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

Advertisements

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-OO

There is no letter “OO” in the English alphabet, but Long-OO and Short-oo are part of the vowel system.

Short-oo

Short-oo is a unique vowel sound that is not represented by any other vowel letter. This vowel is explained in “Short-oo? What’s that?”

Long-OO

Long-OO does not have its own sound. It uses the Long-U-2 sound. Long-OO is really more of a “helper” to Long-U — it’s an alternate way to spell the Long-U-2 sound. Long-OO takes the place of the letter “U” in words that need a Long-U-2 instead of Long-U-1. (see Long-U: 1 or 2?). Here are some examples,

fool  — If we spelled this word with a “U”, the “F” would trigger a Long-U-1, and the word would end up sounding like the word “fuel”. So, in order to have a Long-U-2 sound in “fool”, the “OO” is used instead of a “U”.

boot — If this word had a “U” it would be “bute” — because a “B” also requires Long-U-1. So again, the “OO” helps out to keep a Long-U-2 sound.

coo — This word would sound like “cue”, if it had a “U” instead of “OO”.

Spelling Patterns

Long-OO and Short-oo also sometimes follow spelling patterns used by the other vowels. For example, the spelling rule in which an [-e] at the end of a word indicates a long vowel, can also be seen in some words with “OO”:

  • If you see an [-e] at the end of a word with “OO” you know for sure that it is Long-OO, as in the words “soothe”,  “goose” and “snooze”.
  • However, if you see a word that does not have an [-e] at the end, it could have either sound. Some have Long-OO, such as “food”, “school” and  “moon”. Some have Short-oo, such as “hook”, “wool” and “good”.

So that’s the scoop on Long-OO.

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.

Short-oo? What’s that?

Short-oo is a vowel that is a little bit unusual. Now, you may be thinking, “But that’s not a letter in the English alphabet!”, and of course, you’re right. But Long-OO and Short-oo is a pair of vowel sounds that follow some of the spelling and pronunciation patterns of the other Long and Short vowels of English.

How to pronounce Short-oo

Just like all of the Short vowels of English, a key factor to pronounce it well is to relax your tongue. Start by saying the Long-OO (Long-U-2) sound: “OO”. Then, hold your tongue up in the same place, but relax it completely: “OO” > “oo”.

Also, your lips should stay rounded — Short-oo is the only Short vowel with rounded lips.

Be sure to relax your whole tongue, all the way to the back, because there are some words with Short-oo that could be confused if you don’t relax your tongue. Here are a few examples:

Short-oo — Long-OO
could — cooed
hood — who’d
look — Luke
pull — pool
stood — stewed
would — wooed

Common Words with Short-oo

This vowel sound is a little bit unusual in some ways, but it is used almost as much as any other English vowel sound, because there are several frequently used words that have it. Here are some of them: could, should, would, put, push, sugar, book, look, cookie, hook, took, good, wood, stood, foot.

One fun way to practice the Short-oo sound is with the tongue twister “How Much Wood“.

A tongue-twister: How Much Wood?

Here is a good tongue-twister to try:


How much wood would a woodchuck chuck,
if a woodchuck could chuck wood?

There are 3 keys to pronouncing this well:
1. “wood” and “would” sound the same. (Words that sound the same are called homonyms.)
2. Use the Short “oo” sound to say “wood”, “would”, and “could”.
3. The letter “L” in “would” and “could” is silent.

To pronounce Short “oo”:
1. Lips are rounded (but relaxed).
2. The tongue is in position for a Long “u” (like in the word “blue”) BUT
3. The tongue must be VERY relaxed while holding the Long “u” position.