The Alphabet  

What is the alphabet?

The alphabet is the set of symbols known as letters that are used to form words. At its most basic, the English alphabet is composed of five vowels (letters representing speech sounds formed exclusively with an open airway) and 21 consonants (letters representing speech sounds formed with the tongue, teeth, and lips), for a total of 26 letters. Together, vowels and consonants form syllables in speech.
Every vowel and consonant has at least one speech sound associated with it, but most letters can have several sounds, with their pronunciation depending on where they appear in a word, what letter(s) appear around them, and, in some cases, the etymology (historical origin) of the word. In this guide, we use the International Phonetic Alphabet (IPA) to represent the speech sounds made by each vowel, consonant, or combination of letters. These will always be offset by two slashes (for example, apple is pronounced /ˈæpəl/).
We’ll briefly cover all of these here, but you can continue on to their individual sections to learn more about each.

Vowels

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. Consonants, on the other hand, are formed by obstructing one’s airway in some way so as to create a harder, more defined speech sound.
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 functions sometimes as a vowel sound (as in myth, any, and fly) and sometimes as a soft consonant sound (as in yard and bayou).
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 another vowel in a digraph.
Vowel sounds are often divided into two categories: “short” vowels and “long” vowels.

Short Vowels

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).
Most vowel letters have a specific short-vowel sound—though U can create two types of short-vowel sounds, and the semi-vowel Y creates the same short vowel sound as the letter I.
Vowel Letter
IPA Symbol
Example Words
A a
/æ/
apple
(æpəl/)
map
(/mæp/)
track
(/træk/)
man
(/mæn/)
E e
/ɛ/
set
(/sɛt/)
jet
(/dʒɛ/)
bend
(/bɛnd/)
met
(/mɛt/)
I i
/ɪ/
tip
(/tɪp/)
strip
(/strɪp/)
imply
(/ɪmˈplaɪ/)
fin
(/fɪn/)
O o
/ɑ/
top
(/tɑp/)
hot
(/hɑt/)
offer
(ɑfər/)
pollen
(/ˈpɑlən/)
U u
/ʌ/
cut
(/kʌt/)
hug
(/hʌg/)
mutt
(/mʌt/)
strut
(/strʌt/)
U u
/ʊ/
put
(/pʊt/)
push
(/pʊʃ/)
full
(/fʊl/)
sugar
(ʊgər/)
Y y
/ɪ/
myth
(/mɪθ/)
system
(/ˈsɪstəm/)
rhythm
(/ˈrɪðəm/)
crypt
(/krɪpt/)

Long Vowels

“Long” vowels are traditionally thought of as vowel sounds that approximate the pronunciation of the letter’s name. For example, the long vowel sound of I is /aɪ/, which is the same way we say the letter I out loud. Let’s look at the traditional long vowel sounds each letter makes, as well as a few example words for each:
Vowel Letter
IPA Symbol
Example Words
A a
/eɪ/
ate
(/t/)
plain
(/pln/)
always
(/ˈɔlˌwz/)
E e
/i/
eat
(/it/)
feet
(/fit/)
theme
(im/)
I i
/aɪ/
design
(/dɪˈzn/)
sight
(/st/)
tile
/tl/
O o
/oʊ/
told
(/tld/)
know
(/n/)
rope
(/rp/)
U u
/ju/
cube
(/kjub/)
imbue
(/ɪmbˈju/)
huge
(/hjuʤ/)
Y y
(/aɪ/)
apply
(/'əpl/)
rhyme
(/rm/)
hype
(/hp/)
Y y
/i/
difficulty
(/ˈdɪfɪˌkʌlti/)
friendly
(/ˈfrɛndli/)
happy
(/ˈhæpi/)
There are quite a few different conventions that dictate when a vowel will have a traditional long pronunciation; to learn more, go to the section on Vowels.

Other long vowel sounds

It’s also worth mentioning that vowels can have other “long” sounds beyond those we’ve looked at above. These tend to occur in certain letter combinations—either vowel digraphs or combinations of vowels and consonants. For example:
Vowel Sound
Common Letters and Combinations
Example Words
/u/
  • U
  • UE
  • UI
  • EW
  • O
  • OO
  • OU
  • exclude (/ɪkˈsklud/)
  • true (/tru/)
  • bruise (/bruz/)
  • chew (u/)
  • prove (/pruv/)
  • tool (/tul/)
  • soup (/sup/)
/ɔ/
  • O
  • OR
  • OUGH
  • A
  • AL
  • AU
  • AW
  • across (/əˈkrɔs/)
  • orange (ɔrənʤ/)
  • brought (/brɔt/)
  • water (/ˈwɔtər/)
  • false (/fɔls/)
  • cause (/kɔz/)
  • dawn (/dɔn/)
/ɜ/
  • ER
  • IR
  • OR
  • UR
  • EAR
  • perfect (/ˈpɜrˌfɪkt/)
  • stir (/stɜr/)
  • worse (/wɜrs/)
  • curve (/kɜrv/)
  • pearl (/pɜrl/)

Consonants

Consonants represent sounds that are made when part or all of the vocal tract is closed. Because they require a specific position of the lips, cheeks, tongue, etc., there is generally little to no difference in how consonants are pronounced between different speakers of English. (The pronunciation of vowels, on the other hand, can differ drastically depending on dialect).
There are 21 consonants letters: B, C, D, F, G, H, J, K, L, M, N, P, Q, R, S, T, V, W, X, Y, and Z. As we said previously, Y can sometimes function as a vowel (as in myth [/mɪθ/] or /dry/ [draɪ]), so it is often referred to as a semi-vowel. W can also function alongside vowels to form certain vowel sounds (as in grow [/groʊ/] or draw [/drɔ/]), but it can’t function as a vowel on its own.
We’ll very briefly go over the sounds each consonant makes, with examples for each. For more information about how the speech sounds are formed, spelling conventions regarding when they appear in a word, and more examples of each kind of sound, go to the section on Consonants.
Consonant
Speech Sound(s)
B b
/b/:
  • bag (/bæg/)
  • bubble (bʌbəl/)
  • slob (/slɑb/)
Silent B:
  • doubt (/daʊt/)
  • debt (/dɛt/)
  • thumb (/θʌm/)
C c
/k/ (“Hard” C):
  • cap (/p/)
  • perfect (/ˈpɜrˌfɪkt/)
  • uncle (/ˈʌŋkəl/)
/s/ (“Soft” C):
  • central (ntrəl/)
  • exercise (/ˈɛksərˌsaɪz/)
  • icy (/ˈaɪsi/)
/ʃ/ (The “sh” sound):
  • efficient (/ɪˈfɪʃənt/)
  • social (/ˈsoʊʃəl/)
  • ocean (/ˈoʊʃən/)
Silent C:
  • ascend (/əˈsɛnd/)
  • muscle (/ˈmʌsəl/)
  • science (saɪəns/)
D d
/d/:
  • deal (/dil/)
  • addle (/ˈædəl/)
  • bread (/brɛd/)
/t/:
  • laughed (/læft/)
  • knocked (/nɑkt/)
  • helped (/hɛlpt/)
/ʤ/ (The “J” sound):
  • education (/ɛʤuˈkeɪʃən/)
  • graduate (verb: /ˈgræʤuˌeɪt/)
  • individual (/ɪndəˈvɪʤuəl/)
Silent D:
  • handkerchief (/ˈhæŋkərʧɪf/)
  • handsome (/ˈhænsəm/)
  • Wednesday (/ˈwɛnzdeɪ/)
F f
/f/:
  • feel (/fil/)
  • different (/ˈdɪfrənt/)
  • belief (/bɪˈlif/)
/v/:
  • of (v/)
G g
/g/ (“Hard” G):
  • gap (/p/)
  • bag (/bæg/)
  • argue (/ˈɑrgju/)
/ʤ/ (“Soft” G):
  • age (/eɪʤ/)
  • logic (/ˈlɑʤɪk/)
  • biology (/baɪˈɑləʤi/)
/ʒ/ (The “other” soft G):
  • garage (/gəˈrɑʒ/)
  • beige (/beɪʒ/)
  • genre (ʒɑnrə/)
Silent G:
  • gnaw (/nɔ/)
  • lasagna (/ləˈzɑnjə/)
  • deign (/deɪn/)
H h
/h/:
  • house (/haʊs/)
  • hat (/hæt/)
  • hear (/hir/)
Silent H:
  • hour (/aʊər/)
  • honor (/ˈɑnər/)
  • heir (/ɛr/)
J j
/ʤ/:
  • job (/ʤɑb/)
  • judge (/ʤʌʤ/)
  • majority (/məˈʤɔrəti/)
K k
/k/:
  • kick (/kɪk/)
  • donkey (/ˈdɔŋki/)
  • work (/wɜrk/)
Silent K:
  • know (/noʊ/)
  • knife (/naɪf/)
  • knight (/naɪt/)
L l
/l/:
  • listen (/lɪsən/)
  • alter (ltər/)
  • gel (/ʤɛl/)
Silent L:
  • calf (/kæf/)
  • chalk (/ʧɔk/)
  • salmon (/ˈsæmən/)
M m
/m/:
  • make (/meɪk/)
  • almost (/ˈɔlˌmoʊst/)
  • team (/tim/)
Silent M:
  • mnemonic (/nɪˈmɑnɪk/)
N n
/n/:
  • now (/naʊ/)
  • wander (/ˈwɑndər/)
  • fan (/fæn/)
/ŋ/ (The “ng” sound):
  • distinct (/dɪˈstɪŋkt/)
  • synchronize (/ˈsɪŋkrəˌnaɪz/)
  • bank (/bæŋk/)
Silent N:
  • autumn (/ˈɔtəm/)
  • column (/ˈkɑləm/)
  • hymn (/hɪm/)
P p
/p/:
  • part (/pɔrt/)
  • happy (/ˈhæpi/)
  • cheap (/ʧip/)
Silent P:
  • pneuma (/ˈnumə/)
  • psalm (/sɑm/)
  • raspberry (/ˈræzˌbɛri/)
Q q
(almost always followed by U)
/kw/:
  • quiet (/ˈkwaɪət/)
  • request (/rɪˈkwɛst/)
  • inquire (/ɪnˈkwaɪr/)
/k/:
  • antique (/ænˈtik/)
  • conquer (/ˈkɑŋkər/)
  • mosquito (/məsˈkitoʊ/)
R r
/r/:
  • right (/raɪt/)
  • art (rt/)
  • endure (/ɪnˈdʊr/)
S s
/s/:
  • sand (/sænd/)
  • persuade (/pərˈsweɪd/)
  • this (/ðɪs/)
/z/:
  • desert (/ˈdɛzɜrt/)
  • president (/ˈprɛzɪdənt/)
  • toys (/tɔɪz/)
/ʃ/ (The “sh” sound):
  • controversial (/ˌkɑntrəˈvɜrʃəl/)
  • pressure (/ˈprɛʃər/)
  • sugar (/ˈʃʊgər/)
/ʒ/ (The “other” soft G sound):
  • usual (/ˈjuʒuəl/)
  • measure (/ˈmɛʒər/)
  • illusion (/ɪˈluʒən/)
T t
/t/:
  • tap (/tæp/)
  • retire (/rɪˈtaɪr/)
  • react (/riˈækt/)
/ʃ/ (The “sh” sound):
  • initial (/ɪˈnɪʃəl/)
  • patient (/ˈpeɪʃənt/)
  • action (/ˈækʃən/)
/ʧ/ (The “tch” sound):
  • adventure (/ædˈvɛnʧər/)
  • situation (/ˌsɪʧuˈeɪʃən)
  • question (/ˈkwɛsʧən/)
Silent T:
  • castle (/ˈkæsəl/)
  • mortgage (/ˈmɔrgəʤ/)
  • ballet (/bæˈl/)
V v
/v/:
  • vast (/væst/)
  • subversion (/səbˈvɜrʒən/)
  • give (/gɪv/)
/f/:
  • have to (/hæf tʊ/ in casual pronunciation)
W w
/w/:
  • way (/weɪ/)
  • awake (/əˈweɪk/)
  • between (/bɪˈtwin/)
Silent W:
  • who (/hu/)
  • wrap (/ræp/)
  • answer (/ˈænsər/)
X x
/ks/:
  • axe (ks/)
  • galaxy (/ˈgæləksi/)
  • excellent (/ˈɛksələnt/)
/gz/:
  • example (gˈzæmpəl/)
  • exist (gˈzɪst/)
  • exhaust (gˈzɑst/)
/kʃ/:
  • anxious (/ˈæŋəs/)
  • complexion (/kəmˈpɛən/)
  • obnoxious (/əbˈnɑəs/)
/gʒ/:
  • luxury (/ˈlʌəri/)
/z/:
  • xerography (/zɪˈrɒgrəfi/)
  • xylophone (/ˈzaɪləˌfoʊn/)
  • anxiety (/æŋˈzaɪəti/)
Y y
/j/:
  • yacht (/jɑt/)
  • yoke (/joʊk/)
  • lawyer (/ˈlɔjər/)
Z z
/z/:
  • zeal (/zil/)
  • citizen (/ˈsɪtəzən/)
  • jazz (/jæz/)
/s/:
  • blitz (/blɪts/)
  • pretzel (/ˈprɛtsəl/)
  • mozzarella (ˌmɑtsəˈrɛlə)
/ʒ/:
  • azure (/ˈæʒər/)
  • seizure (/ˈsiʒər/)

Letter combinations that form single sounds

While most of the speech sounds we make are associated with specific letters, there are many that can also be formed by specific combinations of letters.
The most common form of such combinations is the digraph, which consists of two vowels or two consonants that create a single sound. Note that the examples below are only a small selection of the existing vowel and consonant digraphs; for more information, go to the sections on Vowels and Consonant Digraphs.
Pronunciation and Examples
Pronunciation and Examples
AI
/eɪ/:
  • fail (/fl/)
  • plain (/pln/)
  • mail (/ml/)
CH
/ʧ/:
  • achieve (/əˈʧiv/)
  • beach (/biʧ/)
  • teacher (/ˈtiʧər/)
/k/:
  • anchor (/ˈæŋkər/)
  • chemistry (kɛmɪstri/)
  • psychology (/saɪˈkɑləʤi/)
/ʃ/:
  • brochure (/broʊˈʃʊr/)
  • chef (/ʃɛf/)
  • machine (/məˈʃin/)
AW
/ɔ/:
  • dawn (/dɔn/)
  • raw (/rɔ/)
  • thaw (ɔ/)
DG
/ʤ/:
  • badge (/bæʤ/)
  • judge (/ʤʌʤ/)
  • fledgling (/ˈflɛʤlɪŋ/)
AY
/eɪ/:
  • pay (/p/)
  • always (/ˈɔlˌwz/)
  • layer (/ˈlər/)
GH
/g/:
  • aghast (/əˈgæst/)
  • ghost (/goʊst/)
  • spaghetti (/spəˈgɛti/)
/f/:
  • cough (/kɔf/)
  • enough (/ɪˈnʌf/)
  • rough (/rʌf/)
EA
/i/:
  • deal (/dil/)
  • bean (/bin/)
  • streak (/strik/)
/ɜ/:
  • pearl (/pɜrl/)
  • search (/sɜrʧ/)
  • yearn (/jɜrn/)
/ɛ/:
  • bread (/brɛd/)
  • dead (/dɛd/)
  • instead (/ɪnˈstɛd/)
NG
/ŋ/:
  • bang (/bæŋ/)
  • darling (/ˈdɑrlɪŋ/)
  • longing (/ˈlɔŋɪŋ/)
/ŋk/:
  • angst (ŋkst/)
  • length (/lɛŋkθ/)
  • strength (/strɛŋkθ/)
EE
/i/:
  • feel (/fil/)
  • street (/strit/)
  • meet (/mit/)
SH
/ʃ/:
  • shadow (ʃæˌdoʊ/)
  • cushion (/ˈkʊʃən/)
  • publish (/ˈpʌblɪʃ/)
OA
/oʊ/:
  • coal (/kl/)
  • gloat (/glt/)
  • oak (/k/)
/ɔ/:
  • broad (/brɔd/)
TH
/θ/:
  • thanks (/θæŋks/)
  • author (/ˈɔθər/)
  • teeth (/tiθ/)
/ð/:
  • than (/ðæn/)
  • clothing (/ˈkloʊðɪŋ/)
  • smooth (/smuð/)
/t/:
  • thyme (/taɪm/)
  • Theresa (/təˈrisə/)
  • Thomas (tɑməs/)
Although they are less common, there are also trigraphs (combinations of three letters) and even a few tetragraphs (combinations of four letters), which can be composed of vowels, consonants, or a combination of the two. Let’s briefly look at each of these:
Trigraphs
Pronunciation and Examples
Tetragraphs
Pronunciation and Examples
TCH
/ʧ/:
  • batch (/bæʧ/)
  • ditch (/dɪʧ/)
  • wretch (/rɛʧ/)
OUGH
  • /oʊ/:
  • although (/ɔlˈð/)
  • dough (/d/)
  • thorough (/ˈθɜ/)
/u/:
  • through (/θru/)
/ɔ/:
  • brought (/brɔt/)
  • fought (/fɔt/)
  • thought (ɔt/)
/aʊ/:
  • bough (/b/)
  • drought (/drt/)
  • plough (/pl/)
EAU
/oʊ/:
  • bureau (/ˈbjʊr/)
  • château (/ʃæˈt/)
  • tableau (/tæˈbl/)
/ju/:
  • beauty (/ˈbjuti/)
  • beautiful (/ˈbjutɪfʊl/)
/ɑ/:
  • bureaucracy (/bjʊrˈɑkrəsi/)
/ə/:
  • bureaucrat (/ˈbjʊrəˌkræt/)
AIGH
/eɪ/:
  • straight
EOU/IOU
/ə/:
  • courageous (/kəˈreɪʤəs/)
  • curvaceous (/kɜrˈveɪʃəs/)
  • outrageous (/aʊtˈreɪʤəs/)
  • gracious (/ˈgreɪʃəs/)
  • contagious (/kənˈteɪʤəs/)
  • cautious (/ˈkɔʃəs/)
EIGH
/eɪ/:
  • eight (/t/)
  • neighbor (/ˈnbər/)
  • weigh (/w/)
/aɪ/:
  • height (/ht/)
  • sleight (/slt/)
IGH
/aɪ/:
  • bright (/brt/)
  • delight (/dɪˈlt/)
  • highlight (/ˈhˌlt/)
AUGH
/ɔ/:
  • caught (/cɔt/)
  • fraught (/frɔt/)
  • taught (/tɔt/)

Other Letters, Marks, and Symbols

English contains many words that it adapted from different languages from around the world, especially Latin, Greek, French, and German. As the language evolved, though, certain typographical features from those languages were gradually changed or eliminated from modern English orthography, though some still appear in written English today.
The most common of these are ligatures (such as æ and œ, but also the symbol & and even the letter W) and diacritics (as in résumé, voilà, crêpe, façade, etc.), in addition to a few other outdated letters that overlapped with modern English until relatively recently. Continue on to the section Other Letters, Marks, and Symbols to learn more about all of these.
Quiz

1. All letters have at least ___ speech sound(s) associated with them.





2. How many “true” vowels are there?





3. Which of the following is considered a semi-vowel?





4. A digraph is composed of how many letters?





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