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-O vs. Short-o

One very common pronunciation mistake is using the Long-O sound in every word that has the letter “O”. However, the “O” regularly uses three different sounds, so if you always use Long-O, it can definitely cause confusion or just make it harder for people to understand you.

Here are a few examples of words that could be confused:
“on” — this word has Short-o, but if you say it with Long-O, then you end up saying “own”
“long” — this has Short-o, but if you use Long-O, it will be unclear whether you are trying to say “long” or “lone”
“come” — this word has Alternate-Short-o, but if you say it with Long-O, then you will say “comb”

TRY IT!

Here are some good words to practice with. In each of these pairs, the first word has Long-O and the second word has Short-o, so they can definitely be confused if you use the wrong vowel sound. Remember, for Short-o, the lips should not be rounded.

clothe – cloth
cloak – clock
coast – cost
coat – cot
coma – comma
goat – got
hope – hop
Joan – John
note – not
owed/ode – odd
soak – sock

The Sounds of O

I have found that 80% to 90% of students do not know that the English letter “O” has more than one sound! The letter “O” regularly uses three different sounds, but a lot of students pronounce many words wrong because they use just one “O” sound all the time.

The basic sounds are: Long-O, Short-o, and Short-o-2.

Long-O

This is the “universal” or “normal” sound for “O” – the sound with rounded lips (most languages use this sound). Some common words with this sound are: go / home / show / short / know / open / low / over / no / most / for / only.

Short-o

This is the normal Short-o sound, and it is actually the same sound as Short-a-2 (as in “mama”). Some common words that have Short-o are: not / gone / coffee / copy / hot / wrong / lot / long / off / on / stop / song.

To pronounce Short-o clearly, the lips should NOT be rounded and the mouth should be open with the tongue low and relaxed.

Short-o-2 (Alternate-Short-o)

Short-o-2 can be thought of as the Alternate-Short-o, and it borrows the sound of Short-u. There are quite a few words with this sound. A few examples are: son / won / from / done / come / some / love / above / nothing / tongue / of / oven / brother / money / month.

To pronounce this sound clearly, the lips should NOT be rounded, the tongue should be very relaxed in the middle of the mouth, and the mouth is less open than for regular Short-o. (See Boss or bus?)

Schwa

Besides the basic sounds, any vowel letter can use the schwa sound in unstressed syllables. However, Short-o-2 and the schwa sound are actually the same (schwa and Short-u are made in the same place in the mouth). So even though we could say the the letter “O” has four sounds, in reality there are only three distinct sounds that you need to make.

Some examples of words with an “O” in an unstressed syllable are: second / complete / contain / observe / produce / melody.

Some tricky cases

  • There is a handful of frequently used words that do not have one of the three basic “O” sounds: do / to / two / shoe / who / whom / whose / lose / move / prove. These all use a Long-U sound.
  • The words “one” and “once” are unusual. The “O” in these words uses Short-o-2, but there is also a “W” sound at the beginning, so “one” is actually a homonym with the word “won”.
  • There are three other words that are very unusual. The “O” in “woman” and “wolf” uses the Short-oo sound, and the “O” in “women” is pronounced with a Short-i sound! The good news is that spellings that are this crazy are rare.
  • Also, remember to watch out for “OU” (see OU – Oh no!) – words with this vowel pair are not very predictable.
  • Finally, there is one word that can cause confusion because it is a homograph. D-O-V-E: this could be a verb or a noun. As a verb, it is the past tense of “dive” and is pronounced with a Long-O: “dove”. As a noun, it is pronounced with Short-o-2: “dove”.

You should memorize the correct pronunciation of these unusual words, so that you can say them with confidence.

So remember, the letter “O” has more than one sound, and it is usually pronounced with one of the three basic sounds: Long-O, Short-o, and Short-o-2 (or schwa).

Boss or bus?

Do those two words sound the same to you? If so, you’re not alone. Many students of English have trouble with the difference between Short-o and Short-u.

These two vowel sounds are similar in some ways, but in English they are definitely different. The difference between them may seem small to the ear of a student of English, but the difference in the meaning is big. There are many words that depend on that small difference in the sound.

Here is a fairly short list of examples:
Short-o / Short-u
long / lung
cop / cup
dock / duck
not & knot / nut
dog / dug
doll / dull
lost / lust
got / gut
sock / suck
gone / gun
bomb / bum
talk / tuck
crossed / crust
lock / luck
caught & cot / cut
song / sung
collar / color
hot / hut
cost / cussed
rob / rub

So, what is the difference between Short-o and Short-u?

First, the similarities. They might seem the same to your ear because:
— they are both made with a relaxed tongue,
— they are both in the central part of the mouth (not in the front or the back),
— and they are both made without rounding the lips.

The difference is:
— how high or low the tongue is.

Short-u is in the middle center of the mouth — this is the same as Schwa (see “The Sound of “Schwa”) — the tongue is neither up high nor down low.  But for Short-o, the tongue needs to be lower, which means that the mouth needs to be more open.

Try it!
Let’s use the words “fun” and “fawn”. Start with the word “fun”. This word needs Short-u, so the tongue should be relaxed in the middle of the mouth (not high, not low, not front, not back), and do not round your lips: fun.

Now, the next word is almost the same, but the mouth needs to be more open so that the tongue can go down lower: fawn.

That is the difference between “bus” and “boss”.

One other reason that these two sounds might seem confusing is that the Letter “O” sometimes borrows the Short-u sound. For example, the word “love” uses Short-u rather than Long-O or Short-o. There are several frequently used words that do this, such as: “nothing”, “some” and “of”. (See more examples in “The Sounds of O” and in “What is Schwa?”)  In addition, there are a few words that look like they should sound the same, but use different vowel sounds: the word “gone” uses Short-o, but “done” and “none” use Short-u.

(Try the tongue twister “Fuzzy Wuzzy” for a fun way to practice the Short-u sound)

(Take the video course: Boss or Bus? Short-o vs. Short-u)