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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03.01 Long vowels - free vowels
   - UKT: In my version of Roach, instead of using the terms "long vowel" and "short vowel", I will use "free vowel" and "checked vowel" respectively.

UKT notes

Noteworthy words in this file :
... length of all English vowel sounds varies very much according to context (such as the type of sound that follows them) and the presence or absence of stress ... .
(UKT observes:) Note also that there is no "long" vowel corresponding to the cardinal point [a].

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Long vowels, diphthongs and triphthongs

03.01 Long vowels - free vowels

In Chapter 2 the short vowels were introduced. In this chapter we look at other types of English vowel sound. The first to be introduced here are the five long vowels; these are the vowels which tend to be longer than the short vowels in similar contexts. It is necessary to say 'in similar contexts" because, as we shall see later, the length of all English vowel sounds varies very much according to context (such as the type of sound that follows them - [the coda consonant or the killed-consonant in Myanmar]) and the presence or absence of stress. [Stress is the most elusive in English pronunciation since there is no rule to follow. This has no equivalent in literary Bur-Myan.] To remind you that these vowels tend to be long, the symbols consist of one vowel symbol plus a length-mark made of two dots ː. Thus we have: /iː/, /ɜː/ , /ɑː/ , /ɔː/ , /uː/ . We will now look at these long [free] vowels individually.

UKT: The phrase in the above paragraph "length of all English vowel sounds varies very much according to context (such as the type of sound that follows them) and the presence or absence of stress" is important for us to take note. It shows that there is no dividing line between "short" and "long", and the whole exercise is nothing but perception which of course is quite different from person to person and above all from culture to culture.

Thus my contention that it is better to divide vowels as checked (those followed by a consonant) and free (those that have no consonant following them to check or followed by consonants which do not have the ability to check.) In Bur-Myan (Burmese-Myanmar) the so-called "semi-vowels" (approximants) {ya.} , {ra.} ,  {la.} , {wa.} and {ha.} usually do not have the ability to check the preceding vowel. In English, even regular consonants are sometimes unable to check the vowel. In such cases, the vowel remains "free".

Note also that Roach states that /ː/ (IPA triangular colon) is a length-mark. He does not include the adjective "for emphasis" for it. Thus, there is some difference between the IPA triangular colon and the Bur-Myan {wic~sa.} which implies both length and emphasis. In other words, IPA triangular colon can be approximated to both the "modal" and "emphatic" pitch-registers of Bur-Myan.

Roach in the following examples, gives only those words in which the "long" vowel is followed by a consonant as in {Daat} . Such type of words where a "long" vowel is followed by a consonant is not known in Burmese-Myanmar, except in the case of {aa}, even in which case it is quite rare. To make up for the lapse in Roach, I am giving examples from DJPD16.

long vowel /iː/ - corresponding to checked vowel /ɪ/

UKT: The long vowel /iː/ {i} is perhaps the closest (i.e. the top-most), and the front-est of vowel sounds in all languages. In Burmese-Myanmar there is a dedicated grapheme (known as a vowel-letter) for it: {I}. The next closest and front-est is its "short" counterpart {I.} . See, ই , the Bangla counterpart of {I.} in vowel triangle (UKT note) in prod-snd.htm .
   The most contrastive vowel to /iː/ {i} (the most open and back) is /ɑː/ {au}. This vowel has a dedicated vowel-letter {au:} . Perhaps the three graphemes most "modern" Burmese speakers (living outside their mother land of Myanmar) would misidentify or mis-describe are: {I.}, {I}, and {au:} .

/iː/ - example words by UKT (no coda in rime or zero-coda syllables):

<be> - /biː/ --> {bi} / {bi:}

-- the uncertainty in Romabama is because of the two-three tone problem which I have described in chapter on the Production of Speech Sounds. See prod-snd.htm

<see> - /siː/ --> {si:} / {hsi:}

-- the uncertainty in Romabama is because of the allophone problem. See prod-snd.htm
This problem resolves itself when we use narrow transcriptions instead of broad transcriptions.

<see> - [sʰiː] --> {hsi:}

<tea> - /tiː/ --> {ti:}


/iː/ - example words by Roach:

<beat> - /biːt/ --> {bi:t}

<mean>  - /miːn/ --> {mi:n}

<peace> - /piːs/ --> {pi:s}

This vowel is nearer to cardinal vowel no.1 [ i ] (that is, it is more close and front) than the short /ɪ/  vowel of <bid> /bɪd/ {bd}, <pin> /pɪn/ {pn}, <fish> /fɪʃ/ {fsh} described in Chapter 2. Although the tongue shape is not much different from cardinal vowel no.1 [ i ], the lips are only slightly spread and this results in a rather different vowel quality.


long vowel /ɜː/ - corresponding to Burmese-Myanmar checked vowels {} and {}
/ɜː/ - example words by UKT (no coda in rime or zero-coda syllables): 

<mercy> - /mɜː.si/ (US) /mɝːsi/ --> {m-si} / {m-si}  

<per> (strong form) - /pɜːʳ/ (US) /pɝː/ --> {p}

<tertian> - /tɜː.ʃən/ -- {t-hyn}

-- the rhotic GA presents unnecessary problems and will not be given. When there are more than one transcriptions for a word only the most suitable will be given.

/ɜː/ - example words by Roach:

<bird> - /bɜːd/ --> {b:d}

<fern> - /fɜːn/ --> {hph:n}

<purse> - /pɜːs/ --> {p:s}

This is a central vowel white is well-known in most English accents as a hesitation sound (spelt 'er'), but which many foreigners find difficult to copy. The lip position is neutral.

UKT: When Roach used the word "foreigners", what did he mean? Did it include native speakers from regions outside England which can include Scotland and Ireland, and even Wales? Roach was perfectly right when he wrote that "many foreigners find difficult to copy".
   To my ears, the hesitation sound (spelt 'er') sounds something in between {} , {aa} and {aar}. Because many RP sounds can be heard "differently" depending on cultural background, it is better not to place reliance on "hearing" and "pronunciation", but rely on IPA transcription given by a reliable source such as DJPD16, and from that to transliterate into Burmese-Myanmar akshara as is done in the Romabama.


UKT: Let us pause here for a moment and look at the figures given below: the cardinal points (usually described as vowels given in [...] ), the "Red ellipse" showing the tongue movements, and the comparison of English free and checked, and Burmese checked vowels .

long vowel /ɑː/ - corresponding to checked vowels //, /ʌ/, /ɒ/
/ɑː/ - example words:

UKT: If you refer to the Vowel space shown on the right you'll notice that the three checked vowels //, /ʌ/, /ɒ/ are produced with the tongue at its lowest position.

<card> - /kɑːd/ --> {kau:d} / {kaa:d}

<half> - /hɑːf/ --> {haa:hph}

<pass> - /pɑːs/ --> {paas:s}

This is an open vowel in the region of cardinal vowel no.5 [ɑ], but not as back as this. The lip position is neutral.


long vowel /ɔː/ - corresponding to Burmese-Myanmar free vowel {o}
/ɔː/ - example words:

UKT: The grapheme ɔ is known as the "Latin small letter Open O" or simply "Open O".
Notice also that /ɔː/ is quite far up above the /ɑː/ and its correspondents //, /ʌ/, /ɒ/.

<board> - /bɔːd/ --> {bo:d}

<torn> - /tɔːn/ --> {to:n}

<horse> - /hɔːs -->/ {ho:s}

The tongue height for this vowel is between cardinal vowel no.6 [ɔ] and no.7 [o]. This vowel is almost fully back and has quite strong lip-rounding.


long vowel /uː/ - corresponding to checked vowel /ʊ/ and associated with the {wa.hsw:} sound
/uː/ - example words:

UKT: The grapheme ʊ is known as the "Latin small letter Upsilon". Don't call it "upside-down omega".

<food> - /fuːd/ --> {hphu:d}

<soon> - /suːn/ --> {su:n}

<loose>  - /luːs/ --> {lu:s}

This vowel is not very different from cardinal vowel no.8 [u], but it is not quite so back nor so close, and the lips are only moderately rounded.

You may have noticed that the six short [checked] vowels described in Chapter 2 are different from the five long [free] vowels [described in this chapter] not only in length but also in quality. If we compare some similar pairs of short [checked] and long [free] vowels, for example /ɪ/ with /iː/ , or /ʊ/ with /uː/ , or // with /ɑː/ , we can see distinct differences in quality (resulting from differences in tongue shape and position, and lip position) as well as in length. [{para-break}]

UKT: Note how Roach has compared the vowels:
  /ɪ/ with /iː/ 
  /ʊ/ with /uː/
  // with /ɑː/
I would state differently:
  1. /iː/ --> /ɪ/ --> general direction of centre
  2. /uː/ --> /ʊ/ --> general direction of centre
  3. /ɑː/ --> //, /ʌ/, /ɒ/ --> general direction of centre
In both case 1 and 2, the general direction is straight towards the centre. However, in case 3, we note that /a/ has been left out, and /ɑː/ seems to be very much away from the cardinal point [ɑ]. Moreover, the direction of /ɑː/ --> // towards the centre is a zigzag course. The "abnormality" for the case 3 can be explained partially by pointing that the quadrilateral representation is a "distorted" way showing the "elliptical" vowel space. See last chapter, prod-snd.htm/vowel-consonant .
   Note also that there is no "long" vowel corresponding to the cardinal point [a]. (UKT: ) There seems to be only one free vowel /ɑː/ at the most open (the lowest) tongue position, but three "short" vowels //, /ʌ/ and /ɒ/ .

For this reason, all the short (checked) vowels have symbols which are different from those of long (free) vowel; you can perhaps see that the short and long vowel symbols would still all be different from each other even if we omitted the length mark (triangular colon /ː/), so it is important to remember that the length mark is used not because it is essential but because it helps learners to remember the length difference. Perhaps the only case where a long and short vowel are closely similar in quality is that of /ə/ and /ɜː/ ; but /ə/ is a special case, as we shall see later.

UKT: Before we leave this section, let us compare English free and checked vowels, and Burmese-Myanmar checked vowels. Since there are more Burmese vowels than English, and because there are three registers to English two, transliteration and transcription cannot be perfect. Remember, Roach was paying attention to vowels and consonants separately, whereas for Burmese-Myanmar it is important to consider the rime and the initial consonant.



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UKT notes


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End of TIL file