Vowel Sounds and Letters in English

Glossary of Grammatical and Rhetorical Terms

The vowel letters in the alphabet. The letter y is sometimes a vowel, sometimes a consonant
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Written English has a 26-letter alphabet. Of these 26 letters, 20 are proper consonants and five are proper vowels. One, the letter y, can be considered either a consonant or vowel depending on usage. The proper vowels are a, e, i, o, and u. Coming from the Latin word for "voice" (vox), vowels are created by the free passage of breath through the larynx and mouth. When the mouth is obstructed during speech production—most often by the tongue or teeth—the resulting sound is a consonant.

Short and Long Vowel Pronunciation

a

  • Short pronunciation: "My hat sat on the mat." (hăt, săt, măt)
  • Long Pronunciation: "He ate the date on my plate." (āte, dāte, plāte)

e

  • Short pronunciation: "She let her pet get wet." (lĕt, pĕt, gĕt, wĕt)
  • Long Pronunciation: "His feet beat a neat retreat." (fēet, bēat, nēat, rētrēat)

i

  • Short pronunciation: "Spit out that pit and I quit!" (spĭt, pĭt, quĭt)
  • Long Pronunciation: "The site of the bite from the mite was red." (sīte, bīte, mīte.)

o

  • Short pronunciation: "That spot on the pot's got rot." (spŏt, pŏt, gŏt, rŏt)
  • Long Pronunciation: "I wrote the quote on the note." (wrōte, quōte, nōte)

u

  • Short pronunciation: "He cut the nut with a knife from his hut." (nut, cut, hut)
  • Long Pronunciation: "The mute on his lute was acute." (lūte, mūte, acūte)

Long and Short Vowels

In the English language, each vowel can be pronounced many ways but the two most common variations are long and short. These pronunciations are often denoted by typographical signs: a curved symbol above a vowel represents short pronunciation: ă, ĕ, ĭ, ŏ, ŭ. Long pronunciation is indicated with a horizontal line above the vowel: ā, ē, ī, ō, ū.

Vowels that have long pronunciations are most often modified by a secondary vowel that's generally silent. In words such as "late" and "tune", the e is added to modify the main vowel sound and make it long; in words such as "goat" and "beat", the modifying vowel is the a; and in words such as "night," "knight," "flight," and "right," the long vowel i is modified by the gh.

Rulebreakers

While long and short are the most common vowel pronunciations, many words with vowel combinations do not follow these rules. For example, doubling the o in the word "moon" produces a long u (ū) sound and the y in "duty" not only modifies the u to an "ew" sound but is pronounced as its own syllable with a long e (ē) sound. Words that must be pronounced on a case-by-case basis because they seemingly don't follow any rules—such as "aardvark," "height," and "diet"—can be confusing for those first learning English.

Vowels and Pronunciation

Vowels comprise the principal sounds of syllables and form a major category of phonemes, the distinct sets of sounds that allow listeners to distinguish one word from another in speech. Standard spoken English has approximately 14 distinct vowel sounds and regional dialectal variations account for even more.

How a vowel is pronounced in English depends very much on who is pronouncing it and where they are from. There is an uncountable number of distinct dialects worldwide and these all pronounce vowels differently—these are uncountable because the definition of a dialect is somewhat loose. Linguists disagree on the exact number of English language dialects but some place it at upwards of 23 (not including slang, pidgins, creoles, or subdialects). Some dialects have more vowel distinctions than others.

For example, Standard American English has fewer vowel distinctions than Standard Southern British English, so while a Londoner from Mayfair would likely pronounce the words "merry," "marry," and "Mary" in three clearly different ways, these three words sound pretty much the same to the majority of Americans.

Using Phonetics to Pronounce Vowels Correctly

As challenging as it may be to learn every correct vowel pronunciation with so many rules and exceptions, there is actually a fairly easy-to-learn system that can help: phonetics. Phonetics is a branch of linguistics that deals with how speech is produced and offers a set of written symbols that represents each base unit of sound in a language.

Learning phonetics is an extra step in correctly pronouncing words, but the results will be well worth the effort. Phonetics has many applications. In fact, most teachers use phonetics when their students are learning to read and write and actors often use phonetics to break words down into component sounds when they are required to speak in a dialect or accent other than their native voice.

View Article Sources
  1. Yoshida, Marla. "The Vowels of American English." University of California.

  2. Wolfram, Walt, and Natalie Schillings-Estes. American English: Dialects and Variation, Oxford: Basil Blackwell, 1998.

  3. Boeree, Cornelis George. "Dialects of English." 2004.