North American Vowels

Why Learn Vowel Sounds?

Although there are 16 vowel sounds in the North American dialect of English (USA and Canada), there are only 5 letters representing vowel sounds in the English alphabet – a, e, i, o, u (well, sometimes ‘y’, too). If there are 16 vowel sounds, but only 5 vowel letters (well, sometimes 6), that means that the pronunciation of vowel sounds is NOT clear from spelling.  

For example, how are the underlined portions of the following words pronounced?:

  • No, know, borough
  • Sleep, meat, pity

Answer: Each line of words are pronounced the exact same although the spelling is different.

In fact, the reason why things such as ‘spelling bs’ exist in the English speaking world is because it is quite difficult to recognize the pronunciation of a word from its spelling. 

What’s a Vowel Sound Anyway?

What’s the difference between a consonant and vowel sound?

Try It Yourself:

Pronounce the sound of ‘a’ in ‘father’. Then pronounce the sound of ‘b’ in ‘big’. In which sound do you need to obstruct air to pronounce it – i.e. in which one do you need to close and open your mouth? You guessed it: with the sound of ‘b’ the two lips obstruct and release air forming the ‘b’ sound while with the ‘a’ sound there is no obstruction of air. 

So:

Vowel Sounds = No Obstruction of Air

Consonant Sounds = Obstruction of Air 

If you read the consonant sound blog you know that there are three factors that go into the formation of consonant sounds:

  1. The place of articulation (where the air is obstructed).
  2. The mode of articulation (how the air is obstructed).
  3. Voicing (whether or not the vocal chords vibrate when producing the sound). 

Given that with vowel sounds there is no obstruction of air, which two factors from the above three are irrelevant when dealing with vowel sounds?

You guessed it: there is no ‘place of articulation’ nor ‘mode of articulation’ with vowel sounds. 

Regarding the third factor (voicing), what do you think? Are vowel sounds voiced or unvoiced?

Try it Yourself:

Go ahead cover your ears with your hands and practice pronouncing sounds like the ‘ee’ in ‘sleep’, the ‘e’ in ‘bed’, and the ‘oo’ in ‘moo‘. Then practice holding the unvoiced consonant sound of ‘s’ in ‘so’. In which set do you feel vibration? So, do you think vowel sounds are voiced or unvoiced?

You guessed it: vowel sounds are voiced! 

Comprehension Check: Quiz Time

Phonology Quiz 6: Vowels & Voicing

Vowel Sound Production

So, how are vowels produced? If all vowel sounds are voiced and the mode of articulation and place of articulation don’t play a part in producing the sound: What distinguishes one vowel sound from another?

Try it Yourself:

Go ahead and practice holding the pronunciation of different vowel sounds going from one to another e.g. the underlined sound portions in the following words: sleep, cat, bed, soup, father, cup, slip, purple, data, book, horse. What did you notice about the shape of your mouth? Was it changing depending on the different vowel sound you were pronouncing? Well, yes! It was. That’s because that is what distinguishes the different pronunciation of vowel sounds: basically the shape of your mouth as you pronounce them.

Introduction: Pure Vowel Sounds

There are 11 pure vowel sounds (pure meaning one clear vowel sound) and 5 diphthong sounds (two vowel sounds pronounced together). It’s difficult to tell how to pronounce the sounds based on their IPA symbol because there isn’t much of a correspondence with English letters (which makes sense because there are only 5 vowel letters).

Example: In the word ‘Mercedes’ notice that the ‘e’ letter actually represents three different vowel sounds (though, represented by the same letter). Or, for another example, notice how the letter ‘o’ or ‘oo’ are pronounced in the following words: or, low, look, some, loss, photography, food, and flood.

Hence why English can be a tricky language to spell and to pronounce (and also why learning the IPA chart is very important to both learn and to teach English)! 

Video Explanation: Pure Vowel Sounds

Here are the IPA symbols for the 11 pure vowel sounds of North American English (remember from the introductory to consonant sounds post that vowel sounds differ quite a bit depending on dialect): 

i ɪ ʊ u
e ə 3r ɔ
æ ʌ ɒ

So, because there are many vowel sounds and not that many vowel letters in English, many of the symbols look a bit foreign. However, although it is difficult to recognize the symbols, with the help of two hints, you should be able to figure them out. 

Hints:

  1. As the vowel chart goes to the right horizontally →: the lips go from being wide (like a smile) to more closed or rounded (like an ‘o’ ring), so the more ’rounded’ sounds (where the mouth is more like an ‘o’ when pronouncing them) are to the right.
  2. As the vowel chart goes down vertically ↓: the jaw drops down, so the sounds where the mouth is more open (vertically speaking) are on the bottom of the chart. 

Activity 1: Guess the Vowel Sounds

i: Sleep ɪ: ʊ: u:
e (or ɛ): ə: 3r: ɔ:
æ: ʌ: ɑ:

Directions: Using the two hints outlined above, go ahead and guess which sound each IPA symbol represents by matching the underlined sound with the correct IPA symbol. The first one has been done for you as an example

Word Bank: 

Cat Bed Soup Father
Cup Slip Purple Data
Sleep Book Horse

Comprehension Check: Quiz Time!

Phonology Quiz 7: Pure Vowel Sounds

Note: Pay special attention to the /ə/ sound – which goes by the name of ‘schwa’. Now schwa is both the easiest and most popular sound in the English language. Makes sense, right?. Being an easy to produce sound doesn’t take a lot of effort and actually the schwa is the sound that English speakers make as a filler when they are taking a moment to think – you know, that ‘ahhhhhh’ sound. Note that the schwa is easy to pronounce, popular, as well as NOT stressed – schwa will never be found in a stressed syllable. Remember be like schwa: not stressed 😀  

Diphthongs

Diphthongs are vowel sounds that consist of two different vowel sounds pronounced at once (begins as one sound and then moves to another). Below is the chart with all the diphthongs in North American English: 

ɔɪ

Activity 2: Guess the Diphthong Sounds

Using your knowledge of the pure vowel sounds, take an educated guess on which underlined sounds (in the word bank below) belong to which IPA symbol.

eɪ: 
ɔɪ:  oʊ: 
aɪ:  aʊ: 
Boy Cow
I Eight
No

Comprehension Check: Quiz Time!

Phonology Quiz 8: Diphthong Vowel Sounds

Practicing All Vowel Sounds

Nice job in figuring out all of the vowel sounds in the English language! Now let’s check your understanding a bit more with another quiz testing your knowledge of both pure vowel sounds as well as diphthongs.

Comprehension Check: Quiz Time!

Phonology Quiz 9: All Vowel Sounds

The Full Chart

Congratulations! You’ve learned every single phoneme sound of North American English! Below is the chart of all phoneme sounds: 

Note: All of the above sounds are phonemes; however, each phoneme sound might have an accompanying allophone sound – which is basically a different shade of pronunciation of the original phoneme. You can read about allophone sounds in the allophone blog here (soon to be coming). 

Practice

Go ahead and practice pronouncing all of the sounds in the sound chart!

Now you’re ready to start using the full North American English (NAE) IPA chart! 

Answer Key:

Answers: Comprehension Check 1

Voiced  = Consonant Sounds:  /b, d, dʒ, g, v, ð, z, ʒ, m, n, ŋ, l, r, w, j/y/ 

Unvoiced = Consonant Sounds:  /p, t, tʃ, k, f, θ, s, ʃ, h/ 

Voiced = All Vowel Sounds

Answers: Guess the Vowel Sounds

i: Sleep ɪ: Slip ʊ: Book u: Soup
e: Bed ə: Data 3r: Purple ɔ: Horse
æ: Cat ʌ: Cup ɒ: Father  

Answers: Guess the Diphthong Sounds

eɪ: Eight  
ɔɪ: Boy oʊ: No
aɪ: I aʊ: Cow

Leave a Comment

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *