IPA Pronunciation Guide - COBUILD


The following guide refers to our COBUILD English dictionary and explains how to use the pronunciation text that sits alongside a COBUILD dictionary entry page in CollinsDictionary.com.

The basic principle underlying the suggested pronunciations is ‘If you pronounce it like this, most people will understand you.’ The pronunciations are therefore broadly based on the two most widely taught accents of English, RP or Received Pronunciation for British English, and GenAm or General American for American English.

For the majority of words, a single pronunciation is given, as most differences between British and American pronunciation are systematic. Where the usual American pronunciation differs from the usual British pronunciation more significantly, a separate transcription is given of the part of the word that is pronounced differently in American English after the code am.

Where more than one pronunciation is common in British English, alternative pronunciations are also given.

The pronunciations are the result of a programme of monitoring spoken English and consulting leading reference works. For American English, the advice and helpful criticism of Debbie Posner is gratefully acknowledged.

The transcription system has developed from original work by Dr David Brazil for the Collins COBUILD English Language Dictionary. The symbols used in the dictionary are adapted from those of the International Phonetic Alphabet (IPA), as standardized in the English Pronouncing Dictionary by Daniel Jones (18th Edition, Cambridge University Press, 2011), for representing RP.

IPA Symbols

Vowel Sounds Consonant Sounds
ɑː calm, ah b bed, rub
ɑːʳ heart, far d done, red
æ act, mass f fit, if
dive, cry g good, dog
aɪəʳ fire, tyre h hat, horse
out, down j yellow, you
aʊəʳ flour, sour k king, pick
e met, lend, pen l lip, bill
say, weight əl handle, panel
eəʳ fair, care m mat, ram
ɪ fit, win n not, tin
me, seem ən hidden, written
ɪəʳ near, beard p pay, lip
ɒ lot, spot r run, read
note, coat s soon, bus
ɔː claw, maul t talk, bet
ɔʳ more, cord v van, love
ɔɪ boy, joint w win, wool
ʊ could, stood ʰw why, wheat
you, use x loch
ʊəʳ lure, pure z zoo, buzz
ɜːʳ turn, third ʃ ship, wish
ʌ fund, must ʒ measure, leisure
ə the first vowel in about ŋ sing, working
əʳ the first vowel in forgotten ʧ cheap, witch
i the second vowel in very ɵ thin, myth
u the second vowel in actual ð then, bathe
ʤ joy, bridge

Notes

/ɑː/ or /æ/

A number of words are shown in the dictionary with alternative pronunciations with /ɑː/ or /æ/, such as ‘path’ /pɑːθ, pæθ/. In this case, /pɑ:θ/ is the standard British pronunciation. However, in many other accents of English, including standard American English, the pronunciation is /pæθ/.

/r/

One of the main ways in which RP differs from most other accents of English is that ‘r’ is only pronounced as /r/ when the next sound is a vowel. Thus, in RP ,‘far gone’ is pronounced /fɑː gɒn/ but ‘far out’ is pronounced /fɑːr aʊt/. In other accents of English, including GenAm, the ‘r’ in ‘far’ is always pronounced. The /ʳ/ superscript shows that:

  1. in RP, /r/ is pronounced only when it is followed by a vowel;
  2. in GenAm, /r/ is always pronounced.

Some of the complex vowel sounds shown in the table above are simplified in GenAm.

The vowel sound in ‘fire’ is shown as /aɪəʳ/.This represents the pronunciation /aɪə/ in RP, but in GenAm the pronunciation is not /aɪər/, but /aɪr/. So ‘fire’, ‘flour’, ‘fair’, ‘near’, and ‘lure’ are pronounced /faɪə/, /flaʊə/, /feə/,  /nɪə/, and /lʊə/ in RP, but /faɪr/, /flaʊr/, /fer/, /nɪr/, and /lʊr/ in GenAm.

/ɒ/

In GenAm, this symbol represents the same sound as the symbol /ɑː/, so that the first syllable of ‘common’ sounds like ‘calm’. In RP, the sounds are different.

//

This symbol is used to represent the sound /əʊ/ in RP, and also the sound /o/ in GenAm, as these sounds are almost entirely equivalent.

/i/ and /u/

These are short vowels which only occur in unstressed syllables:

    • /i/ has a sound like /iː/, but is short like /ɪ/: very /veri/ create /krit/

  • /u/ has a sound like /uː/, but is short like /ʊ/: actual /æktʃuəl/

/əl/ and /ən/

These show that /l/ and /n/ are pronounced as separate syllables:

  • handle /hændəl/ hidden /hɪdən/

/ʰw/

This shows that some people say /w/, and others, including many American speakers, say /ʰw/: why /ʰw/

Stress

Stress is shown by underlining the vowel in the stressed syllable:

  • two /t/
  • result /rɪzʌlt/
  • disappointing /dɪsəpɔɪntɪŋ/

When a word is spoken in isolation, stress falls on the syllables which have vowels which are underlined. If there is one syllable underlined, it will have primary stress.

  • ‘TWO’
  • ‘reSULT’

If two syllables are underlined, the first will have secondary stress, and the second will have primary stress:

  • ‘DISapPOINTing’

A few words are shown with three underlined syllables, for example ‘disqualification’ /dɪskwɔlɪfɪkəɪʃən/. In this case, the third underlined syllable will have primary stress, while the secondary stress may be on the first or second syllable:

  • ‘DISqualifiCAtion’ or ‘disQUALifiCAtion’

RP tends to prefer ‘DIS-’, while GenAm usually prefers ‘dis-’.

In the case of compound words, where the pronunciation of each part is given separately, the stress pattern is shown by underlining the headword: ‘off-peak’, ‘first-class’, but ‘off day’.

Stressed syllables

When words are used in context, the way in which they are pronounced depends upon the information units that are constructed by the speaker. For example, a speaker could say:

  1. ‘the reSULT was disapPOINTing’
  2. ‘it was a DISappointing reSULT’
  3. ‘it was VERy disappointing inDEED’

In (3), neither of the two underlined syllables in disappointing /dɪsəpɔɪnɪiŋ/ receives either primary or secondary stress. This shows that it is not possible for a dictionary to predict whether a particular syllable will be stressed in context.

It should be noted, however, that in the case of adjectives with two stressed syllables, the second syllable often loses its stress when it is used before a noun:

  • ‘an OFF-peak FARE’
  • ‘a FIRST-class SEAT’

Two things should be noted about the marked syllables:

  1. They can take primary or secondary stress in a way that is not shared by the other syllables.
  2. Whether they are stressed or not, the vowel must be pronounced distinctly; it cannot be weakened to /ə/, /ɪ/ or /ʊ/.

These features are shared by most of the one-syllable words in English, which are therefore transcribed in this dictionary as stressed syllables:

  • two /tuː/
  • inn /ɪn/
  • tree /triː/

Unstressed syllables

It is an important characteristic of English that vowels in unstressed syllables tend not to be pronounced clearly. Many unstressed syllables contain the vowel /ə/, a neutral vowel which is not found in stressed syllables. The vowels /ɪ/ and /ʊ/, which are relatively neutral in quality, are also common in unstressed syllables.

Single-syllable grammatical words such as ‘shall’ and ‘at’ are often pronounced with a weak vowel such as /ə/. However, some of them are pronounced with a more distinct vowel under certain circumstances, for example when they occur at the end of a sentence. This distinct pronunciation is generally referred to as the strong form, and is given in this dictionary after the word strong.

shall /ʃəl, strong ʃæl/

at /ət, strong æt/