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 the 26, 20 are proper consonants, five are proper vowels, and one, the letter Y, can either be either a consonant or a vowel depending on usage. The proper vowels are A, E, I, O, and U. Coming from the Latin word for "voice," vowels are the part of speech that is created by the relatively free passage of breath through the larynx and the mouth. When the mouth is obstructed during speech production—most often by the tongue or teeth—the resulting sound is a consonant.

One Vowel, Many Pronunciations

Vowels comprise the principal sounds of syllables and form a major category of phonemes which are the distinct sets of sounds that allow a listener to distinguish one word from another in speech. Standard spoken English has approximately 20 distinct vowel sounds, although regional dialectal variations account for more. As you can imagine, with each one potentially symbolizing multiple sounds on any written page, vowels letters are kept busy.

How a vowel is pronounced in English depends very much on who is pronouncing it and where they hail from. There are currently as many as 160 distinct English-language dialects worldwide. 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 distinctly different ways, for the majority of Americans all three sound pretty much the same. With 29, England has the largest number of distinct dialects, and that doesn't even take dialects from Wales, Scotland, Northern Ireland, The Isle of Man, or the Channel Islands into account. The United States has 27 recorded dialects; India clocks in at 14 distinct dialects, followed closely by Ireland with 13, and Australia with 9.

Long and Short Vowels

In the English language, each of the vowels can be pronounced more than one way, but the two most common variations are long pronunciation and short pronunciation. These variations are often represented by typographical signs: a curved symbol above a vowel represents short pronunciation: ă, ĕ, ĭ, ŏ, ŭ, while long pronunciation has by 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" or "tune," the letter "e" is added to modify the main vowel sound, while in words such as "goat" or "beat," the modifying vowel is the letter "a," and in words such as "night," "knight," "flight," and "right," the long vowel "i" is modified by the letters "gh."

Fast Facts: Examples of Short and Long Vowel Pronunciation

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

Vowel Pronunciation 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, while the "y" in "duty" not only modifies the "u" to an "ew" sound but rather than being silent, is pronounced as its own syllable with a long "e" (ē) sound. Words that must be pronounced on a case by case basis—such as "aardvark," "height," and "diet"—can be even more confusing for those first learning English.

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's actually a fairly easy-to-learn system that can help to guide you. Phonetics is the branch of linguistics that deals with how speech is produced and offers a system of written symbols that represents each component sound in a language. Learning phonetics is an extra step in knowing how to pronounce words correctly but it's not difficult and the results can be well worth the effort. In fact, actors often use phonetics to break words down into component sounds when they are required to speak in a dialect or accent that is not a reflection of their native voice.