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.

Silent -e

Many students know about silent [-e], but I sometimes find a student who is not aware of it, so I want to make sure that it is clear for everyone. When there is just one [-e] at the end of a word, it is silent. Do not try to say it! This is true for 99% of the words with one [-e] at the end.

There is only just a handful words that have a single [-e] which is pronounced: psyche / recipe / apostrophe / catastrophe / simile / resume. And of course, one-syllable words with just one [-e], such as “me”, “he”, “we”, “she” or “be”, can’t have a silent vowel! Otherwise, there needs to be [-ee] at the end, to make the Long-E sound, as in “coffee” or “employee”.

Even though the [-e] at the ends of words is silent, it is not useless. Most of the time it plays an important function in indicating how other sounds should be pronounced. Here are some examples:

  • in the word “fence” the [-e] indicates that the [c] should have a /s/ sound, rather than a /k/ sound.
  • in “tense” the [-e] indicates that the [s] should keep the sound /s/ rather than shift to /z/ like in the word “tens”. (see more about S vs. Z)
  • in “edge” the [-e] indicates that the [g] should have a /j/ sound, rather than a /g/ sound.
  • in “rate” the [-e] indicates that the [a] should be pronounced as Long-A  — without the [-e] the word would be “rat” with Short-a-1.
  • in “toe” the [-e] indicates that the [o] should be Long-O, and not the word “to”.

Adding suffixes

Silent [-e] should stay silent, even when [-s] or [-ed] gets added, unless it is needed. For example, if I add [-s] to “save”, the [-e] stays silent, “saves”. However, if I add an [-s] to “case”, then the [-e] needs to have sound, in order to separate the first and the second “S”, so that both can be heard, “cases”.

Or if I add an [-ed] to “line”, the [-e] stays silent, “lined”, but with “wade” the [-e] activates, so that the first and the second “D” can both be heard, “waded”.

With the suffixes [-ly] or [-r], the [-e] always stays silent, so “brave” becomes “bravely” or “braver”.

So, silent [-e] is not just a crazy detail to make English more confusing, it often helps other sounds — perhaps it would be better to call it “helper [-e]”.

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”!