The 20 vowels sounds in English with examples

Contents

What are vowel sounds?

English has fifteen vowel sounds represented by the letters a, e, i, o, and u. The letters y, w, and gh are also commonly used in vowel sound-spellings. Vowel sounds are produced with a relatively open vocal tract. Consonant sounds, in contrast, are created by pushing air through a small opening in the vocal tract or by building up air in the vocal tract, then releasing it.

Categories of the vowel sounds

Vowel sounds are divided into the following three categories:

  • Long vowels (vowels that sound like the letter name)
  • Short vowels (the most common sound for a single vowel spelling)
  • Other vowels (the remaining vowel sounds)

The long vowel sounds are not pronounced for longer time than short vowel sounds! It is important for ESL/ELL/EFL students to realize that the terms "long" and "short" are not describing the length of time a vowel sound is said.

These archaic terms are still in popular use in American classrooms and online. They are used here to give a name to a vowel sound so when the sound is discussed, the name and not the sound (which many beginner students cannot yet hear correctly) is used.

At their simplest, short vowel sounds are usually spelled with a single letter, while long vowel and other vowel sounds are generally spelled with combinations of letters. This should not be taken as a strict rule when learning English pronunciation, however, as there are a large number of exceptions.

Why is vowel sounds hard to pronounce?

Many spelling patterns of English pronunciation have the possibility of two or more pronunciations using that single spelling. For example, the letters 'e-a' have a different pronunciation in the words team (long e /i/) and dead (short e /ɛ/). It is helpful to learn the common spellings for each vowel sound along with knowing all the possible pronunciations for each spelling.

The English language also has a large number of words that are not pronounced the way their spelling suggests. These are called non-phonetic words and must be memorized individually.

What are the English Vowel Sound IPA symbols (International Phonetic Alphabet)? English has 20 vowel sounds.

Short vowels in the IPA are:

/ɪ/ – fit /fiːt/, pick /piːk/, difficult /ˈdɪ.fɪ.kəlt/

/e/ – pet /pet/, sent /sent/, attention /əˈten.ʃən/

/æ/ – pat /pæt/, flat /flæt/, family /ˈfæ.mə.li/

/ʌ/ – cut /kʌt/ jump /dʒʌmp/, cover /ˈkʌ.vər/

/ʊ/ – put /pʊt/, book /bʊk/, cushion /ˈkʊ.ʃən/

/ɒ/ – pot /pɒt/, dog /dɒg/, hospital /ˈhɒs.pɪ.təl/

/ə/ – about /əˈbaʊt/, system /ˈsɪs.təm/, complete /kəmˈpliːt/.

Long vowels in the IPA are:

/i:/ week /wi:k/, feet /fi:t/, media /ˈmiː.di.jə/

/ɑ:/ hard /ha:/, park /pa:k/, article /ɑː.tɪ.kəl/

/ɔ:/ fork /fɔ:k/, walk /wɔ:k/, August /ɔːˈɡʌst/

/ɜ:/ heard /hɜ:d/, word /wɜ:d/, surface /ˈsɜː.fɪs/

/u:/ boot /bu:t/, group /gru:p/, beautiful /ˈbjuː.tɪ.fəl/

Diphthong vowels (double) in the IPA are:

/eɪ/ place /pleɪs/, late /leɪt/, dangerous /ˈdeɪn.dʒə.rəs/

/oʊ/ home /hoʊm/, phone /foʊn/, global /ˈɡloʊ.bəl/

/aʊ/ mouse /maʊs/, brown /braʊn/, accountant /əˈkaʊn.t̬ənt/

/ɪə/ clear /klɪə/, fear /fɪə/, career /kəˈrɪə/

/eə/ care /keə/, wear /weə/, declare /dɪˈkleə/

/ɔɪ/ boy /bɔɪ/, toy /tɔɪ/, enjoyable /ɪnˈdʒɔɪ.jə.bəl/

/aɪ/ find /faɪnd/, bite /baɪt/, tiger /ˈtaɪ.ɡə/

/ʊə/ tour /tʊə/, pure /pʊə/, mature /məˈtʃʊə/