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 I

Each vowel letter of English uses three or four different vowel sounds, but there is something unique about the letter “I” — it shares its sounds with the letter “Y”. They are sort of like “twins”. Whenever the letter “Y” is acting as a vowel, it uses the same sounds as “I”.

There are three basic sounds for the English letter “I”: Long-I, Long-I-2 (old-style), and Short-i.

Long-I

Long-I is the normal Long-vowel sound for “I”, because it is the same as the name of the letter “I”. Some common words with this sound are: like / write / time / line / right / kind / while / life / side / five / ice / sign / child / tie / item / my / why / type / style / rhyme / cycle / deny / apply / rely.

Long-I-2

The second Long sound that the letter “I” (or “Y”) uses is the “old style” Long-I — it is the sound that the letter “I” used hundreds of years ago, before the English vowels made a shift. A few words with the letter “I” retained the old sound, which is the same as the Long-E sound today. Here are some examples: ski / chic / police / machine / tangerine / mobile / souvenir / antique / magazine / unique / many / only / funny / baby / lady / very.

Short-i

Short-i is pronounced in the front upper part of the mouth, and it is very important to relax the tongue to avoid confusion with the Long-E sound (see This or These). There are quite a few frequently used words with the Short-i sound, so it is important to learn to relax the tongue well. Some words are: with / six / which / if / give / thing / think / big / list / inch / spring / quick / sing / myth / gyp / gym / cyst / lynx / system / rhythm / symbol.

(Words covered in Short-i in Frequent words:  is / it / its / his / him / will / did / still.)
(Words covered in This or These: this / bit / chip / itch / fill / hit / lip / living / sit / sick.)

Schwa

In addition to the basic Long and Short-vowel sounds, any vowel letter can also use the schwa sound. This happens in weak (unstressed) syllables, especially in a syllable that is adjacent to the strongest syllable of a word. In the following words, the letter “I” (or “Y”) is in an unstressed syllable: pencil / decimal / practice / office / chemical / flexible / dactyl.

Some tricky cases

The following words can be confusing because they are homographs

L-I-V-E: this word could be a verb or an adjective, and they are pronounced differently. When it is a verb, it has a Short-i: “live”. When it is an adjective, it is pronounced with a Long-I: “live”.

W-I-N-D: this word could be a noun or a verb. As a noun, it has a Short-i: “wind”. As a verb, it has a Long-I: “wind”. 

So remember, when you see the letter “I”, it will be pronounced with one of the four choices: Long-I, Long-I-2, Short-i, or Schwa. It is very unusual for an “I” to use some other sound.

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”!