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 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).

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.

Homographs Part 3

A homograph is a word that has two different pronunciations, and the different pronunciations have different meanings. The words in Homographs Part 1 have a change in vowel sound, and Homographs Part 2 deals with words that have a change in a consonant sound. However, the words here have a change in word stress.

One important thing to know is that changes in word stress often cause changes in vowel sounds, so in some of these words you may notice a vowel sound change, but that change goes with the shift in stress. The primary way that vowels change with word stress is by becoming weaker and reducing to Schwa when they are in a syllable that is not stressed. Here is an example:

OBject (noun – a thing):
–the first syllable is stressed, so the [o] is in the strong syllable and has a Short-o sound

obJECT (verb – to voice disagreement):
–the second syllable is stressed, so the [o] is in the weak syllable and sounds like Schwa

(The capitalized letters show the stressed syllable, but this is not normal spelling).

Word-stress homograph examples

ADdress (noun – the location of a building)
adDRESS (verb – to write down an address OR to speak to a group of people)

COMpound (noun – something made of two or more parts)
comPOUND (verb – to combine or add)

CONtest (noun – a game or event of competition)
conTEST (verb – to challenge or dispute)

CONtract (noun – a written agreement)
conTRACT (verb – to make smaller in size)

DEcrease (noun – the total reduction in the amount of something)
deCREASE (verb – to become smaller in amount)

DIgest (noun – a compilation of information)
diGEST (verb – to break down food in the stomach)

ENtrance (noun – a place of access such as a door or gate)
enTRANCE (verb – to completely captivate someone’s attention)

EXtract (noun – something taken from a larger work or substance)
exTRACT (verb – to remove or pull out)

INcline (noun – a slope or hill)
inCLINE (verb – to lean, tip, or tilt something)

INcrease (noun – the amount that something has grown)
inCREASE (verb – to become greater or larger)

OFfense (noun – the players on a sports team that attack or advance)
ofFENSE (noun – an illegal act)

PERfect (adjective – something that is as good as it can possibly be)
perFECT (verb – to improve or make something as good as possible)

PREsent (noun – a gift)
preSENT (verb – to show or give something formally)

PROduce (noun – food that has been grown, such as vegetables)
proDUCE (verb – to make or create something)

PROject (noun – a large or extended task or piece of work)
proJECT (verb – to estimate, forecast or predict)

PROtest (noun – an group of people organized to display objection to something)
proTEST (verb – to express an objection)

REcord (noun – a written account of information)
reCORD (verb – to keep or store information for future use)

REfund (noun – the amount of money returned to someone)
reFUND (verb – the action of giving money back to someone)

REject (noun – an item that is defective or inadequate)
reJECT (verb – to refuse to accept something)

SUBject (noun – the topic of a conversation or a book)
subJECT (verb – to cause or force something to undergo a process)

TRANSport (noun – a system for moving objects or items)
transPORT (verb – to carry or move goods from one place to another)

UPset (noun – an unexpected defeat of a champion sports team)
upSET (adjective – to be disturbed or extremely unhappy)

This is not a complete list — there are many other words like this. Also, these definitions are not complete — they are just to help show how the meaning can change when the stress changes. Many of these words actually have several definitions.

Perhaps you noticed that these words start with a prefix, such as, “re-” “com-” or “in-“, for example. Most of the homographs that follow this alternating word stress pattern do start with a prefix.

So now that you know about these homographs, you can keep your eyes open for words with prefixes, and keep your ears open for changes in word stress, and that will help you be less confused with words that are pronounced in more than one way.

What is Schwa?

Schwa is the name for the most frequently used vowel sound in English. It is used for Short-u, the alternate Short-o, and reduced vowels.

Short-u
The Short-u sound is in many words that are spelled with a “U”, such as: fun, up, just, much, under, bug, shut, must, such, us, but, luck, mud, number, rush, judge, truck, deduct.

Alternate Short-o
The letter “O” often borrows the Short-u sound, especially in frequently used words. For example: love, month, some, done, from, of, son, front, among, other, nothing, none, wonder, does, mother, come.

Reduced vowels
Schwa is the sound that any vowel letter can take in an unstressed (or weak) syllable.

“A” — In the word “ago”, the stress is on the 2nd syllable, so the letter “A” is in the weak or unstressed syllable. So instead of sounding like Long-A or Short-a, it becomes schwa.

“E” — In the word “system” the stress is on the 1st syllable, so the letter “E” sounds like schwa. In the word “before” the 2nd syllable is stressed, so the “E” in the 1st syllable becomes schwa.

“I” — In the word “pencil” the 1st syllable is stressed, leaving the “I” in the unstressed syllable, so it sounds like schwa.

“O” — In the word “second” the stress is on the 1st syllable, so the letter “O” takes the schwa sound.

It would be hard to say very much in English without using the schwa sound. The good news is that it is the easiest vowel sound to make! If you’re not sure how to say it, The Sound of Schwa gives an explanation.

The Sound of Schwa

The schwa sound is the most frequently occurring vowel sound in English. The good news is that it is also the easiest vowel sound to make.

Tongue position
To make schwa, the tongue does not have to go up or down, or forward, or back. It stays right in the middle.

Tongue tension
The tongue should not be tense for schwa. Keep it completely relaxed in the middle of the mouth.

Try it!
Keeping your tongue relaxed in the center of your mouth, you just need to open your mouth a little bit and make a sound: uh.

Schwa is so easy that you could say it in your sleep. Imagine that you are sleeping, with your mouth open just a little bit, and make a sound – “uh”.

A student once said that it would be the sound you made if you were unexpectedly punched in the stomach. “Uh!” But of course, you wouldn’t be quite so relaxed!

So now you know how to make the most frequently used vowel sound in English.

A tongue-twister: Fuzzy Wuzzy

Here is a good tongue-twister to try:


Fuzzy Wuzzy was a bear.
Fuzzy Wuzzy had no hair.
Fuzzy Wuzzy wasn’t fuzzy, was he?

There are 2 keys to pronoucing this well:
1. “Wuzzy” and “was he” should sound the same.
This happens often in spoken English: the “H” of the word “he” gets lost in conversational speech due to the rhythm (or stress-timing) of the sentence. (This is also known as sentence stress: some words are pronounced more strongly than other words.)
2. Use the Short U sound to say “fuzzy”, “wuzzy”, “was”, “a”, and “wasn’t”.

To pronounce Short U:
1. Lips are NOT rounded.
2. The tongue is in the middle (not high, not low, not in front or in back)
3. The tongue should be very relaxed.
(If you are familiar with the “schwa” vowel sound, it sounds the same.)