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Concourse 2

Vowels

vowels

If anything in the first part of this guide is unfamiliar to you, you should probably take a little time to refresh your memory concerning the essential concepts in pronunciation.  You can open that guide in a new tab by clicking here.

Two questions:

  1. Can you define 'vowel'?
  2. What are the vowel sounds of English?

Click here when you have an answer.

* This diphthong in the example words is not pronounced by all speakers.  For example, sure may be pronounced with the diphthong as /ʃʊə/ or with a monophthong as /ʃɔː/
† /i/ may be transcribed as /iː/ in some analyses.

during furious pure

Because we only have 6 letters for 21 sounds, we need to use the symbols above to represent things accurately.
Estimates of the number of vowels vary because, unlike consonants, it is sometimes hard to determine when one vowel ends and the next begins.
It is also the case that the distinction between a vowel and a consonant is not quite as straightforward as some references (especially those for learners) would have you believe.  For example, /h/ and /w/ are usually defined as consonants but in English the sounds are made with an unrestricted airflow and are therefore more vowel-like than obvious consonants such as /p/ or /v/.
Languages differ, too, in how vowels are categorised so, for example, /r/ is, in English, generally recognised as a consonant but in Mandarin it is a vowel.

Following some analyses, it makes more sense to talk about the distribution of sounds rather than their manner of production so, for example, sounds which, in English, can come between and initial /p/ and a final /t/ are all vowels as are those which can follow an initially placed /m/.  This is specific to English, because other languages allow different distributions.  For example, in German, /f/ may follow /p/ and in Greek, /n/ may follow /ɡ/ but in English neither is permitted.  (We are talking about sounds not letters here, naturally.)  The issue is part of the phenomenon of phonotactics to which there is a guide on this site (new tab).

Vowel sounds are one of the areas in which regional or various standard differences in pronunciation show most clearly.  For this reason, multiple examples are given above.  What follows in this area is based, slightly loosely, on RP, the British variety known as Received Pronunciation or BBC English.  For example, the word house is given as an example of the /aʊ/ diphthong but in many varieties of English the vowel would closer to /æ/ or /uː/.


classify

Classifying vowels

Monophthong vs. Diphthong vs. Triphthong

Monophthongs are produced and perceived as having a single quality.  These are sometimes called the pure vowels.  An example is the /ʊ/ sound in foot.
Diphthongs are perceived as starting with one vowel and gliding towards another.  An example is the first vowel /ʊə/ in during which is formed by starting with the /ʊ/sound as in full and then moving to the /ə/ sound as in about.  The word about also contains a diphthong.  It is transcribed as /ə.ˈbaʊt/ and the second vowel is a combination of a short /a/ and /ʊ/.

1

Monophthongs

There are four things to know about any vowel:

  1. Tongue height: is the main part of the tongue high in the mouth or low?  Three positions are recognised:
    1. High: at the top of the mouth in vowels such as /iː/ and /uː/ in beat and boot respectively.
    2. Mid: in an intermediate position in vowels such as /e/ and /ɔː/ in bet and bought respectively.
    3. Low: lying flat on the bottom of the mouth in vowels such as /æ/ and /ɒ/ in pat and pot respectively.
  2. Tongue position: where is the main part of the tongue?  Three more positions are recognised:
    1. Front: with the tongue towards the front of the mouth as in the vowels /e/ and /iː/ in bed and bead.
    2. Central: with the tongue central in the mouth in vowels such as /ə/ and /ɜː/ in about and verse.
    3. Back: with the tongue at the back of the mouth as in the vowels /ɒ/ and /ɑː/ as in hot and heart.

Traditionally, these two characteristics are plotted on a grid like this (the front of the mouth is to the left):

vowels
The diagram above does not concern what are known as cardinal vowels.  Cardinal vowels are a standard set of sounds against which the vowels of any human language can be measured and described.
The diagram here concerns the major vowels in English but individual speakers will differ in their production.
Individual authorities will also differ slightly in exactly where all the vowels are positioned on the grid.  In the diagram, for the sake of clarity, we have not allowed the sounds to overlap but /i/ and /iː/ are formed in the same way and are differentiated only by length and the same can be said for /ə/ and /ɜː/.

If you try saying beat, bit, bet, boot, verse, cup, cap, the, noose, foot, hot, fought, bark you will feel the tongue position change from left to right, top to bottom of the grid.  It'll also move up and down and forward and back depending on the vowel.  Try it.
The vowels in those words are:

Word Vowel Word Vowel Word Vowel
beat bit ɪ bet e
boot verse ɜː cup ʌ
cap æ the ə foot ʊ
hot ɒ fought ɔː bark ɑː
In that list is one vowel, /ə/ which is the first vowel sound in the word about and the last in the word father.  The example above is the vowel sound in an unstressed version of the which occurs before a consonant as in, e.g., the man.  As you can see, it lies in the centre of the diagram.  It is the most common vowel in English.
We can also add a 13th vowel, /i/, which is the sound of the letter 'y' at the end of party.  It is a shortened version of /iː/.  Some will not recognise this sound as a distinct vowel, conflating it with /iː/ and it is true that speakers differ in how long they make the sound and it is also true that both sounds are high, front vowels formed with the tongue in an identical position.
  1. Length: some vowels are represented with a colon following them.  This is the length mark.  Compare the sounds of /ə/ and /ɜː/, for example, in Herbert.  The first is longer and the transcription is
        /ˈhɜː.bət/
    Length is, of course, relative and vowels can be made longer or shorter by any speaker of English.
    There is a significant tendency in English to make vowels slightly longer when they occur before a voiced (lenis) consonant so before /b/, /dʒ/, /v/, /z/, /ɡ/, /d/, /ð/ and/ʒ/ the vowels will be slightly longer than they are before /p/, /tʃ/, /f/, /s/, /k/, /t/, /θ/ and /ʃ/.  For example, the vowels in the words on the right are longer than those on the left:
    Short Long
    cap cab
    catch cadge
    safe save
    mace maze
    lock log
    cart card
    In a broad, phonemic rather than phonetic transcription, such as we are using here, no marking of the vowel is made to represent this change in length.
    1. Short vowels
      Conventionally, there are, in English the following eight short vowels (although the last of these is often conflated with the first long vowel):
      1. /ɪ/ as in kid or blip.  To make this sound, the lips are only slightly spread.  Spreading them further produces the longer sound /iː/ and that is a common error for speakers whose languages do not have the short vowel.
      2. /e/ as in dead or said.
      3. /æ/ as in hat or ban.
      4. /ʌ/ as in cup or luck.
      5. /ɒ/ as in got or pot.
      6. /ʊ/ as in foot or put.
      7. /ə/ as in the first syllable of about and the last of father.
      8. /i/ as at the end of happy or savvy
    2. Long vowels
      The following are the long vowels which are all marked to show length with the length mark: 'ː'.  The length mark is actually only for convenience in terms of remembering that the vowel is long.  The symbols are, with one exception, different from the short vowels even without the length mark.  The following five are the long vowels:
      1. /iː/ as in sheep or neat.  It is the lengthened version of /i/ and /ɪ/.
      2. /ɜː/ as in verse or nurse.  It is the lengthened version of /ə/ and is sometimes transcribed as /əː/.
      3. /ɑː/ as in car or bar.
      4. /ɔː/ as in taught or bought.  It is the lengthened form of /ɒ/ and that vowel is sometimes transcribed as /ɔ/.
      5. /uː/ as in moose or shoe.  It is the lengthened form of /ʊ/ and that vowel is sometimes transcribed as /u/.
  2. Lip rounding: some vowels are formed in English with rounded lips.  These are /ʊ/, /uː/, /ɔː/ and /əʊ/.  Try looking in a mirror and saying, foot, loose, caught, load.  You can see the lips rounding.  The amount of rounding varies and this affects the sound.  Other vowels, such as /e/ and /iː/ are not rounded but the latter requires lateral stretching of the mouth – say cheese.
    There are three alternatives, although there is a cline from fully rounded to fully stretched via the neutral position.  If you look at yourself in a mirror while pronouncing the vowels in the table above, you will be able to see how your lips are positioned for each sound:
    1. rounding as in /ʊ/ or /ɔː/ etc.
    2. stretching as in /iː/ or /e/ etc.
    3. neutral as in /ə/ or /ɜː/ etc.

Now it's possible for you to classify thirteen vowels in English by type, like this.  It also provides a handy reference for any minimal pair work you may like to do in the classroom to get learners to hear and produce the differences.
A productive exercise is to take vowels which differ in only one characteristic and use them for practice.  That way, learners can focus only on height, position, length or roundedness and are not distracted by having to make multiple changes to distinguish the sounds when they speak.

Vowel height position length roundedness minimal pairs
/iː/ high front long stretched bit / beat
happy / carefree
/ɪ/ high front short stretched
/i/ high front short stretched
/ʊ/ high back short rounded full / fool
/uː/ high back long rounded
/e/ mid front short neutral errand / around
/ə/ mid central short neutral
/ɜː/ mid central long neutral hurt / hot
/ɒ/ mid back short rounded
/ʌ/ low central short neutral cup / cap
/æ/ low front short neutral
/ɔː/ low back long rounded caught / cart
/ɑː/ low back long neutral

The /i/ sound appears in this table but does not form part of a minimal pair except when it is contrasted with /ɪ/ or /iː/.

For more ideas for teaching, see the guide to teaching troublesome sounds (new tab).

2

Diphthongs

As we said, these are sounds made by starting with one pure vowel and gliding towards another.  There are eight of these in English.  The easiest way to remember them is to see where they are going.  There are three sorts:

  1. Ending in /ə/.  Because the /ə/ is the archetypal central vowel in English, these are called the centring diphthongs and there are three of them:
    1. /ɪə/ as in here or beer.  The sound starts with the short vowel /ɪ/ and glides at the end to the /ə/ sound.
    2. /eə/ as in lair or pair.  Start with /e/ and move to the /ə/.
    3. /ʊə/ as the first vowel in during or (in some people's production) pour.  Start with /ʊ/ and move to /ə/.
      This sound is now becoming quite rare, being confined mostly to dialect or very careful RP speech.  These days, the vowel on words such as sure and poor is usually transcribable as /ɔː/.  It is more often present in longer words such as individual (/ˌɪn.dɪ.ˈvɪ.dʒʊəl/).
  2. Ending in /ɪ/.  These are described as closing diphthongs because the tongue moves towards the roof of the mouth, closing off the airflow.  There are also three of these:
    1. /eɪ/ as in day or hay.  Start with /e/ and move to /ɪ/.
    2. /aɪ/ as in price or nice.  Start with a shortened /aː/ and move to /ɪ/.
    3. /ɔɪ/ as in boy or coy.  Start with /ɔ/ and move to /ɪ/.  In this diphthong, the first sound is a little more open and shorter than the sound /ɔː/ in bought or caught.
  3. Ending in /ʊ/.  These are also closing diphthongs because the tongue moves towards the roof of the mouth.  There are only two (in English):
    1. /əʊ/ as in boat or vote.  Start with /ə/ and move to /ʊ/.
    2. /aʊ/ as in south or louse.  Start with a shortened /aː/ and move to /ʊ/.

The most important thing to know about diphthongs (apart from how to produce, recognise and transcribe them) is that the initial sound is the most recognisable with the second vowel usually being much shorter and less distinct.

3

Triphthongs

These sounds do not appear in all analyses for two reasons:

  1. They are by no means easy to identify
  2. They only exist in certain varieties of English and can, for learners, generally be safely ignored

They do, nevertheless exist (allegedly) and there are, what's more, five of them.  Whether you produce all five when you speak is a matter of the accent you use and your background as well as how carefully and slowly you are trying to enunciate.
These sounds are diphthongs which then take a further glide towards the schwa /ə/.
The diphthong with which these sounds begin is the most noticeable sound and the final glide to the schwa is, for many people, unrecognisable and also not produced in a lot of people's speech.
Here's the list with the example words:

  1. /eɪə/ as in player or mayor.  Start with the diphthong /eɪ/ (as in say) and glide from the end of that to the /ə/.
  2. /aɪə/ as in liar or shire.  Start with the diphthong /aɪ/ (as in nice) and glide to the /ə/.
  3. /ɔɪə/ as in soil or loyal.  Start with the diphthong /ɔɪ/ (as in toy) and glide to the /ə/.
  4. /əʊə/ as in lower or knower.  This one has a schwa at both ends.  Start with the diphthong /əʊ/ (as in coat) and glide to the /ə/.
  5. /aʊə/ as in tower or our.  Start with the diphthong /aʊ/ (as in mouth) and glide to the /ə/.

Now, some people will pronounce these sounds as two syllables so the transcriptions are separated with a '.' to show the syllables.  Some will pronounce the sounds without any interruption as a single syllable so the '.' will not appear.  So, for example:
    slayer: /ˈsleɪə/ or /ˈsleɪ.ə/
    tyre:
/ˈtaɪə/ or /ˈtaɪ.ə/
    toil:
/ˈtɔɪəl/ or /ˈtɔɪ.əl/ (but many pronounce that as /tɔɪl/, a single-syllable word with a diphthong vowel sound)
    mower
: /ˈməʊə/ or /ˈməʊ.ə/
    shower: /ˈʃaʊə/ or /ˈʃaʊ.ə/
Some people do not pronounce all the triphthongs in all the words in which they could potentially appear, preferring to stick with a diphthong sound only.

The argument about whether there is, in fact, such a thing as a triphthong in English can be summarised like this:

Wells:

I would argue that part of the definition of a true triphthong must be that it constitutes a single V unit, making with any associated consonants just a single syllable.
Given that, do we have triphthongs in English? I claim that generally, at the phonetic level, we don’t. I treat the items we are discussing as basically sequences of a strong vowel plus a weak vowel.
Wells, 2009

Roach:

The most complex English sounds of the vowel type are the triphthongs. They can be rather difficult to pronounce, and very difficult to recognise. A triphthong is a glide from one vowel to another and then to a third, all produced rapidly and without interruption.
Roach, 2009:29 (emphasis added)

Crystal:

The distinction between triphthongs and the more common diphthongs is sometimes phonetically unclear.
Crystal, 2008:497

Summaries

Here are some summary charts which may be helpful.

All vowels:

summary vowels

Monophthongs only:

monophthongs

Diphthongs only:

diphthongs

Triphthongs only:

triphthongs


mark

Markedness and phonemic substitution

Markedness in this sense refers to how widely vowels are represented in the world's languages.  That, it is sometimes averred, is a measure of how hard they are to acquire.  The common sounds will give few problems but vowels which are not represented in the learners' first language(s) will, understandably, cause significant problems.

There is evidence to suggest that the high vowels, especially, /ʊ/, /uː/, /iː/ and /ɒ/ are common to a wide range of languages and are, therefore, considered unmarked.  They should cause few learners any significant trouble.
On the other hand, some, often lower, vowels, particularly /ɑː/, /ɔː/, /ɜː/, /ʌ/, /ɪ/ and /æ/ are marked in that they do not occur with anything like the same frequency in many languages so they require more attention.
Some languages have no equivalents of these sounds and learners will usually produce the nearest fit with their first-language sounds resulting in, notably, mistaking /iː/ for /ɪ/ (hit vs. heat) and /ɒ/ for /ɑː/ (hot vs. heart).  This is a form of phonemic substitution.  Some attention to where the tongue is positioned and vowel length is called for in terms of teaching these.

There is a guide on this site to teaching troublesome sounds which considers many of the more marked, i.e., less common, vowel sounds.


semi

Semi-vowels

Semi-vowels are sounds which are produced like vowels but actually don't function like them.  An example is the /j/ sound at the beginning of the word yet (/jet/).  The y letter represents a consonant in this case but at the end of the word fly, it is a vowel and transcribed as /flaɪ̯/.
The letter w also has this characteristic: at the beginning of was it is close to being a consonant (called a glide, in the trade) but in the centre of cower it is part of a triphthong vowel sound so the transcription of was cowering is /wəz ˈkaʊər.ɪŋ/.

Three semi-vowels, /w/, /j/ and /r/ are the subject of intrusion, covered in the consideration of connected speech to which guide you are referred for more.

One, /j/, is often inserted by British speakers in words such as tune, fortune, produce, century, nature, mixture, picture, creature, opportunity, situation, actually in which the /t/ or /d/ sound is followed by a /j/ not shown in the spelling.
Therefore, the transcription is actually:
    tune /tjuːn/
    actually /ˈæk.tjuə.li/
    situation /ˌsɪ.tjʊ.ˈeɪʃ.n̩/
etc. although ˈæk.tʃuə.li/ and /ˌsɪ.tʃʊ.ˈeɪʃ.n̩/ are also heard.


difference

Allophones and regional variations

individuals vary
No two speakers pronounce all vowels in exactly the same way.  Individual speakers will also pronounce some vowels differently depending on how they feel, how carefully they wish to speak and how quickly.  So, for example, we might pronounce happy in:
    I'm happy to say
as /ˈhæp.i/
and on another occasion, we might pronounce the word in
    Be happy!
as /ˈhæp.iː/
with a longer final vowel.
Most vowels in English can be lengthened or shortened in rapid or slow speech without affecting the meaning that is heard.
accents vary
Where people come from may also have a significant effect.  In some parts of Britain, for example, the words beauty and booty will be pronounced the same as /ˈbuː.ti/ but in Standard English there will be a difference with beauty pronounced with an intrusive /j/ sound as /ˈbjuː.ti/ and the word booty pronounced as /ˈbuː.ti/.
In British English, the word stupid is usually pronounced as /ˈstjuː.pɪd/ but in Standard American, that is often /ˈstuː.pɪd/.
In the south of England, a word such as cook will be pronounced as /kʊk/ but in the north, the same word will be nearer to /kuːk/ with the longer vowel.  This will make no difference to the meaning of the word and any misunderstanding between people from the north or south of the country because of the variable pronunciation of certain vowels is vanishingly rare.
The same phenomenon is noticeable of words such as cup which in the south of Britain will usually be /kʌp/ but in the north is often /kʊp/.  No difference in meaning will be perceived so we are dealing with phonic variation.
In Standard British English, as another example, the word sock is pronounced as /sɒk/ but in Standard American, that will usually be /sɑːk/ with a more open vowel.
British (BrE) and General American (AmE) varieties
It is in the area of vowel pronunciation that most of the differences between major varieties of English are easily identifiable.
For a list of the differences, see either the guide to teaching yourself to transcribe or download the PDF document for this area.  (Both those links open in new tabs.)
the phonetic environment varies
The combination of the first two sections in this part means, in effect, that all vowels are a cluster of allophones because their production may vary between speakers and in the same speaker under different circumstance.
English does, however, have one allophonic variation with vowels which cuts across individual differences: nasalisation.
Vowels may be described as nasal or oral, pronounced with air expelled through the nose or through the mouth respectively.  When a vowel precedes a nasal consonant such as /n/, /m/ or /ŋ/ then the air is expelled nasally and the vowel has a slightly different sound.  Most speakers can't actually hear the distinction and it is not one that needs to be taught because the phenomenon is simply the natural consequence of how the following consonant is articulated.

If you would like to hear these sounds (in British English), the ideal place to go has been kindly provided by the British Council.


Of course there's a test on the content so far.


writing

Spelling vowel sounds

In the guide to the consonant sounds of English, it is possible to provide a neat list of how the sounds are realised in the orthography.  This is despite the fact that English is often described, sometimes despairingly, as a wholly inconsistently spelled language with no discernible connections between sound and spelling.
Unfortunately, when it comes to vowel sounds, the connections between spelling and sound are less easily distinguished.  A few sounds, such as /ɪ/, /ɒ/ and /æ/ are reasonably predictable because they will usually be spelled with 'i', 'o' or 'a' respectively.  Other sounds have more possible and less predictable ways of being spelled in English.
There are some basic rules in terms of vowel length which are considered in the guide to English spelling on this site (new tab).
In the case of vowel sounds, overall, however, despite some clear consistencies which are teachable, we have to be careful to give learners the information they need to pronounce a vowel letter (or a group of them) in any new item.

What follows here is a rule-of-thumb guide to which there are numerous exceptions, examples only of which are included.  Excluded from the list are loan words which often retain the original vowel sound from the language from which they come.
No distinction is made in the first case between /iː/ and /i/ and the table is based solely on BrE.  Vowel pronunciation varies considerably across the varieties of English spoken worldwide.

Sound Common spellings Common exceptions Sound Common spellings Common exceptions
/iː/ ee, ea, ie, ei, y:
seek
teach
field
receive
petty (
/i/)
i, ey, eo:
ski
key
people
/eɪ/ a, ai, ea, ei, ay, ey:
take
rain
steak
weight
say
they
au, é:
gauge
café
/ɪ/ i:
kit
y, a, ai, e, ia, o:
rhythm
orange
bargain
pretty
marriage
women
/ə/ a, e, i, ou, io:
asleep
different
definite
obvious
nation
o, u, oi:
prosody
tedium
porpoise
/uː/ u, oo, ew, ough:
lute
too
few
through

eu, o, oe, ou, ue, ui:
sleuth
shoe
soup
true
fruit
/əʊ/ o, au, eau, oa, ow, ough:
go
mauve
bureau
coat
below
though
ew, ou:
sew
soul
/ʊ/ oo, u, ou:
took
pull
could
o:
wolf
/ɛ/
e, ai, ie:
pet
said
a, ea, ie:
many
deaf
friend

/æ/ a:
band
al:
salmon
/ʌ/ u, o, oo:
bun
son
blood
ou, oe:
touch
does
/ɔː/ o, oo,a, aw, augh, ough
lore
floor
talk
saw
caught
bought
au, oa, ou:
cause
broad
pour
/ɒ/ o:
sock
a, au, ou:
watch
sausage
cough
/ɑː/ a:
father
au, ea:
aunt
heart
/aɪ/ i, ei, ie, uy, y, eigh, igh:
fine
tie
buy
cry
height
high
ye, ig, ui:
eye
sign
guide
/ɔɪ/ oi, oy:
devoid
boy
ou:
buoy
/aʊ/ ou, ow, ough:
bout
how
bough
-
/ɛə/ a, ea, ai, er:
stare
bear
hair
there
ay, ei:
mayor
heir

/ɪə/ e, ea, ere, ee:
series
hear
here
beer
ie, eo:
wierd
theory
/ɜː/ i, e, u:
stir
err
fur
eur, ou:
chauffeur
adjourn
/juː/
u, ew, ue:
music
few
cue
eau, eu, ui:
beauty
feud
nuisance


For a set of three tests in transcribing some commonly confused vowel sounds, click here (new tab). 


References:
Crystal, D, 2008, A Dictionary of Linguistics and Phonetics (6th edition), Oxford: Blackwell Publishing
Roach, P, 2009, English Phonetics and Phonology: A practical course, 4th edition, Cambridge: Cambridge University Press
Wells, J, 2009, phonetic-blog.blogspot.com/2009/12/triphthongs-anyone.html



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