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

The Sounds of A

The spelling system of English is complicated, and when it comes to the vowel system, it can even sometimes seem like there are no patterns. Even though it is complex, there are some basic patterns that you can learn, to help you figure out how to pronounce new words when you see them.

The most basic key to the vowel system, is to know that each vowel letter uses three or four sounds. So the first step to understanding the vowels, is to learn the basic sounds of each.

The basic sounds for the English letter “A” are Long-A, Short-a-1, and Short-a-2.

Long-A

The sound of Long-A is the same as the name of the letter “A” when you say the alphabet. Some common words with this sound are: make / name / say / came / place / change / state / day / later / able / became / face / paper / waves / space.

Short-a-1

The sound of Short-a-1 is tricky for some students. Short-a-1 is pronounced in the front lower part of the mouth, so the mouth needs to be open enough, and it is very important to relax the tongue.  Here are some frequently used words with Short-a-1: answer / add / began / plant / last / back / after / man / ask / land / family / class / stand / happen / map.

Short-a-2

The second Short-a sound is a sound that is also used for Short-o. This sound is what many students think of as a normal “A” sound, and is used for the word “mama”. This vowel is in the center of the mouth (not front, not back) and it is low down, so the mouth needs to be open enough, and the tongue is relaxed. Words with this sound are: almost / talk / also / start / want / car / fall / small / watch / far / father / hard / water / part / saw / dark.

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 “A” is in the unstressed syllable: about / around / along / among / across / ago / another / surface / finally / machine / America. There are also some very frequently used words, which are usually unstressed in sentences, and also use the schwa sound: was / a / what.

So, when you see the letter “A” in a word, it will almost always be one of the four sounds above. It is very rare to find some other vowel sound used. There are few words with an “A” that do not use one of those sounds, such as: said / says / any / many. (Words such as “warm” and “quart” are explained in The Power of R.)

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.)