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A vowel is a speech sound made by the vocal folds (commonly called the vocal cords). It is also a type of letter in the alphabet.

The letters of the English alphabet are either vowels or consonants or both. A vowel sound comes from the lungs, through the vocal cords, and is not blocked, so there is no friction. All English words have vowels.

These letters are vowels in English:

A, E, I, O, U, and sometimes Y can be considered a vowel.

The letter Y can be a vowel (as in the words "cry", "sky", "fly" , “my” or "why"), or it can be a consonant (as in "yellow", "yacht", "yam" or "yesterday").

The letter W can sometimes be a vowel when used in a diphthong such as cow, bow, or how, or it can be a consonant ("when", "where", "wet"). W can be a vowel in a few words that come from Welsh, like "cwm" (a kind of valley).

These five or six letters stand for about 20 vowel sounds in most English accents.[1] This important fact helps to explain why pronunciation can be difficult for both native speakers and learners of English.

  • The rest of the letters of the alphabet are consonants:
B, C, D, F, G, H, J, K, L, M, N, P, Q, R, S, T, V, W, X, Y (sometimes), and Z

Monophthongs and diphthongs[change | change source]

There are a few different kinds of vowels. Simple vowels are called monophthongs, since you only need to place your tongue and mouth in one place. The letters between the slash symbols are the IPA letters for each vowel sound.

IPA English Vowels and Diphthongs with Sound Examples.svg

Common monophthongs in English (these are for General American English) include:

  • /i/ as in police, here, feet, eat, and silly
  • /ɪ/ as in it, sit, kick, and bitter
  • /ɛ/ as in end, bet, less, and letter
  • /æ/ as in at, apple, fat, and matter
  • /u/ as in cool, tune, soup, and kung fu
  • /ʊ/ as in cook, should, pudding, and foot
  • /ʌ/ as in bus, blood, come, and up
  • /ə/ as in kingdom, photography, philosophy, ketchup, and hundred
  • /ɚ/ as in butter, collar, flavor, firm, and burst
  • /ɔ/ as in all, fought, hot, and bot
  • /ɑ/ as in father, walk, arm, heart, wasp, lager, envelope and aardvark

More complicated vowels include diphthongs, complex vowels in which your mouth and/or tongue move as you say them.

Common diphthongs in English include:

  • // as in ate, reign, vain, flavor, slay, and convey
  • // as in toe, row, go, boat, mode, and chateau
  • // as in eye, I, pie, cry, cypher, climb, lime, light, kayak, Thai, and height
  • // as in loud, house, cow, about, Daoism, and Macau
  • // as in boy, moist, and Freud

Since there are many accents in English, this list does not list all the sounds of English, mostly just those of American English. Some of the sounds listed above are a little different in different accents. For example, while most British accents can say and understand the difference between /ɑ/ and /ɔ/, many American accents cannot tell difference between the two sounds and usually pronounce them the same way. This is called the cot-caught merger.[2]

Since there is such a difference between vowel sounds even among accents and dialects of English, alongside such a small number of letters to represent a large number of sounds, the difference between the dialects and accents of English would also make spelling reform very difficult, since there is no one central authority that decides how English should be written (since both Britain and America have a major influence on how English is written) and since people would have their own ideas on how to spell words.

Related pages[change | change source]

References[change | change source]

  1. Crystal, David 1995. The Cambridge encyclopedia of the English language. Cambridge. p237
  2. Ben (2011-03-08). "The Cot-Caught Merger". Dialect Blog. Retrieved 2017-07-13.