Knowing how the English vowel system works, with Long-vowels and Short-vowels, can help train your brain to work with English in a way that is similar to how native-speakers process the language. It can help you be better with spelling, and with being more confident in figuring out how to say new words.
At the same time, it is also good to be aware of the IPA (International Phonetic Alphabet) symbols for the vowels. Obviously this is very helpful if you are already familiar with the IPA symbols. But even if you have never seen these symbols before, taking a look at them can give some helpful insights for English pronunciation.
Remember that Long-vowels have two parts to their sound, and Short-vowels have just one part, and this can be seen in the IPA symbols. The Short-vowel symbols are shown here so that you can see them, and you can also notice that each Short-vowel symbol is a single “letter” which reflects the fact that Short-vowels have just one part. (Long-vowel IPA symbols –coming soon– each have 2 “letters” and they give even more useful clues for pronunciation patterns!)
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)
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.)
Tongue tension is important for pronouncing English short vowels well. All of the short vowels in American English need a relaxed tongue. In fact, some books and dictionaries call these vowels “lax vowels”.
THE SECRET KEY for lax vowels
Most students of English do not seem to know about tongue tension. Many of my students have said that they were never told about relaxing the tongue. That’s why I call it the secret key.
THE CRITICAL FACTOR for some
For two vowels, Short-e and Short-i, tongue tension is critical. Failing to relax your tongue for these two vowels can make them sound more like a different vowel, which can cause misunderstandings.
Short-e can get confused with Long-A (see Sell or Sale?)
Short-i can get confused with Long-E (see This or These?)
Pronouncing the other Short vowels
Short-a-1 “man” “hat”
For this vowel, the tongue is low in the front of the mouth. The mouth needs to be open enough so that the tongue can go low enough, and with a relaxed tongue.
Short-a-2 “car” “ball”
Short-o-1 “hot” “stop”
These two vowels share the same sound. For this sound, the tongue is in the center, neither front nor back, and the tongue is low, so the mouth needs to be open. Think of saying “ah” for the doctor. The tongue is relaxed and the lips are not rounded. (this is compared to Short-u in Boss or bus?)
Short-o-2 “month” “son”
Short-u “fun” “duck”
These two vowels also share the same sound. For this sound, the tongue is completely relaxed in the middle of the mouth: neither front nor back, not high, not low, and the lips are not rounded. (this is the same as Schwa)
Short-oo “book” “good”
This vowel is pronounced in the same place in the mouth as the Long-U, as in “nuke”, but with a relaxed tongue, as in “nook”. This is the only Short vowel with rounded lips. (see Short-oo?)
If you begin to relax your tongue for these vowels, you can improve the clarity of your pronunciation. Note: If relaxing your tongue seems difficult, think about relaxing it all the way back to the throat — the tongue muscle extends into the throat.