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English Vowels: Pronunciation of Vowel Sounds in American English

English Vowels: Pronunciation of Vowel Sounds in American English

American English has sixteen vowel sounds—ten monophthongs and six diphthongs—but only six vowel letters. A monophthong is a single vowel sound. A diphthong is a vowel that glides between two other vowel sounds.

English Vowels

English Monophthongs

  • [i] high front unrounded {beat}
  • [ɪ] near-high near-front unrounded {bit}
  • [e] high-mid front unrounded*
  • [ɛ] low-mid front unrounded {bet}
  • [æ] near-low front unrounded {bat}
  • [ɨ] high central unrounded {just}
  • [ə]/[ʌ] mid-central {but}
  • [u] high back rounded {boot}
  • [ʊ] near-high near-back {book}
  • [o] high-mid back rounded*
  • [ɔ] low-mid back rounded {bought}
  • [ɑ] low back unrounded {bot}
  • *[e] and [o] are not pronounced as monophthongs in American English.

English Diphthongs

  • [iu] {cute}
  • [ɑi] {bite}
  • [ei] {bait}
  • [oʊ] {boat}
  • [oɪ] {boy}
  • [ɑʊ] {mouse}

Vowel Articulation

Vowel articulation refers to the place and manner of pronunciation. High, mid, and low refer to height of articulation, which describes the place in the mouth where the vowel is pronounced. High vowels are pronounced in the top of the mouth, mid vowels in the middle of the mouth, and low vowels in the bottom of the mouth.

Front, central, and back refer to frontness of articulation, which describes the part of the tongue used to pronounce the vowel. Front vowels are pronounced with the tip of the tongue, central vowels with the middle of the tongue, and back vowels with the part of the tongue closest to the throat.

Rounded and unrounded refer to the roundness of article, which describes the shape of the lips during the pronunciation of the vowel. Rounded vowels are pronounced with the lips pushed forward in an O shape and unrounded vowels with the lips pulled in and back.

Sounds by Letters

The following chart identifies the most common vowel sounds that each letter or letter combination represents in English. Notice that some letters represent more than one sound while a few letters represent only one sound.

  • a: [ei] [æ] [ə]/[ʌ] [ɑ]
  • ai: [ei] [ɑi]
  • au: [ɔ]
  • e: [i] [ɨ] [ɛ] [ə]
  • ea: [i] [ɨ]
  • ee: [i] [ɨ]
  • ei: [ei] [i] [ɨ]
  • ey: [i] [ɑi] [ei]
  • i: [ɪ] [ɑi] [ə]
  • ie: [ɑi]
  • o: [oʊ] [ɑ] [ə]
  • oa: [oʊ]
  • oi: [oɪ]
  • oo: [u] [ʊ]
  • ou: [ʊ] [ɔ] [ɑʊ]
  • ow: [ɑʊ]
  • oy: [oɪ]
  • u: [u] [ə]/[ʌ] [ɨ] [iu]
  • uy: [ɑi]
  • y: [i] [ɨ] [ɑi]

Letters by Sounds

The following chart identifies the most common letters and letter combinations that each vowel or diphthong is represented by in English. Notice that some sounds are represented by more than one letter while a few sounds are represented by only one letter.

  • [i]: e, ea, ee, ei, ey, y
  • [ɪ]: I
  • [ɛ]: e
  • [æ]: a
  • [ɨ]: e, ea, ee, ei, i, u
  • [ə]/[ʌ]: a, e, i, o, u
  • [ɑ]: a, o
  • [ɔ]: au, ou
  • [ʊ]: oo, ou
  • [u]: oo, u
  • [ie]: u
  • [ɑi]: ai, ey, i, ie, uy, y
  • [ei]: a, ai, ei, ey
  • [oʊ]: o, oa
  • [ɑʊ] : ou, ow
  • [oɪ]: oi, oy

The English language has ten monophthongs and six diphthongs but only six vowel letters.

References

Brinton, Laurel J. & Donna M. Brinton. 2010. The linguistic structure of Modern English, 2nd edn. Amsterdam: John Benjamins Publishing Company.
Fromkin, Victoria, Robert Rodman & Nina Hyams. 2006. An introduction to language. Boston: Wadsworth Publishing.

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