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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02.03 English short vowels - checked 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.

Notes on problems and further reading
Written exercises

UKT notes
Sapir-Whorf hypothesis (Linguistic Relativity)

Contents of this page
Contd. p014

02.03 English short vowels - checked vowels

UKT: One set of misleading terms for me is "short" and "long" vowel. Since these two words depends on our perception of hearing, and since most of us can "hear" only what our phonotactics allow us (which to me is a special case of Sapir-Whorf hypothesis in Linguistic Relativity in my notes), I have found that instead of using "short and long vowels", it is non-controversial to use the terms "checked and free vowels".
   In comparing vowels of Burmese-Myanmar to English, we need to know where in the mouth the vowels are produced. The articulator above the larynx most responsible for production of the different vowels is the tongue and the space covered by parts of the tongue in producing the vowels is shown by the red ellipse shown on the right. Readers should remember that the IPA quadrilateral is a far cry from the actual space, and usually gives a wrong impression when the vowels near the open-back end are compared.

English has a large number of vowel sounds; the first ones to be examined are short [checked] vowels [vowels followed by consonants]. The symbols for these short vowels are: /ɪ/ , /e/ , // , /ʌ/ , /ɒ/ ,  /ʊ/. Short [checked] vowels are only relatively short; as we shall see later, vowels can have quite different lengths in different contexts.

UKT: In the following treatment of checked (short) vowels, Roach has unnecessarily restricting himself by following the numbering system of the cardinal vowels: from {i}, through {a} and {au}, to {u}. I have pointed out that Myanmars are more familiar with counting the vowels in a clockwise direction: {a}, {i}, {u}, {au}. Because of this, in the following I will rearrange Roach's paragraphs somewhat and describe the top or high vowels, /ɪ/ and /ʊ/ first, and group //, /e/, /ʌ/ , /ɒ/ together and describe them second.

The most troublesome aspect of the English language is the large amount of diphthongs, and even triphthongs used in everyday conversation. When Burmese vowels, which are mostly monophthongal, are being described, the transcriber uses the diphthongs from his native language (L1) to describe the monophthongal Burmese. The result is complete confusion.

However, if you pronounce the English diphthong as a monophthong (treating the double grapheme as a diagraph) and pronounce the Burmese vowel you can come out right. Burmese-speakers in pronouncing the English diphthongs go backwards along a similar process, and pronounce the English diphthongs as monophthongs. As examples, consider the diphthongs /eɪ/ (from /e/ towards /ɪ/ - a closing diphthong) and /aɪ/ (from /a/ towards  /ɪ/ - another closing diphthong) as monophthongs. Then:

/baɪt/ <bite> --> {bit}/{beit} (or somewhat erroneously {beik})
/beɪt/ <bate , bait> --> {bit}/{bate}

Diphthongs can be followed by consonants in which case they behave as checked vowels. Since, Burmese speakers find it difficult to pronounce the English diphthongs, Romabama has a hard time trying to find equivalents for such vowels. That is why I have pointed that Romabama consonants are more reliable than the vowels for one-to-one mapping.

One of the English words which I find very difficult to transliterate is <my> /mɪ/ . Since /ɪ/ in <my> is not followed by any consonant, it is not a checked vowel. However, since, it is unlike the /iː/ , it is neither a free vowel. To make it into a checked vowel, I propose to introduce a "dummy" killed consonant: the dummy with a very ill-defined POA. Such a consonant can only be found among the {a.wag}-consonants. The most suitable is {ha.} or the voiceless glottal fricative , which under the {a.tht} sign is .

from monophthongs:

  <my> /mɪ/ --> {meih} (use of dummy killed {ha.} - should be pronounced similar to {beik} but without pronouncing the killed-{ha.}).
    Ordinarily will use "killed" {nga.} resulting in from which on back transliteration we get: <mine> /maɪn/

  <bit> /bɪt/ --> {bt}

from diphthongs: 

  <lie> /laɪ/ -- > {leih} (use of dummy killed {ha.})

  <high> [ˈhaɪ] (example given in Wikipedia) --> {heih}

  <bite> /baɪt/ --> {bait}

  <bait> /beɪt/  --> {beit}


Each vowel is described in relation to the cardinal vowels (UKT: IPA transcriptions given in the examples are mine. )

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.

/ɪ/ - example words:
Roaches examples are of {-} type. This type of spelling is quite rare in Burmese-Myanmar even though it is used in words such as:
{hkt} meaning "era or age".
{tht~ta} meaning "box".

<bit> - /bɪt/ --> {bt}

- the usual way is to use double killed consonants: {bict} or to drop the killed {ta.} leaving only the killed {sa.} which amounts to using the wrong consonant in the coda.

<pin> - /pɪn/  --> {pn} (the usual way is to use)

- the usual way is to use the killed {nga.} which amounts to using the wrong consonant in the coda.

<fish> - /fɪʃ/  --> {fsh}

- here I have to introduce a bridge between English phonotactics and Burmese. Since Burmese-Myanmar {sa.} already has an "aspiration" or {ha.}-like sound already, formation of a {ha.hto:} is not allowed in Burmese, whereas since English <s> does not have this quality, formation of the medial <sh> is allowed. In Romabama, we have to use this bridge and accept {sha.} for /ʃ/ in the coda. MLC usage {rha.} is unacceptable for /ʃ/, and {hya.} is too cumbersome in the coda.

The diagram shows that, though this vowel is in the close front area, compared with cardinal vowel no.1 [ i ] it is more open, and nearer in to the centre. The lips are slightly spread. [{For a comparison of free and checked vowels, see next chapter. - p014end }]


This vowel is not quite fully back, and between open-mid and open in tongue height. The lips are slightly rounded.

/ʊ/ - example words:
Roaches examples are of {oa-} type. (Consider {oa-} to be a digraph and not a diphthong. The onset preceding the vowels contains an element of {wa.hsw:}-medial.)

<put> - /pʊt/ --> {pwat} / {pu:t}

<pull> - /pʊl/ --> {pwal} / {pu:l}

- since {la.tht} in Burmese-Myanmar is silent, probably because Burmese-Myanmar {la.} is a "semi-vowel", the more appropriate transcription is: /puːl/ --> {pu:l} . However, DJPD16 does not give /puːl/ for <pull>.

<push> - /pʊʃ/ --> {pwash} / {pu:sh}

The nearest cardinal vowel is no.8 [u] , but it can be seen that ʊ is more open and nearer to central. The lips are rounded. (UKT: That the lips are rounded is important because in Burmese-Myanmar, it is an indication of the {wa.hsw:} formation as seen the three examples above.)

UKT: The vowels /e/ , // , /ʌ/ , /ɒ/, with the tongue in the lowest positions of the vowel space are quite close. Because of this the sounds associated with them are not definite, and we may have to lay down arbitrary rules for transliteration. - 090624
From the examples shown below, we can tentatively suggest that the following approximation holds:
   /e/ --> {} followed by an {a.tht}-consonant
   // --> {aa} followed by an {a.tht}-consonant
   /ʌ/ --> {} followed by an {a.tht}-consonant
   /ɒ/ --> {au:} followed by by an {a.tht}-consonant
Remember the transliterations for consonants are more reliable than the vowels.


/e/ - example words:

UKT: My additions are preceded by

<bet> - /bet/ --> {bt}
<get> - /get/ --> {gt}

<men> - /men/ --> {mn}

<yes> - /jes/ --> {yS}

UKT: We have to include another vowel for Burmese-Myanmar, the {} which is above the English //. -- I'm waiting for input from my Burmese-Myanmar peers.

The vowel // is a front vowel between cardinal vowel no.2 [e] {} and no. 3[ɛ] {}. The lips are slightly spread.

// - example words:

<bat> - /bt/ --> {baat}

<man> - /mn/ --> {maan}

<gas> - /gs/ --> {gaaz}  Note: "killed {sa.}" has been designated representing the coda c .

UKT: Though the present-day Burmese-Myanmar rarely uses the register #2 (or "short" vowel) as a checked vowel, we still find it used in words such as {Daat}: and pronounced as /{dat}}/.

This vowel is front, but not quite as open as cardinal vowel no.4 [a]. The lips are slightly spread.

/ʌ/ - example words:

<but> - /bʌt/ --> {bt}

<some> - /sʌm/ --> {sm}

<rush> - /rʌʃ/ = /rʃ/ --> {rsh} ?

This is a central vowel, and the diagram shows that it is more open than the open-mid tongue height. The lip position is neutral.

/ɒ/ - example words:

<pot> - /pɒt/ --> {pau:t}

<gone> - /gɒn/ --> {gau:n}

<cross> - /krɒs/ --> {krau:ss} /
   UKT: the vowel involved reminds one of the Sanskrit-Devanagari rhotic vowel ऋ which is not present in Burmese-Myanmar and probably not in Pali-Myanmar.


There is one other short vowel, for which the symbol is ə . This central vowel, which is called schwa, is a very familiar sound in English; it is heard in the first syllable of the words 'about', 'oppose', 'perhaps', for example. Since it is different from the other vowels in several important ways, we will study it separately in Chapter 9.

UKT: I feel that we have say something about the schwa here because there no dedicated grapheme for it in both Burmese-Myanmar and English-Latin. It is present in Burmese-Myanmar in words such as {a.ni}. It is also important for another reason. It has been linked to the inherent vowel present in all abugida systems which includes Myanmar and Devanagari.

/ə/ - example words:

<about> /əˡbaʊt/ --> {a.baut}

<oppose> /əˡpəʊz/ --> {a.po:z}

<perhaps> /pəˡhps/ --> {pa-haaps}


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Notes on problems and further reading

One of the most difficult aspects of phonetics at this stage is the large number of technical terms that have to be learned. Every phonetics textbook gives a description of the articulators, and I will not attempt to list all of them. Two useful introductions are Ladefoged (1982 ), chapter 1, and O' Connor (1973 ), chapter 2. I would recommend Hardcastle ( 1976 ), chapter 5, to anyone wishing to go into a more detailed study of this subject.

The best-known discussion of the vowel-consonant distinction is by Pike (1943), pp. 66-79. He suggests that since the two approaches to the distinction produce such different such different results we should use new terms: sounds which do not obstruct the airflow (traditionally called "vowels") should be called vocoids, and sounds which do obstruct the airflow (traditionally called "consonants") should be called contoids. This leaves the terms "vowel" and "consonant" for use in labelling phonological elements according to their distribution and their role in syllable structure. While vowels are usually vocoids and consonants are usually contoids, this is not always the case: for example, j in 'yet' and w in 'wet' are (phonetically) vocoids but function (phonologically) as consonants.

A study of the distributional differences between vowels and consonants in English is described in O'Connor and Trim (1953); a briefer treatment is in Gimson (1989), pp.29-31 and 54-5.

The classification of vowels has a large literature. I would recommend Jones (1975), chapter 8, Ladefoged (1982), pp.11-14 and Abercrombie (1967),pp.55-60and chapter 10. Ladefoged, in a series of studies, has examined experimentally most of the fundamental principles of vowel classification and his findings are summarised in Ladefoged (1967),pp.50-142. The International Phonetic Association has recently revised its vowel classification system: see Journal of the International Phonetic Association , vol.19, no.2 (1989). It is much easier to understand the Cardinal Vowel system if you can hear the vowels themselves. I have included a recording of my pronunciation of the eight "Primary Cardinal Vowels" on Cassette 2, after the end of Tape Unit 20; it is not a good idea to mix up the study of these vowels [{p016end}] with practice on English vowels. In a more thorough presentation of the vowels I would have avoided using the notion of "Primary" vowels, since what makes them primary is to a large extent the fact that they are particularly familiar to speakers of the European languages that have been dominant in the development of contemporary phonetics, and we should try not to be influenced by such subjective factors. Consequently, at a more advanced level of study it is better to refer to vowels on the Cardinal Vowel quadrilateral simply by their tongue position and lip configuration.

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Written exercises

1. On the diagram provided, various articulators are indicated by numbered arrows (a-e). Give the names for the articulators.

2. Using the descriptive labels introduced for vowel classification, say what the following Cardinal Vowels are:

a. [ u ]     b. [ e ]     c. [ a ]     d. [ i ]     e. [ o ]

3. Draw a vowel quadrilateral and indicate on it the correct places for the following English vowels:

a.  //     b.  /ʌ/    c.  /ɪ/     d.  /e/

4. Write the symbols for the vowels in the following words:

a. <bread>   b. <rough>   c. <foot>   d. <hymn> e. <pull>      f. <cough>    g. <mat>   h. <friend>


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UKT notes

Linguistic Relativity: Sapir-Whorf hypothesis

UKT: I'm proud to note that Whorf was a chemical engineer who turned himself into a linguist.

From: Wikipedia http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Sapir-Whorf-hypothesis 090623

The linguistic relativity principle (also known as the Sapir-Whorf Hypothesis) is the idea that the varying cultural concepts and categories inherent in different languages affect the cognitive classification of the experienced world in such a way that speakers of different languages think and behave differently because of it.

The idea that linguistic structure influences the cognition of language users has bearings on the fields of Anthropological linguistics, Psychology, Psycholinguistics, Neurolinguistics, Cognitive science, Linguistic anthropology, Sociology of language and Philosophy of language, and it has been the subject of extensive studies in all of these fields. The idea of linguistic influences on thought has also captivated the minds of authors and creative artists inspiring numerous ideas in literature, in the creation of artificial languages and even forms of therapy such as Neuro-linguistic Programming.

The idea originated in the German national romantic thought of the early 19th century where language was seen as the expression of the spirit of a nation, as put particularly by Wilhelm von Humboldt. The idea was embraced by figures in the incipient school of American anthropology such as Franz Boas and Edward Sapir. Sapir's student Benjamin Lee Whorf added observations of how he perceived these linguistic differences to have consequences in human cognition and behaviour. Whorf has since been seen as the primary proponent of the principle of linguistic relativity.

Whorf's insistence on the importance of linguistic relativity as a factor in human cognition attracted opposition from many sides. Psychologist Eric Lenneberg decided to put Whorf's assumptions and assertions to the test. He formulated the principle of linguistic relativity as a testable hypothesis and undertook a series of experiments testing whether traces of linguistic relativity could be determined in the domain of color perception. In the 1960s the idea of linguistic relativity fell out of favor in the academical establishment, since the prevalent paradigm in linguistics and anthropology, personified in Noam Chomsky, stressed the universal nature of human language and cognition. When the 1969 study of Berlin and Kay showed that color terminology is subject to universal semantic constraints, the Sapir-Whorf hypothesis was seen as completely discredited.

From the late 1980s a new school of linguistic relativity scholars, rooted in the advances within cognitive and social linguistics have examined the effects of differences in linguistic categorization on cognition finding broad support for the hypothesis in experimental contexts. Effects of linguistic relativity have been shown particularly in the domain of spatial cognition and in the social use of language, but also in the field of color perception. Recent studies have shown that color perception is particularly prone to linguistic relativity effects when processed in the left brain hemisphere, suggesting that this brain half relies more on language than the right one. Currently a balanced view of linguistic relativity is espoused by most linguists holding that language influences certain kinds of cognitive processes in non trivial ways but that other processes are better seen as subject to universal factors. Current research is focused on exploring the ways in which language influences thought and determining to which extent

... ... ...

[Whorf (Benjamin Lee Whorf) ( - 1941) wrote:],

"We dissect nature along lines laid down by our native language. The categories and types that we isolate from the world of phenomena we do not find there because they stare every observer in the face; on the contrary, the world is presented in a kaleidoscope flux of impressions which has to be organized by our minds and this means largely by the linguistic systems of our minds. We cut nature up, organize it into concepts, and ascribe significances as we do, largely because we are parties to an agreement to organize it in this way an agreement that holds throughout our speech community and is codified in the patterns of our language [...] all observers are not led by the same physical evidence to the same picture of the universe, unless their linguistic backgrounds are similar, or can in some way be calibrated." Benjamin Lee Whorf, 1940 

[Among one of his observations while working as a chemical engineer was on the word "empty".]

Another example in which Whorf attempted to show that language use affects behavior came from his experience in his day job as a chemical engineer working for an insurance company. On inspecting a chemical plant he once observed that the plant had two storage rooms for gasoline barrels, one for the full barrels and one for the empty ones. He further noti51that while no employees smoked cigarettes in the room for full barrels no-one minded smoking in the room with empty barrels, although this was potentially much more dangerous due to the highly flammable vapors that still existed in the barrels. He concluded that the use of the word empty in connection to the barrels had led the workers to unconsciously regarding them as harmless, although consciously they were probably aware of the risk of explosion from the vapors. This example was later criticized by Lenneberg as not actually demonstrating the causality between the use of the word empty and the action of smoking, but instead being an example of Circular reasoning.

UKT: More in the Wikipedia article.

Go back ling-relativ-note-b

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voiceless glottal fricative

From Wikipedia http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Voiceless_glottal_fricative 090706

The voiceless glottal transition, commonly called a "fricative", is a type of sound used in some spoken languages which often behaves like a consonant, but sometimes behaves more like a vowel, or is indeterminate in its behavior. The symbol in the International Phonetic Alphabet that represents this sound is h. People lacking this sound in their native language often have difficulty trying to produce it - notably, speakers of French.

Although [h] has been described as a voiceless vowel, because in many languages it lacks the place and manner of articulation of a prototypical consonant, it also lacks the height and backness of a prototypical vowel:

[h and ɦ] have been described as voiceless or breathy voiced counterparts of the vowels that follow them [but] the shape of the vocal tract [] is often simply that of the surrounding sounds. [] Accordingly, in such cases it is more appropriate to regard h and ɦ as segments that have only a laryngeal specification, and are unmarked for all other features. There are other languages [such as Hebrew and Arabic] which show a more definite displacement of the formant frequencies for h, suggesting it has a [glottal] constriction associated with its production.


Features of the "voiceless glottal fricative":

In some languages, it has the constricted manner of articulation of a fricative. However, in many if not most it is a transitional state of the glottis, with no manner of articulation other than its phonation type. Because there is no other constriction to produce friction in the vocal tract in the languages they are familiar with, many phoneticians no longer consider [h] to be a fricative. However, the term "fricative" is generally retained for historical reasons.

It may have a glottal place of articulation. However, it may have no fricative articulation, in which case the term 'glottal' only refers to the nature of its phonation, and does not describe the location of the stricture nor the turbulence. All consonants except for the glottals, and all vowels, have an individual place of articulation in addition to the state of the glottis. As with all other consonants, surrounding vowels influence the pronunciation [h], and [h] has sometimes been presented as a voiceless vowel, having the place of articulation of these surrounding vowels.

Its phonation type is voiceless, which means that the air passes through the vocal cords without causing them to vibrate.

It is an oral consonant, which means air is allowed to escape through the mouth.

Because it is pronounced in the throat, without a component in the mouth, the central/lateral dichotomy does not apply.

The airstream mechanism is pulmonic egressive, which means it is articulated by pushing air out of the lungs and through the vocal tract, rather than from the glottis or the mouth.

UKT: More in the Wikipedia article.

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