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English Vowels

When we go on about how English pronunciation is irregular, what we are referring to are the vowels. Although English consonant sounds do contain some irregularities, for the most part, you’ll be able to get the sound correct just by looking at the letter.

However, English vowels are another story together, and that’s why, in this chapter, we shall give you a complete overview as to what you’re up against when it comes to the vowels of English, and how best to tackle English vowels.

What are vowels?

In English, vowels are the letters a, e, i, o and u which represent vowel sounds, of which there are around 20 – 27 actual vowel sounds (not letters) (including triphthongs), but this also depends on which variant of English you might speak, British, American, Australian etc. (the vowels can be shown as text as well as the number of vowels, but not the rest of the text).

The complicated nature of English vowels – explanation

In this lesson, we will take you through one example using the letter “a” to exemplify how one letter can have multiple sounds.

Vowel sounds that represent the letter ‘a’:

  •  /æ/, /a:/, /ɔː/, /eɪ/, /ɛ(e)/, /ə/ and /ɒ/.

The complicated nature of English vowels – analysis

  • Sad, mad, back = /æ/
  • Father, past, task = /a:/
  • Law, tall, wall = /ɔː/
  •  Day, say, may = /eɪ/
  • Said, any, many = /ɛ(e)/
  • About, appear, agree = /ə/
  • Was, watch, restaurant = /ɒ/

This is where getting to know at least some form of IPA will pay dividends when it comes to deciphering the actual vowel sounds in English. Because, in reality, identifying the symbol with the word will be incredibly beneficial and will better help you to remember the correct vowel sound for each letter.

So, in practical terms, what should you do when you do not know how to pronounce a word? Look up the word’s IPA transcription – any good dictionary such as Oxford or Cambridge will contain the IPA transcription (the symbols that show how the word is pronounced) as well as an audio example accompanying the IPA.

In this chapter, we’re going to:

1)    Show you all the vowel sounds in English (for Received Pronunciation).

2)    Give you a clear indication as to how to pronounce them.

3)    Connect the vowel sounds with the IPA transcription to get you acquainted with the visual representation of the vocal sounds so that you’ll have an easier time remembering how to pronounce the sounds.

4)    In each section of this chapter, vowels are grouped as per their similarity or type for simplicity’s sake. For example, in the following section, we will look at the vowels with an a-type quality: /æ/, /a:/ and /ʌ/.

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