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-U: 1 or 2?

The vowel “U” is a bit unique because it has two Long-vowel sounds. The two sounds are very similar, but they are used in different situations. So, how do you know which one to choose?

It all depends on which letter comes just before the Long-U.

Long-U-2 (/uw/)

Long-U-2 is used after sounds that are made with the front part of the tongue. This includes: T / D / L / N / S / R / TH / J. Here are some examples: tune / duty / elude / nuclear / suit / rule / enthused / June.

Long-U-1 (/yuw/)

Long-U-1 is used after any sounds that are not made with the front part of the tongue. This includes: P / B / F / M / K / G / H / “none”. Some examples are: pupil / bugle / fuse / music / cube / argue / huge / use.

Exceptions

In English there are always exceptions, and in this case the exceptions happen with some Long-U-2 words.

  • Some words with a “T” or “N” can also be pronounced with Long-U-1. Some examples — pronounced both ways — are: tune / tube / avenue / news. Now, the second way (with Long-U-1) sounds more old-fashioned, like the way some elderly people speak. So, following the rule keeps it more simple for you. But be aware that you may hear some people say a few words the other way, so don’t let it confuse you.
  • There is a handful of words with “L” and “N” that always go against the rule, and use Long-U-1. You should memorize these ones: volume / value / evaluate / menu / January / monument.

Does it really matter which one you use?

It can. Especially when you accidentally use Long-U-2 in place of Long-U-1.

  • There are some words that can be confused. For example, if you want to say the word “use” but you pronounce it with Long-U-2 instead of Long-U-1, then you will end up saying the word “ooze”. Likewise, “hue” would sound like “who”.
  • Even if there is not a word that could be confused, using the wrong sound could make you unclear. For example, if you try to say a word such as “huge” or “pupil” with the wrong sound, others may not understand what you are talking about.
  • With bigger words, other people will probably still understand you. So if you try to say “regular”, “computer” or “document” with Long-U-2 (instead of Long-U-1), it will sound like a mistake, but most of the time others will know what word you are trying to say.

Another phenomenon

There is a group of words that have a sound change when a “T” or “D” comes before a Long-U-1. For example, in a word like “actual”, the “T” gets combined with the “Y” part of Long-U-1 (/yuw/) and turns into a “CH” sound. Likewise, in “graduate” the “D” combines with the “Y” and makes a “J” sound. There are quite a few words like this, such as: statue / costume / situation / punctuate / virtual / individual / schedule.

However, this is a phenomenon that does not only happen with Long-U. These words are part of a bigger pattern, and will be the topic of a different post.

The Sounds of U

The vowel system is the most complicated part of the pronunciation-spelling system of English, because each vowel letter represents three or four different vowel sounds. The letter “U” has three different sounds, but one thing that is unique about “U” is that it has two Long-vowel sounds.

The basic sounds of the English letter “U” are: Long-U-1, Long-U-2, and Short-u.

Long-U-1

The sound of Long-U-1 is the same as the name of the letter “U”. However, this long-vowel sound is a little bit unusual because Long-vowels usually have two parts, but Long-U-1 has three parts (in IPA: /yuw/). Some common words with this sound are: use / music / huge / cute / unite / cure / menu / fuel / human / argue.

Long-U-2

The second Long-U sound is almost the same as Long-U-1, except that it has only two parts (in IPA: /uw/). Some words with this sound are: true / flute / blue / June / spruce / tune / rule / tube / duty / include.

Short-u

Short-u is pronounced in the center (not front, not back) middle (not high, not low) part of the mouth, and the tongue needs to be relaxed.  Some common words with this sound are: up / just / but / much / under / us / run / study / number / because.

Schwa

Any vowel letter can use the schwa sound in unstressed syllables. However, since the schwa sound and Short-u are both made in the same place in the mouth, they end up sounding the same. A linguist would make a distinction between Schwa and Short-u based on stress, so for example, the first letter of the word “under” would be considered a Short-u sound, but in the word “upset” the first letter would be called a Schwa. The good news for learners of English is, you can treat them as the same sound, and your English pronunciation will sound great.

So remember, it is very rare to find the letter “U” pronounced with something other than these three basic sounds. There is a handful of words with a “U” pronounced as Short-oo: sugar / put / push / puss / pull / full / bull / cushion. There are also two words with a very unusual pronunciation, “busy” and “business”. In these two words the “U” has a Short-i sound! Otherwise, when you see the letter “U” in a word, it will almost always have the sound of either Long-U-1, Long-U-2, or Short-u (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)