tide> /taɪd/ --> {teid}

<time> /taɪm/--> {teim:}

<nice> /naɪs/ --> {neiS}

This diphthong begins with an open vowel which is between front and back; it is quite similar to the /ʌ/ of the words
  - <cut> /kʌt/ --> {kt}  
  - <bun> /bʌn/ --> {bn}



/ɔɪ/ - example words:

<void> /vɔɪd/ --> {bhwoid}

<loin> /lɔɪn/ --> {lwoin}

<voice> /vɔɪs/ --> {bhwois}
  - UKT: fricative {sa.tht} in the coda is unknown in Burmese-Myanmar. Ordinarily {sa.tht} is a palatal coda consonant.

The first part of this diphthong has the same quality as /ɔː/ in
  - <ought> /ɔːt/ --> {au:t}
  - <born>  /bɔːn/ --> {bau:n}

Two diphthongs glide towards /ʊ/, so that as the tongue moves closer to the roof of the mouth there is at the same time a rounding movement of the lips. This movement is not a large one, again because the second part of the diphthong is weak.


əʊ - example words:

<load> /ləʊd/ --> {load}

<home> /həʊm/ --> {hoam:}

<most> /məʊst/ --> {mo:st}

The vowel position for the beginning of this is the same as for the "schwa" vowel /ə/ , as found in the first syllable of the word 'about'. The lips may be slightly rounded in anticipation of the glide towards /ʊ/ , for which there is quite noticeable lip-rounding.


aʊ - example words:

<loud> /laʊd/ --> {laud}

<gown> /gaʊn/ --> {gaun:}

<house> /haʊz/ --> {hauz}

This diphthong begins with a vowel similar to /ɑː/ but a little more front. Since this is an open vowel, a glide to /ʊ/ would necessitate a large movement. Usually in English the glide towards /ʊ/ begins but is not completed, the end of the diphthong being somewhere between close-mid and open-mid in tongue height. There is only slight lip-rounding. [{p022end}]

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3.03 Triphthongs

The most complex English sounds of the vowel type are the triphthongs. They can be rather difficult to pronounce, and very difficult to recognise. A triphthong is a glide from one vowel to another and then to a third, all produced rapidly and without interruption. For example, a careful pronunciation of the word <hour> , /aʊəʳ/ (US) /aʊr/ , begins with a vowel quality similar to /ɑː/ , goes on to a glide towards the back close rounded area (for which we use the symbol /ʊ/ ), then ends with a mid-central vowel (schwa, /ə/ ). We use the symbols /aʊǝ/ to represent the way we pronounce 'hour', but this is not always an accurate representation of the pronunciation.

The triphthongs can be looked on as being composed of the five closing diphthongs described in the last section, with /ǝ/ added on the end. Thus we get:

eɪ + ǝ = eɪǝ

aɪ + ǝ = aɪǝ

ɔɪ + ǝ = ɔɪǝ

ǝʊ + ǝ = ǝʊǝ

ǝʊ + ǝ = ǝʊǝ


The principal cause of difficulty for the foreign learner is that in present-day English the extent of the vowel movement is very small, except in very careful pronunciation. Because of this, the middle of the three vowel qualities of the triphthong (that is, the /ɪ/ or /ʊ/ part) can hardly be heard and the resulting sound is difficult to distinguish from some of the diphthongs and long vowels.

We will not go through a detailed description of each triphthong. This is partly because there is so much variation in the amount of vowel movement according to how slow and careful the pronunciation is, and also because the "careful" pronunciation can be found by looking at the description of the corresponding diphthong and adding /ǝ/ to the end. However, to help identify these triphthongs, some example words are given below. [{I have simply added {a.} or its near neighbours to stand for /ǝ/ }]:

  - <layer> /leɪəʳ/ --> {l-a} / {l~a}
  - <player> /ˡpleɪ.əʳ/ --> {pl-a}

  - <liar> /ˡlaɪ.əʳ/ --> {leih-a} / {leih~a}
  - <fire> /faɪəʳ/ --> {feih-ah}

  - <loyal> /lɔɪəl/ --> {lweih-l}
  - <royal> /ˡrɔɪəl/ --> {roeih-l}

  -  <lower> /laʊəʳ/ --> {lo-wa}
  -  <mower> /məʊəʳ/ --> {mo-wa}

  -  <power> /paʊəʳ/ --> {pa-wa}
  -  <hour> /aʊəʳ/ --> {aa-wa}


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Notes on problems and further reading

Long vowels and diphthongs can be seen as a group of vowel sounds that are consistently longer in a given context than the short vowels described in the previous chapter. Some writers (particularly Americans) give the label tense to long vowels and diphthongs and lax to the short vowels. This is done (and explained) in Jakobson and  Halle (1964), Chomsky and  Halle (1968) and many others.

As I mentioned in the notes on Chapter 1 , the choice of symbols has tended to vary from book to book, and this is particularly noticeable in the case of length-marks for long vowels (this issue comes up again in Chapter 5, section 5.2); you could read Gimson (1989), section 4; two works which are opposed to length-marks are Brown (1990) and Windsor Lewis (1975b), but at the present time the transcription with length-marks seems to be an agreed standard.

The phonemes /iː/ and /uː/ are usually classed as long vowels; it is worth noting that most English speakers pronounce them with something of a diphthongal glide, so that a possible alternative transcription could be ɪi and ʊu repectively. This is not normally proposed, however.

It seems that triphthongs in RP are in a rather unstable state, resulting in the loss of some distinctions: in the case of some speakers, for example, it is not easy to distinguish between 'tyre' taɪǝ, 'tower' taʊǝ and 'tar' tɑː. BBC newsreaders often pronounce 'Ireland' as ɑːlənd, particularly in the context 'Northern Ireland'. Gimson (1964) has suggested that a change in the phonemic system of RP is in progress in this area.

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Notes for teachers

I mention above that iː and uː are often pronounce as slightly diphthongal: although this glide is often noticeable, I have never found it helpful to try to teach foreign learners to pronounce iː and uː in this way. Foreign learners who wish to get close to the RP model should be careful not to pronounce the "r" that is usually found in the spelling corresponding to ɑː, ɔː and ɜː ('ar', 'or', 'er').

Most of the essential pronunciation features of the diphthongs are described in Chapter 3. Two additional points are worth making, I feel. The diphthong ʊə is included, but this is not used as much as the others many English speakers use ɔː in words like 'moor', 'mourn', 'tour'. However, I feel that it is preferable for foreign learners to learn this diphthong to ensure the maximum distinctiveness of words in pairs like 'moor' and 'more', 'poor' and 'paw'. The other diphthong that requires comment is əʊ. English speakers seem to be especially sensitive to the quality of this diphthong, particularly to the first part. It often happens that foreign learners, having understood that the first part of the diphthong is not a back vowel, exaggerate this by using a vowel that is too front, producing a diphthong like [eʊ]; unfortunately, this gives the impression of a "posh" accent - it sounds like someone trying to copy an upper-class pronunciation, since [eʊ] for əʊ is very noticeable in the speech of the Royal Family.

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Written exercises

1.  On the vowel diagram given , indicate the glides for the diphthongs in the following words:

 a. fright    b. home    c. clear    d. cow


2.  Write the symbols for the long vowels in the following words:

a. broad     b. ward   c. calf   d. learn    e. cool     f. team    g. err   h. seal    i. curl 


3. Write the symbols for the diphthongs in the following words:

a. tone     b. style     c. out      d. way   e. beer  f. coil     g. hair   h. why     i. they


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UKT notes


From Wikipedia http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Monophthong 090705

A monophthong (Greek μονόφθογγος, "monophthongos" = single note) is a "pure" vowel sound, one whose articulation at both beginning and end is relatively fixed, and which does not glide up or down towards a new position of articulation; compare diphthong.

In the English language, there are in practice relatively few monophthongs. The position, beginnings, and endings of vowel articulation are perhaps the chief distinguishing feature among the various dialects of English; the differences between the pronunciations of British English and American English are largely a result of the different realization of vowel sounds. The conversion of monophthongs to diphthongs (diphthongization) or of diphthongs to monophthongs (monophthongization), is a major element of language change and is likely the cause of further changes. Some sounds that may be perceived by native speakers as monophthongs in both these varieties of English are, in fact, diphthongs; the vowel sound in pay pronounced /ˈpeɪ/ is an example of this. Some dialects of English make monophthongs out of former diphthongs. The vowel boat is generally realized as a diphthong [əʊ] or [oʊ]. Also, the speech of the southern United States tends to alter the diphthong /aɪ/ as in eye to an [aː] somewhere between /ɑ/ and //. On the other hand, former monophthongs have become diphthongs in American English such as the /ɪ/ in words like pin changing to [ɪə] in some American dialects.

Historically, some languages treat vowel sounds that were formerly diphthongs as monophthongs. Such is the case in Sanskrit, in whose grammar the sounds now realised as /e/ and /o/ are conceptually ai and au, and are written that way in the Devanagari and related alphabets. The sounds /ai/ and /au/ exist in Sanskrit, but are written as if they were āi and āu, with long initial vowels. Similar processes of the creation of new monophthongs from old diphthongs are preserved in the traditional spellings of languages as diverse as French and modern Greek.

UKT: That the diphthongs have been changed into monophthongs in Indian languages is not proven. In Burmese-Myanmar (related to Devanagari through the Brahmi script), we find mostly monophthongs. That Gautama Buddha seemed to be against languages such as Sanskrit where there is strict division between long and short vowels show that, the original Tibeto-Burmese languages used only simple sounds (such as monophthongs). See The Language Problem of Primitive Buddhism - by Chi Hisen-lin, Journal of the Burma Research Society, XLIII, i, June 1960 http://www.chibs.edu.tw/publication/LunCong/004/69_90.htm 080822.

UKT: End of Wikipedia article.

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