Teaching yourself more about English pronunciation, especially its complex vowel system, can be a challenge that stumps many English learners. With an unusually high ratio of vowel-to-consonant phonemes (that is, distinctive sounds) in English, this is usually the area learners struggle with the most.
Depending on which variety of English we’re talking about, the language has between 14 and 21 distinct vowel phonemes, whereas languages like Spanish, Greek and Japanese only have five. This means that native speakers of these languages may have trouble making many of the vowel distinctions in English. This is where lexical sets come in: They can be extremely helpful at mastering English pronunciation, especially for learners who already have some basic understanding of phonetics. Here’s how it works:
What Is A Lexical Set?
The concept of lexical sets was first introduced by John Wells in his 1982 book, Accents of English, in which he describes all of the natively-spoken varieties of English around the world. For this, he invented the 27 lexical sets used to describe the potential distinctions each accent makes in its vowel system.
The idea here is that each lexical set can be assigned a specific phoneme (with its unique “phonetic realization,” meaning the specific way it’s actually pronounced) in that accent. Building on that, all vowel sounds (in all words) spoken in that accent can be described by being part of a particular lexical set.
For example, the BATH lexical set contains words which have a long, low (possibly back) /ɑː/ vowel in Southern British English, Australian, New Zealand and South African English, but which have a short, open (probably front) /æ/ vowel in most other kinds of English. (These labels like high, low, front and back describe the position of the tongue within the mouth, relative to the lips at the front and the throat at the back.)
There are other sets whose contents may overlap completely between accents, such as KIT, which has a short and often front, high /ɪ/ vowel across all accents of English, though of course the phonetic realization of these vowels may differ drastically. This is the case of Australian and New Zealand English, where the former has a very high, very front vowel, and the latter an open, central vowel sound. But in both cases, they are phonemically /ɪ/, and part of the KIT lexical set.
Start From A Strong Foundation
If you want to use lexical sets to aid your learning practice, it’s important to be consistent in your use of them. If you are already somewhat versed in phonetics and (ideally) have even a basic understanding of phonemic transcription, you’re already starting in a great place. If not, but you think this will ultimately benefit you, getting your head around the concept of phonemes and at least looking at transcriptions (to visualize tricky pronunciation) is the first step.
From this, you can build up to introducing yourself fully to lexical sets and drilling minimal pairs (meaning words that differ in only one phoneme but have different meanings) both for production and comprehension. This is probably the best way to get yourself consciously distinguishing tricky vowel differences that cause you problems.
If you want to be even more specific, pay attention to your lip and tongue placement during the production of any sounds — not just vowels. Practicing this yourself will give you a much greater awareness of your ability to control your speech organs and make the correct sounds. Doing this in a mirror, though it may feel silly at first, is an excellent way to practice.
Choose A Reference Accent
The only way that using lexical sets to master English pronunciation makes sense is if you choose a specific accent to refer to. The whole point of lexical sets is that they describe groups of words which have the same vowel phonemes in different accents, so you need to decide which accent you are aiming to imitate in your own speech.
Choosing a specific personality, such as an actor, YouTube celebrity, news presenter or fictional TV character whose accent you like can be helpful for some people, as it will give you a wide variety of readily available speech to use as a reference in your own learning.
Potential Pitfalls Of Lexical Sets
As always, when mastering pronunciation for a language with a spelling system as complicated as English, there’s always a danger of leaning too heavily on a word’s written form for learning its pronunciation. Be aware that pronunciation and spelling should be learned simultaneously but independently from one another because while pronunciation of English around the globe has changed drastically in the last 500 years, spelling has barely changed at all.
It’s probably needless to say that an English word’s spelling is not a useful indicator of its pronunciation. Consider words such as plaid, colonel and women, whose first syllables belong to the TRAP, NURSE and KIT lexical sets, respectively, though prior knowledge of English spelling rules would not be much help for figuring that out!
Another possible problem with using lexical sets for improving your English is that you may simply feel overwhelmed. If you feel compelled to absorb phonemic transcriptions at the same time as learning new words and grammar rules, you may feel defeated and end up not learning anything new. For this reason, investing the time and effort in learning about lexical sets makes most sense only if you already have a very high level of English proficiency or have prior knowledge of phonetics and are comfortable using them alongside everything else.