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

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.

A tongue-twister: Thistle sticks

thistle

Six thick thistle sticks.
Six thick thistle sticks.
Six thick thistle sticks.

This tongue-twister is good for practicing 2 things:

1. Short-i. In all of these words, the [i] uses the Short-i sound. The key to Short-i is to relax your tongue so that it doesn’t sound like Long-E (see This or These ).

2. “TH”. Be careful –“TH” should not sound like the “S”! (see TH Part 1 & TH Part 2 )

Short-i in Frequent Words

Distinguishing between Short-i and Long-E is difficult for many students (the difference is explained in “This or These?”), but it’s a good idea to be extra careful with this vowel distinction — there are several frequently used words of English with the Short-i sound that could be confused with similar sounding words with Long-E. The words below are from the list of The 150 Most Frequently Used Words of English.

Now remember, the key to pronouncing Short-i correctly is to relax your tongue.
So, if you don’t relax your tongue then…
is — sounds like “ease”
it — sounds like “eat”
its — sounds like “eats”
his — sounds like “he’s”
him — sounds like “heme” (this is a scientific word that most people don’t know)
will — sounds like “wheel”
did — sounds like “deed”
still — sounds like “steal”/”steel”

Also, the word “six” is used often, and can be confused with the word “seeks”.

So, here’s a sentence that uses some of these words together: “Will it still work?”
But, without saying Short-i correctly, this sentence could sound like: “Wheel eat steal work?”
Or “Is it at 6:00?” could sound like “Ease eat at seeks?” (That sounds kind of crazy!)

There are some frequent words with the Short-i sound that do not have a corresponding word with Long-E: in / with / if / think / which. Even though these words would not be confused with a similar-sounding word, it still makes it harder for people to understand you if accidentally say them with a Long-E sound. So it is worth it to be careful with Short-i (not: eat ease worth eat to be careful weeth Short-i)!

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”!