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

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The Sounds of A

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.

Long-A

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.

Short-a-1

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.

Short-a-2

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.

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 “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.)