Vowels: The Motor of the Word

8 min read
Vowels: The Motor of the Word

The English alphabet is comprised of 26 letters. Of those 26 letters, 20 of them are consonants, and five (sometimes six) of those letters are vowels. The vowels in the alphabet are a, e, I, o, and u. A vowel is a sound that is made through the free movement of air through the mouth. These letters are usually the binding element that forms a syllable.

vowels in the alphabet
Vowel sounds are vital for learning how to pronounce words correctly, so there is a lot of guidelines and resources surrounding their features. Specifically, vowels feature a handful of letters and symbols that indicate their sounds. This is helpful when reading a word in a dictionary because you will be able to sound out the word based on your knowledge of what the symbols represent.

Vowels and Pronunciation

For being only five letters of the alphabet, vowels are dynamic parts of the English language. Often considered the engine that moves a word forward, these letters shape the word and bind together syllables. In many languages, some vowels referred to as pure. This means that the tongue and lips don’t move a lot while pronouncing these letters.

Many of the vowels in English are not pure. This means that the tongue and mouth are active when the vowels are being spoken.

 

1. /i:/ eat, bead, bee
2. /ɪ/ id, bid, pit
3. /eɪ/ eight, wade, bay
4. /ε/ bet, fed
5. /æ/ ask, bat, glad
6. /∧/ under, putt, bud
7. /α:/ cot, bomb
8. /u:/ boot, two, tube
9. /ʊ/ foot, should, put
10. /oʊ/ oat, own, zone, blow
11. /ɔ/ caught, paw, port
12. /ð/ merge, bird, further
13. /aɪ/ ice, bite, tie
14. /aʊ/ out, gown, plow
15. /oɪ/ oyster, coil, boy

 

A Classic Mnemonic

There are many different rhymes to remember the way these letters are pronounced and spelled, the most popular being: “
“. As a quick Google search will indicate, even a rule this easy to remember is cause for concern.

This mnemonic rule is regularly disputed because it’s not fail-safe, there are numerous instances where “I before E except after c” is incorrect.

Vowel Sounds Described

English vowel sounds are described in five different terms: height, lip position, backness, tenseness, and length. 

vowel sounds meaning
All of these terms describe what your tongue is doing in your mouth to make these sounds. Since we have already covered the 15 forms of vowels, this list will merely categorize them into how our mouths change to create the vowel sounds.

Height: Where the tongue is positioned in the mouth:

vowel sounds examples
Lip Position: How the lips are shaped when sounding out the vowel. Rounded (O-shaped) or Unrounded (spread):

  • Rounded: (/i:/, /ɪ/, /eɪ/, /ɛ/, /æ/, /ɚ/, /ʌ/, /ə/, /ɑ:/)
  • Unrounded: (/u:/, /ʊ/, /oʊ/, /ɔ/)

Backness: This indicates how far forward or back the tongue is in the mouth.

sounding out the vowel
Tenseness: This refers to the firmness of your tongue when making vowel sounds.

  • Lax: ( /i/ and /u/ *, /ɪ/, /ɛ/, /æ/, /ʌ/, /ɑ:/, /ʊ/)
  • Tense: (/i:/, /eɪ/, /ɚ/, /u:/, /ɔ/, /oʊ/, /aɪ/, /aʊ/, /oɪ/)

The final pronunciation factor is the length of the vowel. The length is determined by how many parts each vowel sound has. Length is broken up into three different categories: Long, short, and complex vowels.

factor is the length of the vowel

Long, Short, and Complex Vowels

Just because the name makes it sound like time measurement, these categories do not indicate that it takes more time to pronounce certain vowels. The only reason they are called long, short, and complex, is because it’s what they’ve always been called, there is no correlation to the time it takes to pronounce them.

Long vowels are generally aided by another silent vowel that modifies the sound and thus, makes it long. Some examples of long vowels include: mute, ate, neat, and bite. In these examples, even though the vowels are not together, both of them working together make the first vowel sound change into a long vowel.

On the other hand, a short vowel indicates a short pronunciation. Unlike long vowels, short vowels are words that generally only have one vowel, and so they are working alone to create the vowel sound. Short vowel examples include: let, pot, spit, and hut.

Of course, with anything in the English language. These rules are not black and white, and there are certain circumstances where short vowels will have two vowels in a word, and long vowels will only have one vowel in a word.

Complex Vowels and Other Outliers

Finally, complex vowels are a combination of vowels that create different sounds (not long or short) in the English language.

There are five complex vowels sounds:

“oo” /ʊ/ as in put, pull, book, good, should
“oo” /u:/ as in salute, toothbrush, goose, boot, costume
“aw” /ɔ/ as in awful, dog
“oi” /oɪ/ as in boil, poison, toilet, annoy
“ow” /aʊ/ as in lighthouse, cow, flower, fountain

 

As you can see, these sounds are neither long or short, so they fall into their category.

The Schwa Sound

There is one final sound that doesn’t fall into the categories above, and it’s called the schwa sound /ə/. The schwa sound is a word with vowels that are spoken with the tongue in a neutral and relaxed position. All vowels have words that have the schwa sound, so it’s not limited to a specific letter or combination of letters.

Understanding where the stress of the syllable falls in a word can help identify the schwa sounds in each word. When you can identify the neutral vowels, then you are more likely to be able to spell the word correctly.

Conclusion

For a native English speaker, things like understanding the sound of each vowel, the tongue placement, and even how plump your lips are when you saw a vowel, are second nature and can feel like useless information.

However, for people who are trying to master the English language, a vowel can be a confusing part of learning the language. This is because, as you have seen, vowels can be spoken in various ways depending on the other letters that surround it. It can even change based on the desired definition of the word (like bear and bear).

When you understand how vowels interact with each other, though, you are more likely to be able to spell the word correctly. This is why it’s essential to learn the basic (and even dip into the more complex) explanations of vowel sounds.

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Learning the correct spelling and pronunciation of words is a skill that serves people well into adulthood. Having a strong command of the English language allows people to be able to speak and write more eloquently.

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