Long-vowel IPA symbols


Knowing the Long-vowel sounds and Short-vowel sounds of English can help you be better at pronouncing new words and deciphering spelling patterns, but it also helps to be aware of the IPA (International Phonetic Alphabet) symbols for the vowels. Some people learn IPA symbols when they first begin to learn English, but others have never seen these symbols before. Either way, it can be useful to refer to them for some aspects of English pronunciation.

One of the main differences between Long and Short-vowels is that Long-vowels have two parts to their sound and Short-vowels have one part. In the Long-vowel IPA symbols below you can see the two parts for each Long-vowel.

LongV IPA

Here are two situations where it is helpful to take a look at the IPA symbols of Long-vowels.

Vowel sequences

A vowel sequence is when there are 2 vowels next to each other, and they both have a sound, and they belong to different syllables, as in the words “idea” (3 syllables), or “fluid” (2 syllables). (NOTE: This is different from vowel pairs that belong to the same syllable and make only one sound.)

In order to pronounce both of the vowels in a sequence clearly, so that they can both be heard clearly, we need to make special use of the second part of the first vowel. Let’s see how that works with the words “idea” and “fluid”.

Idea — In this word the first vowel of the sequence is a Long-E, and the IPA symbol (/iy/) shows a “y” at the end. The trick is to use that “y” part to separate the two vowels. This is done by pronouncing it a little bit stronger than usual. This makes the word sound like it could be spelled as “ideya”.

Fluid — In this word the first vowel is a Long-U. The IPA symbol (/uw/) shows a “w” at the end. This “w” is emphasized, to make a separation between the [u] and the [i], and it sounds like “fluwid”.

Consonant morphing

The consonants “T”, “D”, “C”, “S”, and “Z” sometimes change their sound. Here are some examples:

“virtue” — the “T” sounds like “CH”
“educate” — the “D” sounds like “J”
“sugar” — the “S” sounds like “SH”
“social” — the “C” sounds like “SH”

This kind of consonant change can happen when the consonant is followed by a high-front vowel sound — this is seen as either a “y” or “i” in IPA symbols. In words like these, there is (or once was) either a Long-I-2 /iy/ or a Long-U-1 /yuw/ right after the morphing consonant. The consonant combines with the high-front part of the vowel sound and changes.

In some of these words, the original vowel sound is lost. For example, in “social” the [i] is lost when it combines with the [c] (the [a] remains as schwa). However, in “educate” the [d] gets changed but the Long-U can still be heard.

SO, overall, it is most helpful to know the vowel system in terms of Long and Short-vowels, because many pronunciation patterns make use of them, but also keep your eye on the IPA symbols for extra clues.

Short-vowel IPA Symbols


Knowing how the English vowel system works, with Long-vowels and Short-vowels, can help train your brain to work with English in a way that is similar to how native-speakers process the language. It can help you be better with spelling, and with being more confident in figuring out how to say new words.

At the same time, it is also good to be aware of the IPA (International Phonetic Alphabet) symbols for the vowels. Obviously this is very helpful if you are already familiar with the IPA symbols. But even if you have never seen these symbols before, taking a look at them can give some helpful insights for English pronunciation.

Remember that Long-vowels have two parts to their sound, and Short-vowels have just one part, and this can be seen in the IPA symbols. The Short-vowel symbols are shown here so that you can see them, and you can also notice that each Short-vowel symbol is a single “letter” which reflects the fact that Short-vowels have just one part. (Long-vowel IPA symbols –coming soon– each have 2 “letters” and they give even more useful clues for pronunciation patterns!)

ShV IPA

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

Two Other Vowels


There are two vowel sounds that are similar to Long-vowels because they have two parts. However, these two vowels do not have an alphabet letter to represent them, so I use the IPA (International Phonetic Alphabet) symbols for these two sounds. They are:

Vowel /aw/

This is the sound in words such as: house / out / now / flower. This sound is usually spelled with the letters “OU” or “OW”, BUT be careful…

  • not every word with “OU” has this sound. The vowel pair “OU” has many different pronunciations (this is explained in OU – Oh no!).
  • not every word with “OW” has this sound. Some words with “OW” have a Long-O sound, such as “slow” or “own”.

Vowel /oy/

This sound is in words such as: boy / oyster / oil / choice. This vowel is spelled with either “OI” or “OY”.

These two vowels are not usually difficult for students to pronounce. In fact, I have never seen a situation where someone has had difficulty communicating clearly in English due to errors with these two vowels.

There is just one thing to keep in mind about pronouncing them. Since these vowels — as well as the regular Long-vowels — have two parts, the tongue needs to be active. So, to pronounce them well, the tongue needs to move or slide, in order to pronounce both parts, and to sound clear and natural.

Long-OO


There is no letter “OO” in the English alphabet, but Long-OO and Short-oo are part of the vowel system.

Short-oo

Short-oo is a unique vowel sound that is not represented by any other vowel letter. This vowel is explained in “Short-oo? What’s that?”

Long-OO

Long-OO does not have its own sound. It uses the Long-U-2 sound. Long-OO is really more of a “helper” to Long-U — it’s an alternate way to spell the Long-U-2 sound. Long-OO takes the place of the letter “U” in words that need a Long-U-2 instead of Long-U-1. (see Long-U: 1 or 2?). Here are some examples,

fool  – If we spelled this word with a “U”, the “F” would trigger a Long-U-1, and the word would end up sounding like the word “fuel”. So, in order to have a Long-U-2 sound in “fool”, the “OO” is used instead of a “U”.

boot – If this word had a “U” it would be “bute” — because a “B” also requires Long-U-1. So again, the “OO” helps out to keep a Long-U-2 sound.

coo – This word would sound like “cue”, if it had a “U” instead of “OO”.

Spelling Patterns

Long-OO and Short-oo also sometimes follow spelling patterns used by the other vowels. For example, the spelling rule in which an [-e] at the end of a word indicates a long vowel, can also be seen in some words with “OO”:

  • If you see an [-e] at the end of a word with “OO” you know for sure that it is Long-OO, as in the words “soothe”,  “goose” and “snooze”.
  • However, if you see a word that does not have an [-e] at the end, it could have either sound. Some have Long-OO, such as “food”, “school” and  “moon”. Some have Short-oo, such as “hook”, “wool” and “good”.

So that’s the scoop on Long-OO.

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).

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).

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.

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