Long-vowel IPA symbols


Knowing the Long-vowel sounds and Short-vowel sounds of English can help you be better at pronouncing new words and deciphering spelling patterns, but it also helps to be aware of the IPA (International Phonetic Alphabet) symbols for the vowels. Some people learn IPA symbols when they first begin to learn English, but others have never seen these symbols before. Either way, it can be useful to refer to them for some aspects of English pronunciation.

One of the main differences between Long and Short-vowels is that Long-vowels have two parts to their sound and Short-vowels have one part. In the Long-vowel IPA symbols below you can see the two parts for each Long-vowel.

LongV IPA

Here are two situations where it is helpful to take a look at the IPA symbols of Long-vowels.

Vowel sequences

A vowel sequence is when there are 2 vowels next to each other, and they both have a sound, and they belong to different syllables, as in the words “idea” (3 syllables), or “fluid” (2 syllables). (NOTE: This is different from vowel pairs that belong to the same syllable and make only one sound.)

In order to pronounce both of the vowels in a sequence clearly, so that they can both be heard clearly, we need to make special use of the second part of the first vowel. Let’s see how that works with the words “idea” and “fluid”.

Idea — In this word the first vowel of the sequence is a Long-E, and the IPA symbol (/iy/) shows a “y” at the end. The trick is to use that “y” part to separate the two vowels. This is done by pronouncing it a little bit stronger than usual. This makes the word sound like it could be spelled as “ideya”.

Fluid — In this word the first vowel is a Long-U. The IPA symbol (/uw/) shows a “w” at the end. This “w” is emphasized, to make a separation between the [u] and the [i], and it sounds like “fluwid”.

Consonant morphing

The consonants “T”, “D”, “C”, “S”, and “Z” sometimes change their sound. Here are some examples:

“virtue” — the “T” sounds like “CH”
“educate” — the “D” sounds like “J”
“sugar” — the “S” sounds like “SH”
“social” — the “C” sounds like “SH”

This kind of consonant change can happen when the consonant is followed by a high-front vowel sound — this is seen as either a “y” or “i” in IPA symbols. In words like these, there is (or once was) either a Long-I-2 /iy/ or a Long-U-1 /yuw/ right after the morphing consonant. The consonant combines with the high-front part of the vowel sound and changes.

In some of these words, the original vowel sound is lost. For example, in “social” the [i] is lost when it combines with the [c] (the [a] remains as schwa). However, in “educate” the [d] gets changed but the Long-U can still be heard.

SO, overall, it is most helpful to know the vowel system in terms of Long and Short-vowels, because many pronunciation patterns make use of them, but also keep your eye on the IPA symbols for extra clues.

Overview of Vowels


Do you know the total number of different vowel sounds in English?

Beginners often think the answer is “five”, because there are five vowel letters in the alphabet. Of course, anyone familiar with this blog already knows that each vowel letter has at least one Long-vowel and one Short-vowel sound. So is it ten vowels total? Nope! The answer is… fifteen different vowel sounds!

The English vowel system is complex, and almost every learner of English has trouble with at least a few of the vowels. The vowel system is the most difficult part of figuring out how to pronounce new words. So, mastering the vowel system can make a huge improvement in the way you sound in English, and it can help you be better at figuring out how to say new words.

All of the vowel sounds have been explained in other posts, so here is the complete list.
(not on audio)

#1 Long-A
#2 Short-a-1
#3 Short-a-2 and Short-o
See: The Sounds of A

#4 Long-E and Long-I-2
#5 Short-e
See: The Sounds of E

#6 Long-I
  — Long-I-2 (Old-style Long-I) — same as Long-E
#7 Short-i
See: The Sounds of I

#8 Long-O
  — Short-o — same as Short-a-2
  — Short-o-2 (Alternate Short-o) — same as Short-u
See: The Sounds of O

#9 Long-U-1
#10 Long-U-2 and Long-OO
#11 Short-u and Schwa
See: The Sounds of U and The Sound of Schwa

  — Long-OO — same as Long-U-2
#12 Short-oo
See: Long-OO and Short-oo? What’s that?

#13 Vowel /aw/
#14 Vowel /oy/
See: Two Other Vowels

#15 R-vowel
See: The Power of R

Two Other Vowels


There are two vowel sounds that are similar to Long-vowels because they have two parts. However, these two vowels do not have an alphabet letter to represent them, so I use the IPA (International Phonetic Alphabet) symbols for these two sounds. They are:

Vowel /aw/

This is the sound in words such as: house / out / now / flower. This sound is usually spelled with the letters “OU” or “OW”, BUT be careful…

  • not every word with “OU” has this sound. The vowel pair “OU” has many different pronunciations (this is explained in OU – Oh no!).
  • not every word with “OW” has this sound. Some words with “OW” have a Long-O sound, such as “slow” or “own”.

Vowel /oy/

This sound is in words such as: boy / oyster / oil / choice. This vowel is spelled with either “OI” or “OY”.

These two vowels are not usually difficult for students to pronounce. In fact, I have never seen a situation where someone has had difficulty communicating clearly in English due to errors with these two vowels.

There is just one thing to keep in mind about pronouncing them. Since these vowels — as well as the regular Long-vowels — have two parts, the tongue needs to be active. So, to pronounce them well, the tongue needs to move or slide, in order to pronounce both parts, and to sound clear and natural.

Long-OO


There is no letter “OO” in the English alphabet, but Long-OO and Short-oo are part of the vowel system.

Short-oo

Short-oo is a unique vowel sound that is not represented by any other vowel letter. This vowel is explained in “Short-oo? What’s that?”

Long-OO

Long-OO does not have its own sound. It uses the Long-U-2 sound. Long-OO is really more of a “helper” to Long-U — it’s an alternate way to spell the Long-U-2 sound. Long-OO takes the place of the letter “U” in words that need a Long-U-2 instead of Long-U-1. (see Long-U: 1 or 2?). Here are some examples,

fool  – If we spelled this word with a “U”, the “F” would trigger a Long-U-1, and the word would end up sounding like the word “fuel”. So, in order to have a Long-U-2 sound in “fool”, the “OO” is used instead of a “U”.

boot – If this word had a “U” it would be “bute” — because a “B” also requires Long-U-1. So again, the “OO” helps out to keep a Long-U-2 sound.

coo – This word would sound like “cue”, if it had a “U” instead of “OO”.

Spelling Patterns

Long-OO and Short-oo also sometimes follow spelling patterns used by the other vowels. For example, the spelling rule in which an [-e] at the end of a word indicates a long vowel, can also be seen in some words with “OO”:

  • If you see an [-e] at the end of a word with “OO” you know for sure that it is Long-OO, as in the words “soothe”,  “goose” and “snooze”.
  • However, if you see a word that does not have an [-e] at the end, it could have either sound. Some have Long-OO, such as “food”, “school” and  “moon”. Some have Short-oo, such as “hook”, “wool” and “good”.

So that’s the scoop on Long-OO.

Long-U: 1 or 2?


The vowel “U” is a bit unique because it has two Long-vowel sounds. The two sounds are very similar, but they are used in different situations. So, how do you know which one to choose?

It all depends on which letter comes just before the Long-U.

Long-U-2 (/uw/)

Long-U-2 is used after sounds that are made with the front part of the tongue. This includes: T / D / L / N / S / R / TH / J. Here are some examples: tune / duty / elude / nuclear / suit / rule / enthused / June.

Long-U-1 (/yuw/)

Long-U-1 is used after any sounds that are not made with the front part of the tongue. This includes: P / B / F / M / K / G / H / “none”. Some examples are: pupil / bugle / fuse / music / cube / argue / huge / use.

Exceptions

In English there are always exceptions, and in this case the exceptions happen with some Long-U-2 words.

  • Some words with a “T” or “N” can also be pronounced with Long-U-1. Some examples — pronounced both ways — are: tune / tube / avenue / news. Now, the second way (with Long-U-1) sounds more old-fashioned, like the way some elderly people speak. So, following the rule keeps it more simple for you. But be aware that you may hear some people say a few words the other way, so don’t let it confuse you.
  • There is a handful of words with “L” and “N” that always go against the rule, and use Long-U-1. You should memorize these ones: volume / value / evaluate / menu / January / monument.

Does it really matter which one you use?

It can. Especially when you accidentally use Long-U-2 in place of Long-U-1.

  • There are some words that can be confused. For example, if you want to say the word “use” but you pronounce it with Long-U-2 instead of Long-U-1, then you will end up saying the word “ooze”. Likewise, “hue” would sound like “who”.
  • Even if there is not a word that could be confused, using the wrong sound could make you unclear. For example, if you try to say a word such as “huge” or “pupil” with the wrong sound, others may not understand what you are talking about.
  • With bigger words, other people will probably still understand you. So if you try to say “regular”, “computer” or “document” with Long-U-2 (instead of Long-U-1), it will sound like a mistake, but most of the time others will know what word you are trying to say.

Another phenomenon

There is a group of words that have a sound change when a “T” or “D” comes before a Long-U-1. For example, in a word like “actual”, the “T” gets combined with the “Y” part of Long-U-1 (/yuw/) and turns into a “CH” sound. Likewise, in “graduate” the “D” combines with the “Y” and makes a “J” sound. There are quite a few words like this, such as: statue / costume / situation / punctuate / virtual / individual / schedule.

However, this is a phenomenon that does not only happen with Long-U. These words are part of a bigger pattern, and will be the topic of a different post.

The Sounds of E


The vowel system of English can be confusing because there are only five vowel letters (A-E-I-O-U), but there are 15 different vowel sounds. The key is that each vowel letter has three or four sounds, and it is important to learn the basic sounds of each one.

The letter “E” is a little bit more straightforward that the other vowels, because there is only one Long and one Short sound. So, the basic sounds for the English letter “E” are Long-E and Short-e.

Long-E

The sound of Long-E is the same as the name of the letter “E” when you say the alphabet. Some common words with this sound are: he / we / be / maybe / she / see / three / seem / feet / seen / feel / street / green / week / deep / free.

Short-e

Short-e is pronounced in the front middle (not low, not high) part of the mouth — the mouth needs to be open, but not quite as much as for Short-a-1. And of course, it is very important to relax the tongue, if not, the sound of Short-e can be easily confused with Long-A (see Sell or Sale). Here are some frequently used words with Short-e: get / help / tell / end / men / left / next / egg / red / best / ten / less / yet / yes / kept / seven.

Schwa

Besides the basic sounds, any vowel letter can use the schwa sound. This happens in weak (unstressed) syllables. Here are some words in which the “E” is in the unstressed syllable and has the schwa sound: item / college / faces / escape / define. Also, very frequently used words, which are usually unstressed in sentences, often use the schwa sound; some with [e] are: the / them / then.

Silent -e

The letter “E” is usually silent when it is at the end of a word, as in “safe”. Silent -e can also be found in the middle of a word, when it is in a compound, such as “safeguard” (safe + guard), or when suffixes are added, as in “safely”. (see more about Silent -e).

So, when you see the letter “E” in a word, it will almost always be one of the sounds above. It is very rare to find some other vowel sound used. There are few words with an “E” that do not use one of those sounds, such as: been / new / eye / few / English / they / eight / sew.

Vowels – Long and Short


Each of the vowel letters (A-E-I-O-U) has a Long-vowel sound, plus one or two Short-vowel sounds, and those are the normal sounds for each vowel. But what does Long-vowel or Short-vowel mean?

Long-vowel

  • The Long sound for any vowel, is the same as the name of the vowel letter (like when you say the alphabet). So for example, the sound of Long-A is “A”.
  • The label “long” does not mean that it takes a longer amount of time — it means that the vowel sound has two parts. If you look at the International Phonetic Alphabet (IPA) symbols for these sounds, you can see the two parts. For example, the IPA symbol for Long-A is /ey/.
  • To pronounce a Long-vowel correctly, the tongue needs to move, or slide, in order to say both parts.
  • When making Long-vowel sounds, the tongue will be tense, not relaxed, because the tongue muscle needs to move.

Short-vowel

  • Short-vowel sounds have just one part.
  • The tongue is still — it does not move.
  • The tongue is relaxed.

Using the Long and Short-vowel system

Learning to think in terms of the Long and Short-vowel sounds can be very useful. Here are a few examples of ways the system works.

  • Long and Short-vowels often alternate when word forms change. For example: “nature” uses the Long-A sound but “natural” is pronounced with Short-a; “meet” has Long-E but “met” has Short-e; “five” has Long-I and “fifth” has Short-i.
  • Different English accents sometimes vary between Long or Short-vowel sounds. For example, the word “tomato” is usually pronounced with Long-A in American English, but in British English it is usually said with Short-a-2, “tomato”.
  • Native speakers of English use the Long and Short-vowel system (often subconsciously), when they want to figure out how to pronounce a new word that they have never heard or seen before.

    To demonstrate this, I looked for a list of words that are rarely used in English, to find one I had never seen — I found the word “b-r-o-n-t-i-d-e”. My first guess for how to say it was “brontide” with a Short-o, but I also thought it might be said with Long-O, “brontide”. Then I checked to see which was right — my first guess was correct: “brontide”.

    This is the process native speakers often use when they need to figure out how to say a new word.

  • Some spelling patterns correspond to Long and Short-vowels. The most basic one is [-e] at the ends of words which indicate a Long-vowel pronunciation. For example, “fat” is pronounced with Short-a-1, but when an [-e] is added, the word becomes “fate” with Long-A, and the word “pin” has a Short-i, but “pine” has a Long-I.

Learning to think of the English vowels according to the Long and Short-vowel system, is a good first step toward learning to use English more like a native speaker does.

Sell or Sale?


Does the difference between the words “sell” and “sale” seem confusing? I have known quite a few students who have trouble pronouncing those two words clearly, and some are not even sure which word is which! These two words use Short-e and Long-A. Distinguishing between those two vowel sounds is tricky for many students.

Long-A and Short-e can be easily confused because they are pronounced in basically the same place in the mouth, but there is one key difference. The key is tongue tension. For Long-A the tongue is tense, but for Short-e the tongue needs to be relaxed.

Try it!
First, start by saying “A”. Then, keep your tongue in the same place, but relax it: “A” > “e”. If this seems hard to do, focus on relaxing your whole tongue, all the way back, even making sure that your neck is relaxed.

The difference between these two sounds may seem small, but the difference in the meaning is not small.
Here are some examples:

Long-A — Short-e
based/baste — best
fail — fell
gate — get
jail — gel
late — let
lace — less
main/mane — men
pain — pen
raced — rest
rake — wreck
raid/rayed — red
taste — test
wait — wet
wane — when
waste/waist — west
whale/wail — well

Some of these words could cause some funny mix-ups…

  • Do you use hair gel? — don’t say “hair jail”!
  • If you want to borrow somebody’s “pen”, don’t ask to use their “pain”!
  • On several occasions I have heard students say something like “I have to study for my taste” or “I’m nervous about the big taste tomorrow.” — they were actually talking about a test at school.

Even if a word with Short-e does not have a similar word with Long-A, it can make it hard for others to understand you if your tongue is not relaxed for Short-e.

So, which is which — sell and sale?

SALE -is a noun (and a homonym of “sail”). For example:
“The bookstore is having a big sale this weekend.”
“I’m waiting to see if that computer goes on sale before I buy it.”
“His house is for sale.”

SELL -is a verb. For example:
“I want to sell my old books.”
“They won’t sell it at a lower price.”
“He hopes that his house will sell quickly.”
(The word “sell” does also exist as a noun, but it has a different meaning and is used less frequently.)

This or These?


“Do you mean 1 or more than 1?”

Have you ever been asked a question like that after trying to say something with the word “this” or “these”? If so, you’re not alone. It can be hard to clearly pronounce these two words.

The primary difference between “this” and “these” is the vowel sound, and that’s the tricky part.

The word “this” uses the Short-i sound, and “these” uses the Long-E sound. These two sounds are very similar, but there is one key difference that many students of English do not know about. The key is tongue tension. Long-E and Short-i use basically the same tongue position, but for Long-E the tongue (which is a muscle) is tense, and for Short-i the tongue is relaxed.

Here is how I coach students:
Say “E”, then keeping your tongue in the same place, relax it: “E” > “i”

There are actually quite a few words that can be confused because of these two vowel sounds. Here are a few examples:
beat – bit
cheap – chip
deed – did
each – itch
eat – it
ease – is
feel – fill
heat – hit
he’s – his
leap – lip
leaving – living
steal/steel – still
seat – sit
seek – sick
wheel/we’ll – will

Even if a word with Short-i does not have a similar word with Long-E, it can make it hard to understand if you do not relax your tongue. I recently heard a U.S medical doctor (who was not born in the U.S.) in a TV news interview say “…this is the beegest breakthrough in cardiology…” Even though this doctor spoke English quite well, his vowel error stood out. He was trying to say “biggest” but his tongue was not relaxed for Short-i, so it sounded like “beegest”.

Back to “this” and “these”. The second difference between these two words is the “S”. In “these” the “S” should sound like “Z”.

So that’s the difference between “this” and “these”!

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