Vowels in the English Language

Vowels are speech sounds  pronounced so there are no “obstacles” to airstream (unlike the way consonants are pronounced, for example). This post lists English vowels (21 in this case, although some sources list 22), both monophthongs and diphthongs. They are grouped into the long and short ones. There is also a vowel diagram showing vowels at their approximate positions.

The vowels sounds of the English language are listed below. The newer IPA notation was used.

The English vowels with examples (O’Connor, first edition 1973)
 	IPA (O'Connor)	Examples
1	i:		see, unique, feel
2	ɪ		wit, mystic, little
3	e		set, meant, bet
4	æ		pat, cash, bad
5	ɑ:		half, part, father
6	ɒ		not, what, cost
7	ɔ:		port, caught, all
8	ʊ		wood, could, put
9	u:		you, music, rude
10	ʌ		bus, come, but
11	ɜ:		beard, word, fur
12	ə		alone, butter
13	eɪ		lady, make
14	əʊ		go, home
15	aɪ		my, time
16	ɑʊ		now, round
17	ɔɪ		boy, noise
18	ɪə		here, beard
19	ɛə		fair, scarce
20	ɔə		more, board
21	ʊə		pure, your

Gimson (Introduction 90) sorts English vowels into three groups: short, long “relatively pure” and long “diphthongal glides, with prominent 1st element”.

Short and long monophthongs in English
short   ɪ e æ ɒ ʊ ʌ ə
long    i: u: ɑ: ɔ: ɜ:

Vowel diagram is used to provide details about the sounds involved. The phoneme /i:/ often has the quality of a diphthong (O’Connor 154), which depends on the accent. The arrow on the diagram marks the approximate final location of the sound in diphthongal realisation. The phoneme /ɪ/ is short and monophthongal. The phoneme /e/ is “in RP … generally realised … as a short, front vowel between cardinals [e] and [ɛ]” (O’Connor 156), while /æ/ is also a short vowel, but between cardinal [ɛ] and [a], it is usually realised as a monophthong.

RP English Vowels in the Cardinal Diagram
RP English vowels in vowel chart. The image is based on the overview given by O’Connor in his Phonetics (see Books & References).

The phoneme /ʌ/ is a “short almost open central vowel”, while /ɑ:/ is an “open, rather back vowel” (O’Connor 157-8). The phoneme /ɒ/ is pronounced by speakers of RP as “a short, back, open or almost open vowel” (158). In a word such as caught there is the phoneme /ɔ:/. In the diagram /ɔ:/ it is just below the cardinal vowel [o]. The dashed line pointing towards the more central position illustrates the fact that many speakers do not make a distinction between a monophthong /ɔ:/ and a diphthong /ɔə/. In such cases, the speakers “nevertheless use a diphthong [ɔə] … before pause” (160). The consequence is that “both saw and sore are pronounced [sɔə] and both caught and court are pronounced [kɔ:t]” (160).

Also in the series: The Number of Diphthongs in the English Language and English Diphthongs.

The phoneme /ʊ/ is somewhat more centralised than cardinal [o], and it shows a relatively constant pronunciation in dialects (162), unlike most of other vowels. About /u:/ O’Connor notes that it “most often has a diphthongal realisation … but it may be given a monophthongal pronunciation slightly lower and more central than cardinal [u]” (162). The diphthongal property of the vowel is indicted by an arrow in the graph. The phoneme /ɜ:/ is “typically a long, mid, central vowel”, but in rhotic accents (American English, for example) this vowel is in the sequence /ər/ (163) replaced by the retroflex [ɹ], i.e. bird (163). The phoneme /ə/ has “two major allophones in RP, one central and half-close which occurs in non-final positions…, and one central and about half open which occurs before pause …” (the example for the first variant is about, and for the second sailor) (164).

Download the SVG English monophthongs and diphthongs graphs used in this post here.

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Romeo Mlinar

Languagebits.com Author

39 thoughts on “Vowels in the English Language”

  1. D monothongs d diphtongs ar 20 in num……………….plus d triphthongs making 25 in no……frm HOLLATY

  2. Vowel sounds are 20 in number because consonants are 24 in total which is 44 sounds together so if vowels are 21 then what will consonant sounds be and all the English sounds then?

  3. Enter your comment here…vowel sound are 20 in number rigth we were thougth that in school rigth but can’t argue with english

  4. I think its not correct because our teacher has said there are only 20 pure vowels…………. How come 20 ? ( its really confusing).

  5. the 20th diphthong listed is not considered as diphthong.it z not vowel glides as per traditional theories.board-/b):d/ this one is pure vowel/ monophthong same as in the case of the other word more-/m):/

  6. Just a quick comment…based on 25 years of teaching English. Any time anyone attempts to make a definitive list of English vowels with examples, they are bound to fail. English is a truly global language, and it is far better to try and understand it as have a range of possible vowel sounds rather than an exact number. As a Canadian speaker, there are many examples above that simple do not work for me. The number of vowels, and which ones they are, will vary greatly depending on region. Similarly, words used to show the vowels vary greatly. For me, the examples for #5 in the list represent different vowels. Likewise, any example with an ‘r’ following a vowel is often a poor choice due to ‘r-colouring’ of many vowel sounds.

    Just some thoughts

  7. It should be 20 and not 21. Unless it have been updated to 21, otherwise, it remains 20 as far as English language is concerned.

  8. Well, so far so good, let majority carries the vote. It seems we more people that says the vowel sounds is above 20, for that reason let’s agree to that. I rest my case 👷! :😂

  9. I first thought that d monothongs are five according tobd five vowels but now I know dat de r 12 in number thanks to d internet actually I’m just ten

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