Vowel letter

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A vowel letter is a letter that represents a vowel. A vowel is a speech sound in spoken language which is pronounced with an open vocal tract so that there is no build-up of air pressure at any point above the glottis.

For historical reasons there is a large mismatch between the number of vowels in English - which has up to twenty vowels (depending on the accent) - and the vowel letters, which are limited to A E I O U, and in some cases, Y (see below).

All vowel letters have 4 basic sounds: short sound, long sound, long rhotic monophthong and rhotic diphthong. They are shown here in five columns, because the so-called “short” sound (as in trap) is shown separately before /r/ (as in carry).

Two sounds of O (/ɔː/ and /oə/) have merged in most part of the English speaking world, so O has only 3 basic sounds.

Letter So called
“short” sound
Example So called
“long” sound
Example
Single letter
Example
Two letters
Long monophthong
before /r/
Example “Long” sound
before /r/
Example
Single letter
Example
Two letters
“Short” sound
before /r/
Example
A /æ/ trap /eɪ/ face wait /ɑː/ start /eə/ square pair /æ/ carry, arid
E /e/ dress /iː/ we fleece /ɜː/ term /ɪə/ here near /e/ cherry, very
I /ɪ/ kit /aɪ/ price die /ɜː/ girl /aɪə/ fire pliers /ɪ/ mirror, spirit
Y /ɪ/ gym /aɪ/ try rye /ɜː/ myrrh /aɪə/ tyreBrE /ɪ/ lyrics
O /ɒ,BrE ɑːAmE/ lot /əʊ/ most goat /ɔː/ north /ɔː/ used to be /oə/ force board /ɒ,BrE ɔːAmE/ torrid, forest
U /ʌ/ strut /juː/ cute cue /ɜː/ nurse /jʊə/ cure /ʌ/ hurry
IPA vowels
æ ɑː
trap father - start
e
dress face square
ɪ ɪə
kit fleece near
ɒ əʊ ɔː
lot goat taught
ʊ ʊə
foot goose mature
juː jʊə
cute cure
ʌ ə ɜː
strut comma nurse
ɔɪ
price mouth choice
IPA consonants
Normal sound: /b, d, f, g, h, k, l, m, n, p, r, s, t, v, w, z/
 ʃ  ŋ
show church sing
ʒ  j 
usual judge you
θ ð s
think that see
IPA Stress
ˈ Primary stress
hotel /həʊˈtel/
ˌ Secondary stress
understand
/ˌʌndərˈstænd/
IPA Syllabification
. nitrate /ˈnaɪ.treɪt/, night-rate /ˈnaɪt.reɪt/


Note that the words “long” and “short” are conventional names. For example /ɑː/AmE is a long sound, but it is called “short o”.

A[edit]

See main article Decoding the letter A.

The vowel letter a has six common pronunciations, as in the following examples:

  • /æ/: and - bad - carry - happy - man - trap
  • /ɑːr/: car - marble - start
  • /eɪ/: day - face - same - rain - stay
  • /eə/: aware - care - scare - square
  • /ɔ/: ball - call - law - saw - talk - walk
  • /ə/: about - America - England
Spelling anomalies
  • /ɒ/: want - watch
  • /ɒ,BrE ʌAmE/: what - wasn’t
  • /e/: any - many - said - says

E[edit]

See main article Decoding the letter E.

The vowel letter e has six common pronunciations, as in the following examples:

  • /e/: cherry - get - pen - well
  • /ɜː/: service - term - verb
  • /iː/ me - she - theme
  • /ɪə/: here - material - period
  • /ɪ/: return - decide - debate
  • /ə/: happen - model - problem - teacher
End of word
  • At the end of the word the letter e is normally silent. See silent e.
Examples:
same - theme - time - bone - cute - type
  • The letter e is pronounced at the end of one-syllable words in which no other vowel is present:
he - we - she
Spelling anomalies
  • catastrophe - Chile - karate - recipe

E is also part of some digraphs.

  • "ea" and "ee" as /iː/: see - speak - weak - week - three
  • "ei" or "ey" as /eɪ/: eight - weight - they
  • "eu" or "ew" as /juː/: dew - Europe - few - new

I[edit]

See main article Decoding the letter I.

The vowel letter i has five common pronunciations, as in the following examples:

  • /ɪ/: think - fit - win
  • /aɪ/: time - night - wine
  • /aɪə/: desire - fire - hire
  • /ɜː/: bird - first - girl
  • /ə/: April - civil - cousin

O[edit]

See main article Decoding the letter O.

The vowel letter o has four common pronunciations, as in the following examples:

  • /ɒ/: longBrE - offBrE - on - stop
  • /ɔː/: for - longAmE - more - offAmE - short - thought
  • /əʊ/: go - home - open - phone
  • /ʌ/: come - love - Monday - money
Spelling anomalies
  • /uː/: do - lose - move - to - two - who
  • /ʊ/: woman
  • /ɪ/: women

U[edit]

See main article Decoding the letter U.

The vowel letter u has four common pronunciations, as in the following examples:

  • /juː/: unit - use - tune - university.
  • /uː/: brutal - June - rule - truth.
  • /ʌ/: fun - but - butter - summer.
  • /ɜː/: turn - return - burn - Thursday.
Spelling anomalies
  • busy - minute - sure

Y[edit]

See main article Decoding the letter Y.

The letter y corresponds to both a vowel and a consonant.[1]

As a vowel it has two common pronunciations in English, as in the following examples:

  • /aɪ/: try - fly - why - my
  • /iː/ or /ɪ/: city - easy - tiny - ugly

As a consonant:

  • /j/: yes - you - year

Semivowel[edit]

To further complicate the matter, English also has semivowels - letters such as "L" and "W" which, like our "Y" above, can have the properties of both vowels and consonants.

Curiosities[edit]

There obviously aren't many words in English that contain all the vowel letters, but abstemious and facetious are two of the relatively common ones[2] - and are both spelt in a-e-i-o-u order, too.

References[edit]

  1. Oxford Dictionaries: Ask the experts "Is the letter Y a vowel or a consonant?"
  2. Wikctionary, Category:English words that use all vowels in alphabetical order, accessed 2017-06-112

See also[edit]

External links[edit]