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

Long-O vs. Short-o

One very common pronunciation mistake is using the Long-O sound in every word that has the letter “O”. However, the “O” regularly uses three different sounds, so if you always use Long-O, it can definitely cause confusion or just make it harder for people to understand you.

Here are a few examples of words that could be confused:
“on” — this word has Short-o, but if you say it with Long-O, then you end up saying “own”
“long” — this has Short-o, but if you use Long-O, it will be unclear whether you are trying to say “long” or “lone”
“come” — this word has Alternate-Short-o, but if you say it with Long-O, then you will say “comb”

TRY IT!

Here are some good words to practice with. In each of these pairs, the first word has Long-O and the second word has Short-o, so they can definitely be confused if you use the wrong vowel sound. Remember, for Short-o, the lips should not be rounded.

clothe – cloth
cloak – clock
coast – cost
coat – cot
coma – comma
goat – got
hope – hop
Joan – John
note – not
owed/ode – odd
soak – sock

The Sounds of O

I have found that 80% to 90% of students do not know that the English letter “O” has more than one sound! The letter “O” regularly uses three different sounds, but a lot of students pronounce many words wrong because they use just one “O” sound all the time.

The basic sounds are: Long-O, Short-o, and Short-o-2.

Long-O

This is the “universal” or “normal” sound for “O” – the sound with rounded lips (most languages use this sound). Some common words with this sound are: go / home / show / short / know / open / low / over / no / most / for / only.

Short-o

This is the normal Short-o sound, and it is actually the same sound as Short-a-2 (as in “mama”). Some common words that have Short-o are: not / gone / coffee / copy / hot / wrong / lot / long / off / on / stop / song.

To pronounce Short-o clearly, the lips should NOT be rounded and the mouth should be open with the tongue low and relaxed.

Short-o-2 (Alternate-Short-o)

Short-o-2 can be thought of as the Alternate-Short-o, and it borrows the sound of Short-u. There are quite a few words with this sound. A few examples are: son / won / from / done / come / some / love / above / nothing / tongue / of / oven / brother / money / month.

To pronounce this sound clearly, the lips should NOT be rounded, the tongue should be very relaxed in the middle of the mouth, and the mouth is less open than for regular Short-o. (See Boss or bus?)

Schwa

Besides the basic sounds, any vowel letter can use the schwa sound in unstressed syllables. However, Short-o-2 and the schwa sound are actually the same (schwa and Short-u are made in the same place in the mouth). So even though we could say the the letter “O” has four sounds, in reality there are only three distinct sounds that you need to make.

Some examples of words with an “O” in an unstressed syllable are: second / complete / contain / observe / produce / melody.

Some tricky cases

  • There is a handful of frequently used words that do not have one of the three basic “O” sounds: do / to / two / shoe / who / whom / whose / lose / move / prove. These all use a Long-U sound.
  • The words “one” and “once” are unusual. The “O” in these words uses Short-o-2, but there is also a “W” sound at the beginning, so “one” is actually a homonym with the word “won”.
  • There are three other words that are very unusual. The “O” in “woman” and “wolf” uses the Short-oo sound, and the “O” in “women” is pronounced with a Short-i sound! The good news is that spellings that are this crazy are rare.
  • Also, remember to watch out for “OU” (see OU – Oh no!) – words with this vowel pair are not very predictable.
  • Finally, there is one word that can cause confusion because it is a homograph. D-O-V-E: this could be a verb or a noun. As a verb, it is the past tense of “dive” and is pronounced with a Long-O: “dove”. As a noun, it is pronounced with Short-o-2: “dove”.

You should memorize the correct pronunciation of these unusual words, so that you can say them with confidence.

So remember, the letter “O” has more than one sound, and it is usually pronounced with one of the three basic sounds: Long-O, Short-o, and Short-o-2 (or schwa).