What is a vowel?
A vowel is a letter that represents a speech sound made with one’s airway (the mouth and vocal chords) open and without touching one’s tongue to the teeth, lips, or the roof of the mouth. It is contrasted with consonants, which are formed by obstructing one’s airway in some way so as to create a harder, more defined speech sound. Together, vowels and consonants form syllables in speech.
The Vowel Letters
There are five letters that are considered to be true vowels: A, E, I, O, and U. The letter Y is often considered to be a “semi-vowel” because it sometimes functions as a vowel sound (as in myth, tryst, any, or fly) and sometimes as a soft consonant sound (as in yard, yet, or yonder).
Finally, it’s worth mentioning that the letter W, which is typically considered a consonant, can also behave as a vowel, but this only occurs when it combines with other vowels (known as vowel digraphs, which we’ll look at a little further on).
Vowel Letters vs. Vowel Sounds
When we discuss vowels in this section, we will be taking the more traditional approach in describing the letters that create different vowel sounds. Modern linguistics takes a different approach, classifying each vowel sound as a unique value that is not specifically related to the particular letter(s) that creates it.
For example, in looking at two words, apple and ate, we will focus on the vowel letter A, which creates two different sounds depending on the spelling of the word—that is, A is the vowel in both words, but it behaves differently in each to create two distinct vowel sounds.
Linguistics, on the other hand, treats the A in apple (/ˈæpəl/) as a different vowel altogether from the A in ate (/eɪt/), regardless of the fact that they are both formed by the same vowel letter.
This guide will attempt to bridge the gap between the two. What we will refer to as a vowel is the letter that produces a variety of different sounds, whereas the unique pronunciation according to the letter’s place and purpose in different spellings will be referred to as its vowel sound. When and where appropriate, we’ll include the International Phonetic Alphabet (IPA) pronunciation for each different vowel sound.
Finally, it should be noted that, for the sake of clarity and conciseness, the pronunciations listed here and elsewhere in the guide are based on General American English pronunciations. There is often a wide variety of specific differences in dialect across the United States for different spelling patterns, and to differentiate pronunciations for each would result in a guide that is too cumbersome to be of any real, practical use.
Very broadly speaking, vowels are either short or long in their pronunciation, depending on how they are used in a word.
“Short” vowels are the most common vowel sounds in English. A short vowel sound is usually produced when a vowel is followed by one or more consonants in a syllable (except for single consonants followed by a silent E, which we’ll look at later).
Most vowel letters have a specific short-vowel sound. Uniquely, U can create two types of short-vowel sounds; it’s not possible to tell which pronunciation it will use just by looking at the spelling alone, so consult a dictionary if you’re not sure. The semi-vowel Y can also create a short vowel sound, but it is the same as the letter I.
Let’s look at some examples of each type of short vowel:
As we already noted, the letter U can create two distinct short-vowel sounds. However, the second short-vowel sound (/ʊ/) is actually somewhat uncommon with the vowel letter U; it occurs more often with the vowel digraphs “OO” and “OU,” and occasionally with the letter O on its own. For example:
- foot (/fʊt/)
- wood (/wʊd/)
- soot (/sʊt/)
- should (/ʃʊd/)
- could (/kʊd/)
- woman (/ˈwʊmən/)
- wolf (/wʊlf/)
Weak Vowels (The Schwa)
Sometimes a short vowel’s sound changes in certain words to reflect the fact that it is not stressed (vocally emphasized) in the syllable. These are known as weak or reduced vowels, and they are represented by a schwa (/ə/) in pronunciation guides.
The schwa can occur with any of the vowel letters. The sound of the schwa can actually vary slightly, depending on the word, approximating a brief “uh,” “ih,” or “eh,” but it’s always considered the same vowel sound regardless. For example:
Even the semi-vowel Y can occasionally form the schwa sound, as in:
- syringe (/səˈrɪndʒ/)
- cylindrical (/səˈlɪndrɪkəl/)
- vinyl (/ˈvaɪnəl/)
The schwa is also used in words that end in a consonant + “-le” to add an unstressed vowel sound to the final syllable of the word. For example:
- able (/ˈaɪbəl/)
- monocle (/ˈmɑnəkəl/)
- apple (/ˈæpəl/)
- uncle (/ˈʌnkəl/)
- fiddle (/ˈfɪdəl/)
Words with stressed or unstressed vowels
Many words have vowels that can be either stressed or unstressed, depending on how they are used in a sentence. For example, the word convert can be pronounced in two ways: with the stress on con- or on -vert. When the word is pronounced convert, the O takes on a normal, stressed short-vowel sound (/kɑnvɜrt). In this form, the word is a noun, meaning “one who has been converted.” When it is pronounced convert, the O becomes unstressed and instead takes the sound of the schwa (/kənˈvɜrt). With this pronunciation, the word is used as a verb, meaning “to change something to another form or purpose.”
Here are some other examples of words that can be either nouns or verbs, depending on their pronunciation:
Meaning: "a unit of information preserved in some way for future access"
Meaning: "to preserve for future access"
Meaning: "an official certificate of permission; a license"
Meaning: "to allow to do something"
Meaning: "a person who revolts against a government or other authority"
Meaning: "to revolt or act in defiance of authority"
Notice that an unstressed syllable is not always represented by a schwa; sometimes it has the same vowel sound, just with less emphasis.
When learning a new word that has multiple pronunciations representing different grammatical functions, it’s important to look up how each version is pronounced so your meaning is understood correctly.
The traditional way of teaching “long” vowels is the mnemonic rule that they sound like the letter they represent. While this is not technically accurate from a linguistic point of view—the sounds are not elongated “versions” of short vowels—it is a useful term when trying to learn how to pronounce the different vowel sounds. (We can also form other long vowel sounds that do not sound like their vowel letter. We’ll look at these and other types of vowel sounds further on.)
With the exception of long E, all of these long vowels are diphthongs (single syllables in which the vowel “glides” from one vowel sound to another. Also note that Y can create two long-vowel sounds: either that of a long I or a long E.
(*Note that the traditional transcription for long E is /iː/ while long U is transcribed /juː/. The triangular colon ( ː ) represents the elongation of the vowel sound. However, in most American dictionaries, this colon is omitted because the sounds represented by /i/ and /u/ do not change, so the elongation is inherent. This guide follows the convention of omitting the triangular colon so that IPA pronunciations match what would be found in an American dictionary.)
When vowels become long
There are a few general “rules” that we can follow that dictate when a vowel will be long in its pronunciation. While there are many exceptions to these rules, they are still helpful in identifying common trends in English spelling.
It should be noted that when the following rules apply to Y, it produces the long I sound. We’ll look at instances in which it sounds like long E later on.
The most common way to form a traditional long vowel is when it comes before a single consonant that is followed by a silent E. For example:
(*There are many exceptions to this rule when it comes to U, in which the vowel sound created sounds like “oo” (/u/) rather than “you” (/ju/). We’ll look at some examples of this further on.)
It’s important to note that if the consonant followed by a silent E is an R, the vowel sound often (though not always) changes slightly. Sometimes a schwa (/ə/) is added to the sound, as in tire (/ˈtaɪər/), but most of the time the vowel sound changes altogether, as in bare (/bɛr/). These are known as r-colored vowels, which we’ll look at further on.
One-syllable words ending in one vowel
If a word has only one syllable and it ends in a vowel, the vowel is often (though not always) long. Note that this generally only occurs with the letters E and Y (and occasionally O). For instance:
E e (/i/)
Y y (/aɪ/)
O o (/oʊ/)
We can also often (though not always) apply this rule to many single-syllable prefixes that end in E, I, and O, as in:
- preexisting (/ˈpriɪgˈzɪstɪŋ/)
- redirect (/ˌridəˈrɛkt/)
- pro-America (/proʊ əˈmɛrəkə/)
- cooperation (/koʊˌɑpəˈreɪʃən/)
- biannual (/baɪˈænuəl/)
- trimester (/traɪˈmɛstər/)
Long I in -igh
When a consonant is followed by “-igh,” I usually has a long pronunciation (/aɪ/) and GH becomes silent, as in:
- slight (/slaɪt/)
- bright (/braɪt/)
- thigh (/θaɪ/)
- high (/haɪ/)
- night (/naɪt/)
- sight (/saɪt/)
- sigh (/saɪ/)
However, if an E comes before “-igh,” the vowel sound becomes that of a long A (/eɪ/),* as in:
- weigh (/weɪ/)
- sleigh (/sleɪ/)
- neighbor (/ˈneɪbər/)
- freight (/freɪt/)
- eight (/eɪt/)
(*There are two notable exceptions to this sub-rule—sleight (/slaɪt/) and height (/haɪt/)—which both have the long I (/aɪ/) vowel sound.)
Before “-ld” and “-nd”
The vowel I often becomes long when it comes before the consonant combination “-nd,” while O is often long when it comes before the letters “-ld.” For instance:
O + "-ld" (/oʊld/)
I + "-nd" (/aɪnd/)
Digraphs are single sounds created by the specific combination of two letters. When two vowels are used together within the same syllable, the first of the two is often (but not always) elongated while the second becomes silent. The most common vowel combinations that work this way are AI, AY, EA, EE, OA, OE, OW and UE. For example:
Full IPA Pronunciation
It’s important to remember that there are many exceptions to this rule: diphthongs and other vowel sounds can be made from many of these (and other) vowel digraphs, which we’ll look at further on.
Finally, note that if a vowel or vowel digraph is followed by an R, the vowel sound usually changes slightly, either becoming one of the short vowels we looked at earlier or a different long vowel sound (which we’ll look at more closely below). In some dialects, a schwa (ə) is pronounced before the “r” as well. For example:
- fair (/fɛ(ə)r/)
- bear (/bɛ(ə)r/)
- fear (/fɪ(ə)r/)
- heard (/hɜrd/)
- deer (/dɪ(ə)r/)
- boar (/bɔr/)
The other long Y
As we noted above, Y can sound both like I (/aɪ/) and E (/i/) as a long vowel.
Long Y takes an E sound when it is used at the end of a word that is more than one syllable (except for the word apply). For example:
- friendly (/ˈfrɛndli/)
- happy (/ˈhæpi/)
- happily (/ˈhæpəli/)
- difficulty (/ˈdɪfɪˌkʌlti/)
- silly (/ˈsɪli/)
- tiny (/ˈtaɪni/)
- lucky (/ˈlʌki/)
It is less common for this kind of long Y to appear in the middle of a word, unless it is ending the first word of a compound, as in:
- anywhere (/ˈɛniˌwɛr/)
- everybody (/ˈɛvriˌbɑdi/)
- ladybug (/ˈleɪdiˌbʌg/)
Other long vowel sounds
In addition to the “traditional” long vowels, there are also other long vowel sounds that do not sound like the letter they are associated with.
Note on the symbols
Although all of the following vowel sounds are considered long, they generally do not have a triangular colon ( ː ) shown after their IPA symbols in American dictionaries (just like the long E and U sounds that we looked at already). This is because each symbol is not used elsewhere as a short sound, and so it does not need to be distinguished by the colon. Because we are using General American pronunciation in this guide, we will remain consistent with how American dictionaries would most likely transcribe the sounds—just be aware that they might be shown with a ː in British and international dictionaries.
This long vowel occurs when a long U vowel sound does not have the consonant Y (/j/) intonation at the beginning of the sound; phonetically, it sounds like “oo.” This pronunciation can occur in many of the same instances as the “traditional” long U (/ju/), so consult a dictionary or pronunciation guide if you’re not sure which is correct.
Common Vowel Letter(s)
("b" becomes silent)
(as a final sound)
wound (as in an injury)
(*Although words containing you produce the same sound as long U (/ju/), the Y sound (/j/) is actually coming from Y as a consonant, rather than the sound being considered a true single vowel.)
This vowel sound is like a cross between an A and an O. Phonetically, it sounds like “aw” or “au.”
Common Vowel Letter(s)
(sometimes the T is pronounced, other times not)
(L becomes silent)
This is a distinct sound that often occurs when E, I, O, or U is followed by an R but the vowel is stressed. It can also occur when R follows the digraph “EA.” Phonetically, it sounds like “uhr.”
A simple way of thinking about this vowel sound is that it acts as an elongated schwa (ə)—in fact, some dictionaries transcribe the sound as /əː/. Others simply write /ər/ (because it always occurs with an R), while others variously use the symbols /ɚ/ or /ɝ/ for these sounds (known as “r-colored” schwas). However, for the sake of conciseness and clarity, this guide will only use /ɜ/.
Common Letter Combinations
Other specific instances
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