II. Vowels

            English is fairly rich in vowels, having at least seven short vowels and seven long vowels.   The vowel sounds themselves are described in terms of tongue height and front-to-back in the mouth.   The high front vowel /iy/ is pronounced about where the /y/ is pronounced, while the high back vowel /uw/ is pronounced about where the /w/ is pronounced. 

            There is a great deal of individual and dialectal variation in the pronunciation of vowels—something that becomes clear once learners begin to do the transcription exercises.  

                                             front central               back

high

         long ('tense')                iy, yuw                                               uw

         short ('lax' )                         I (=È)                                     U (=Ë)

mid

         long ('tense')                 ey                                                  ow

         short ('lax')                          E                     ´                       O,   Oy (long)        

low

         long ('tense')                                   Ay,  Aw

         short ('lax')                          œ             A                 

Chart of English vowel phonemes (modified IPA)

            Short and long vowels.   Short vowels and long vowels are in contrast.    For our purposes, this simply means that the long vowels and the short vowels sound different and, as a consequence, are spelled different.

            The pronunciation of the short (or lax) vowels is essentially the same throughout the length of the vowel.  Technically, these are monophthongs—one-sound vowels.   The seven short vowels are /I, E, A, O, ´, œ and U/.   The difference between /A/ and /O/ is  ignored in the transcription exercises because this difference has disappeared for many speakers of English, and, in any case, the distinction is limited relevance to English language teachers.

            The pronunciation of the long (or tense) vowels begins with one pronunciation and ends with another.   Technically, these are diphthongs—two-part vowels.  The eight long vowels are /Ay, Oy, and aw/ as well as /iy, ey, ow, uw, and yuw/.   Notice that /Ay/, for example, begins with the vowel /A/ and then moves in the direction of /y/ (essentially where /iy/ is found);  similarly,  /Aw/ begins with the vowel /A/ and then moves in the direction of /w/ (essentially in the direction of /uw/).   The five vowels /iy, ey, ow, uw, and yuw/ are also long vowels as well as diphthongs.

            The vowel /-´/, sometimes called a schwa, is an extremely common English vowel.  When stress falls somewhere else in the word, other vowels may be reduced to a schwa.   For instance, the /œ/ in graph, becomes a /´/ in photography.   

            From a teacher's perspective,  what is crucial to learn is which vowel sounds are long and which are short.  The difference between the short and the long vowels is central to the English spelling system. In the English spelling system, the short vowel sounds are overwhelmingly spelled with a single letter.   Except for /yuw/, the long vowels are usually spelled with two letters.

Exercise:  Vowel chart. 

Place the following vowels on the blank chart (on the next page):       iy U E ey O Ay Aw yuw Oy ´ ow uw I A œ

                                             front          central               back

high: long ('tense')

         short ('lax' )                

mid   long ('tense')

         short ('short')                                                 

low   long ('tense')

         short ('lax')                                           

         Chart of English vowel phonemes (modified IPA)


Practice transcription 3a:  Vowels (and Consonants)

tease                   ace                        chip                            cheek                       tike

_____                 _____                   _____                        _____                      _____

ice                       peace                    stood                          stewed                     stud   

_____                 _____                   _____                        _____                      _____

lewd                    led                        line                             coat                         cod

_____                 _____                   _____                        _____                      _____

rot                       rut                        rude                           feud                         food

_____                 _____                   _____                        _____                      _____

Practice transcription 3b:  Vowels (and Consonants)

sight                   site                       seat                            suit                          seem

_____                 _____                   _____                        _____                      _____

do                       due                       dew                            fiend                        find

_____                 _____                   _____                        _____                      _____

east                     aced                      eased                          found                      don't

_____                 _____                   _____                        _____                      _____

put                      putt                       pot                             bond                        boned

_____                 _____                   _____                        _____                      _____

dead                    deal                      yield                           judged                     wheezed

_____                 _____                   _____                        _____                      _____



Practice transcription 4a:  Vowels and Consonants

cave                    calf                       keg                             guest                       germs

_____                 _____                   _____                        _____                      _____

raged                  frog                      lodged                        (to) use                    (a) use

_____                 _____                   _____                        _____                      _____

sixths                  watch                    wash                          cents                        sense

_____                 _____                   _____                        _____                      _____

psalm                  palm                     whole                         cough                      broil

_____                 _____                   _____                        _____                      _____

Practice transcription 4b:  Vowels and Consonants

breathe                breath                   breadth                       cloths                      clothes

_____                 _____                   _____                        _____                      _____

streaks                pass                      puss                           pushed                    voice

_____                 _____                   _____                        _____                      _____

asks                    smash                   had                             sad                          bumps

_____                 _____                   _____                        _____                      _____

as                        jazz                       coy                             prints                       prince

_____                 _____                   _____                        _____                      _____

kit                       kite                       mat                             mate                        fights

_____                 _____                   _____                        _____                      _____


Transcription (25 words)

boot                    clothes                  few                             music                      why

_____                 _____                   _____                        _____                      _____

washed               rough                   bridged                      fox                          thumb

_____                 _____                   _____                        _____                      _____

they                    wreath                  hooked                       bushed                    cute

_____                 _____                   _____                        _____                      _____

punched              though                  raised                         shouts                     judged

_____                 _____                   _____                        _____                      _____

streams               (to) use                 (a) use                        pound                      write

_____                 _____                   _____                        _____                      _____

Transcription  (25 words)

spins                   spines                   pans                           sprains                    cloud

_____                 _____                   _____                        _____                      _____

spies                   eyes                      crazed                        traced                      shout

_____                 _____                   _____                        _____                      _____

tossed                 blouse                  lice                             comb                       gems

_____                 _____                   _____                        _____                      _____

rot                       rude                      thought                      tough                       though

_____                 _____                   _____                        _____                      _____

slight                  dreams                 death                          daze                         days

_____                 _____                   _____                        _____                      _____