A Guide to the Pronunciation of General American English

This post, originally published as “Phonetic Spelling: A Modest Proposal,” is drastically different from the original. I am indebted to commenter Jim Hlavac for his criticisms, which are reflected in this version of the post. In the course of revising the post, I made extensive changes to the pronunciation key. As before, comments about this work in progress are welcome.

When you’re in doubt about how to pronounce a word in American English, you may consult a source that relies on the International Phonetic Alphabet (IPA). The IPA is cumbersome, to say the least. It requires one to distinguish among dozens of tiny symbols, and then decode them by going to a rather busy page full of symbols and their translations.

Standard phonetic symbols for American English — the symbols we were supposed to learn in high school — aren’t much better. For example, go to The Free Dictionary and look up phonetic → fə-nĕt′ĭk,. Not only is the schwa (ə, an “uh” sound) incorrect (in my view), but to grasp the pronunciation of the word, you must still turn to a separate pronunciation key.

A proper guide to the pronunciation of American English should enable anyone who speaks or understands General American to grasp the proper (or generally accepted) pronunciation of a word simply by looking at a phonetic spelling that consists entirely of letters (e.g., word → werd, refuel → re-few-uhl). And the relationship between the phonetic spellings and the sounds that they represent should be intuitively obvious — again, if you speak or understand General American.

I emphasize General American (GA) for two reasons. First, GA — in the guise of “television English” — is heard across the country, not just in the Midwest and areas where similar accents dominate (e.g., the Great Plains and West Coast). Second, because most Americans understand “television English” (even if many of them don’t speak it), a guide that is keyed to GA should be useful to (almost) everyone.

In the rest of this post, I propose and demonstrate the application of a pronunciation guide that is based on GA, as I understand it. The guide comprises 50 sounds, which is five more sounds than are given in a standard guide (e.g., here). I’ve added several sounds that the standard guide merges with dissimilar sounds. And I’ve merged (or dropped) a few sounds that the standard guide mistakenly or unnecessarily lists as separate sounds.

In any event, the guide that I propose consists entirely letters of the alphabet. It is therefore more accessible than guides that rely heavily on symbols.

Here is the key, which for ease of use omits syllabic emphasis:

Phonetic pronunciation key

As noted, the key omits syllabic emphasis. In the following spellings of the 100 most commonly spoken words in English, I indicate emphasis with CAPS:

Phonetic spellings of 100 most common words

And here are ten words chosen from a list of 100 elegant words:

Phonetic spelllings of 10 elegant words