There are a total of 20 different vowel sounds, which can be variously categorised by phonetics for pronunciation. It is not always easy to understand how to spell them based on sound, however, as they have a wide variety of spelling rules (or more accurately patterns). It can be useful to break these sounds down into short vowels, long vowels and other vowels to understand their spellings as they relate to letters of the alphabet.
Spelling Short Vowels
Short vowel sounds are the basic unaltered vowels. They usually occur when a single vowel is followed by a single consonant. Representing the five basic vowel sounds, they are pronounced as shown in the examples below:
|/æ/||a||mat, pat, lap|
|/ɛ/||e||met, pet, let|
|/ɪ/||i||bin, pit, lip|
|/ɒ/||o||rot, pot, lot|
|/ʌ/||u||fun, sun, luck|
As shown with the final example, short vowels may be followed by certain consonant clusters like ck or st – and are commonly found with double consonants in longer words, especially in -ing forms of verbs and past participles (e.g. common, swimming, running or rotten).
Spelling Long Vowels
Long vowels are longer equivalents of the five short vowel sounds, with completely different sounds. They are the sounds we use to name the letters they correspond to, but they can have a wide variety of spellings. A variety common to the spelling of the long vowels is the silent e, where the vowel is followed by a consonant and an unpronounced e.
|/eɪ/||ai, ay, a+c+e||wait, day, late|
|/iː/||ee, ea, y, ie, i+c+e,||sheep, meat, dandy, fiend, elite|
|/aɪ/||i, ig, igh, y, i+c+e,||I, sign, fight, dry, ice|
|/əʊ/||oa, o+c+e||boat, note|
|/juː/||ew, ue, u+c+e||few, due, cube|
As well as the common short vowels and their corresponding long vowels, English has additional vowel sounds. For the sounds of a and e, these varieties are created when the vowel is followed by an r sound, which can create a number of different sounds. Sounds relating to o are more diverse: as well as a sound followed by an r (as in for), four other specific sounds have roots in o spellings, as shown below.
|/eə/||ai, a+c +e, e+c+e||air, care, where|
|/ɪə/||ee, ea, e+c+e||steer, near, here|
|/ɜ:/||er, or, ir, ur||her, word, bird, hurt|
|/u:/||o, oo, ough||do, doom, through|
|/ɔɪ/||oi, oy||coin, toy|
|/ɔ:/||o, oa, or, oo, o+c+e||for, oar, worn, door, more|
The schwa: an unpronounced vowel
The most common sound in the pronunciation of English vowels is the schwa. This is actually more of an absence of pronunciation, the sound of an unstressed syllable, a bit like an ‘uh’. If you pronounce a multi-syllable word quickly, the unstressed syllables should usually create no distinct sound and become the schwa.
To practise the 19 sounds used in the pronunciation of English vowels, read through this list and note the distinct differences. If two of the words on this list seem very similar to you it may highlight a vowel sound you need work on.