The Vowels of American English
How do we describe vowels?
Vowels are sounds in which the air stream moves up from the lungs and through the vocal
tract very smoothly; there’s nothing blocking or constricting it. The first sounds in the
words extra, only, and apple are vowels.
In general, every syllable has a vowel sound (although, as we saw in the last chapter, the
consonants /n/, /l/, and /r/ can sometimes be stretched out to be a syllable in themselves).
Vowels are the “heart” of syllables.
When we compare American, British, Australian, or other varieties of English, we see that
vowels differ much more than consonants. Within each of these varieties there are many
dialects, and their vowels may also differ greatly.
Sometimes people assume that there are five vowel sounds in English: A, E, I, O and U.
However, this is a misconception. These are vowel letters, not vowel sounds. Each vowel
letter can represent more than one sound. For example, the letter a can represent /æ/ as in
hat, /ey/ as in hate, /ɑ/ as in car, or /ɛ/ as in care. Also, each vowel sound can be
represented in more than one way in spelling: The sound /iy/ can be written as ee in seem,
as ea in seal, as ie in piece, as ei in receipt, as ey in key, as i...e in machine, and perhaps
more. There’s certainly not a one-to-one correspondence between letters and sounds, and
English has many more vowel sounds than vowel letters.
For most speakers of American English, there are 14 vowel sounds, or 15 if we include the
vowel-like sound in words like bird and her. The phonemic symbols for the vowels are shown
in the table below. For each sound, you’ll see at least two symbols. This is because different
textbooks and authors use different versions of the phonemic alphabet, with different symbols
for vowels. Many American textbooks use symbols similar to those in blue, while others use
symbols like those in green. The symbols in British textbooks are similar, but not identical, to
the symbols in green. You might see still more variations of the symbols in addition to the
ones that are shown here. Here we’ll use the first symbol listed for each vowel.