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.

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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 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.

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”!