British English IPA Variations


Above are British English transcriptions from Cambridge (blue) and Oxford (orange) dictionaries.

The words are the same, the accent is the same, but the transcriptions are different. In this article we are going to explore 2 questions about this strange contrast:

1) Why are there 2 versions of the same word?

2) Are the pronunciations different?

Watch the video (7 minutes), or scroll down for a written summary of all the key points. At the bottom of this page there is an IPA variation quiz.

In order to understand what’s going on, we need to look at the vowel grid from the International Phonetic Alphabet:

© IPA 2015

The shape represents the mouth. The horizontal lines are the tongue, and the vertical lines represent are jaw.

At the top, the jaw is nearly closed:

at the bottom it’s open:

at the left of the grid, the tongue is at the front of the mouth:

and if we go to the right, the tongue is towards the back which normally causes lip rounding in English:

Vowel Grid Symbols

Each symbol represents a mouth position, and where you can see 2 symbols in one place, the one on the right side is made with rounded lips. So [i] is not rounded but [y] is rounded because it is on the right side of 2 symbols.

Languages don’t replicate the positions of these symbols exactly, as we tend to stay more in the central areas as we speak:

This means that the symbol on the IPA chart is not exactly the same sound as the one found in a dictionary transcription of a language. So the /iː/ in English SHEEP is not exactly the same as the [i] on the vowel grid.

Phonemic Charts

In a phonemic chart, there is one symbol for one sound. English has about 12 single vowel sound positions (monophthongs) so we need a symbol from the vowel grid for each one.

We also need combinations of symbols for the 6 to 8 diphthongs, the vowel sounds that move from one position to another in the same sound. So in total we need roughly 20 phonemes for English vowel sounds.

Some of the choices seem fairly straight-forward, if we say the vowel sounds in SHEEP and SHIP, they are somewhere around these positions:

So publishers can use these symbols to show these two different sounds. Additionally as /i/ is generally a bit longer, most publishers choose to show this using the symbols for length /ː/ further helping to distinguish the sounds:

This choice was fairly clear and in this case, we haven’t had to use any unusual symbols, the SHEEP phoneme is small /i/ and SHIP is a little capital /ɪ/.

Symbols with Variations

Not all choices are as clear as the SHIP/SHEEP vowels.

For example, look at two different pronunciations of British English speakers for the vowel sound in PEN:

The blue pronunciation is closest to /e/, and the orange is closest to /ɛ/. So either symbol could be used.

This occurs in other vowel sounds (the vowel grid shows the pronunciation of the vowel in each word):

Since both the orange and the blue pronunciations are considered ‘standard’, you could choose the closest symbol to either of them. This explains why dictionaries have ended up with these different transcriptions for the words:

The king’s symbols represent a more old-fashioned ‘Received Pronunciation’ accent, and the singer’s symbols fit a more modern GB English accent.

/əː/ or /ɜː/?

2 symbols that don’t represent a big difference in position are those found in TURN. The choice around these two symbols is focussed on whether /ɜː/ is a long version of the schwa /ə/.

The Phonemic Principle

Although it is true that the different symbols can to some extent represent a more modern or a more old-fashioned pronunciation, there isn’t actually much difference between them.

The phonemic principle of ONE SOUND = ONE SYMBOL (allowing for the occasional combination of symbols), means that it doesn’t make any practical difference if the symbol used is /e/ or /ɛ/ as they represent the same sound. Any learner or teacher will need to interpret the symbol to the accent model they are using.

For this reason, it’s perfectly possible to have different symbols in different dictionaries pronounced in exactly the same way. And this is why there is really no practical difference for learners of English between the two sets.

Which are most popular?

In March ’23 we polled our users on Instagram to ask which set of symbols they prefer:

So for now it seems the more old-fashioned symbols are still preferred, at least by Pronunciation Studio’s audience (visit us on Insta and head to the IPA section to add your vote). 


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