English vowels

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English vowels are best described as phonemes, or distinctive sounds, of the major varieties of English (e.g., North American, British, Australian), along with various phonetic differences in the various dialects. The number of phonemes varies, depending on these major varieties -- North American English (NAE), British English (BE) or Recieved Pronunciation (RP), and Australian English (AE).

Phonemes are distinguished by minimal pairs, which demonstrate that sounds are distinctive and meaningful units in the language. For example, pairs like these show that these two vowels are distinctive and unique sounds of English, and not variants of one another.

  • bit /bɪt/ vs. beat /bit/
  • bet /bεt/ vs. bait /bεɪt/
  • bought /bɔt/ vs. boat /bɔʊt/

1 Short and long vowels

The short vowels are lax, or produced with a relaxed tongue muscle, which include the phonetically simple vowels, or monophthongs, which consist of a single phonetic segment. These can occur in stressed or unstressed syllables. The long vowels of English occur in stressed syllables (either a primary or a secondary word stress), and are diphthongs, or double vowels, consisting of two phonetic elements. These can be glide diphthongs, where the core element glides into a nearby vowel element, or full full diphthongs like /ai/, which involve a transition to a different vowel in the oral space. In unstressed syllables we often have reduced vowels that are extra-short vowels that central vowels (produced in the center of the oral space, such as the schwa /ə/) or centralized, namely, a variety of /ɪ/ that is realized further back toward the center than the usual /ɪ/. The standard vowels of North American English are shown below, along with common British analogues.

Full monophthongs Glide diphthongs Full diphthongs Reduced vowels
BATH æ (NAE) ɑː (UK)
LOT ɑ (NAE) ɔ, ɒ (UK)
CLOTH ɑ (NAE) ɔ, ɑ (UK)
THOUGHT o, ɔ (US) ɔ: (UK)
DRESS ε (US) e (UK)
GOAT ɔʊ (US) əʊ (UK)
FLEECE iː (ij)
GOOSE u: (uw)
LETTER əɹ (ɚ) (US) ɜ (UK)
HAPPY i, ɪ
MESSAGE ɪ̈ (ɨ)

2 North American English

These are the general vowel phonemes of North American English.

General American
Front Central Back
lax tense lax tense
Close ɪ i ʊ u
Close-mid ə
Open-mid ɛ ʌ
Open æ ɑ
Diphthongs aɪ   ɔɪ   aʊ

3 Received Pronunciation

These are the general vowel phonemes of standard British or received pronunciaiton.

Received Pronunciation
Front Central Back
short long short long short long
Close ɪ ʊ ɔː
Mid e ə ɜː ɒ
Open æ ʌ ɑː
Diphthongs eɪ   aɪ, ɔɪ   aʊ   əʊ
ɪə   ʊə
Triphthongs (eɪə   aɪə   ɔɪə   aʊə   əʊə)

4 Australian

These are the general vowel phonemes of General Australian English.

General Australian
Front Central Back
short long short long short long
Close ɪ ʉː ʊ
Mid e ə ɜː ɔ
Open æ ɐ ɐː
Diphthongs æɪ   ɑɪ   oɪ   æɔ   əʉ
ɪə   (ʊə)

5 References

  1. Most tables here were adapted from the Wikipedia article on English phonemes, due to time limitations.