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A vowel is a particular kind of speech sound made by shaping the upper vocal tract. In English it is important to know that there is a difference between a vowel sound and a letter in the alphabet. In English there are five vowel letters in the alphabet, but there are many more vowel sounds.

The sounds of the English are written with letters in the English alphabet, as either vowels or consonants. All English words are written with vowel letters in them.

These letters are vowels in English:

A, E, I, O, U, and sometimes Y.

The letter Y can be a vowel (as in the words "cry", "sky", "fly" , “my” or "why"), in these words the letter "y" has the vowel sound // (as in eye, I, pie, cry, cypher, climb, lime, light, kayak, Thai, and height). It can also be a consonant sound called a "glide" as in the beginning of these words: "yellow", "yacht", "yam", "yesterday".

The letter W can sometimes be the second part of a vowel sound as in words like such as "cow", "bow:, or "how". In these words the vowel has the sound of //. The letter W can be used as a consonant sound at the beginning of in the words "when", "where", "wet". (And in some in some languages, like Welsh, the letter W is a vowel sound /ʊ/, like "cwm" (a kind of valley), but this is not a vowel sound in English).

In written English these five or six vowel letters are the letters we use for the 13-15 vowel sounds in English.[1] This means there are more vowel sounds than letters in the English alphabet, and the English spelling systems doesn't always help us figure out what the English sounds are. This can be confusing.

  • 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]

Simple vowels are called monophthongs. The letters, like /ɪ/, are the IPA letters for each vowel sound in English. (The IPA is the International Phonetic Alphabet). In the IPA, each symbol represents a different sound, so using the IPA is helpful in pronouncing words.

IPA English Vowels and Diphthongs with Sound Examples.svg

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

  • /i/ as in police, 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

Diphthongs are a combination of two different vowel sounds, one vowel sounds turns into another sound as you say them. If you pronounce the words below slowly, you can hear the two vowel sounds of the diphthongs.

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

Like other languages, there are many dialects of English, and different dialects often use different vowel sounds. But the IPA symbols can tell us which vowel sound a dialects uses. For example, some American English speakers have different vowel in the words "cot-caught", in other dialects these words sound the same way. People who study the differences between the dialects of English often study the different way vowel sounds are pronounced.

The difference between the way English is spelled and the way the words are pronounced came about because all languages change, so spoken English changes, but the spelling system does not.

The study of speech sounds is called Phonetics.

Related pages[change | change source]

References[change | change source]

  1. Crystal, David 1995. The Cambridge encyclopedia of the English language. Cambridge. p237