Short-vowel IPA Symbols

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!)

ShV IPA

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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.

Tongue tension – a secret key

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.

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.)