Quick Guide to IPA Vowels
The International Phonetic Alphabet is fascinating from a linguistic standpoint, but chances are that you’re a teacher who doesn’t need all the details about voiced vs unvoiced, fricatives, nasal sounds, plosives, and so forth. What you need is simply to know how to pronounce a sound written in IPA, or perhaps vice-versa.
By the way, we’re considering American sounds in this post, so some of what you’ll see here is a little different from British resources. From here on out, we’ll use [ ] to designate sounds as dictated by the IPA and capital letters to designate letters of the English alphabet.
Check out our earlier post on IPA Consonants.
Focus on Sounds, Not Letters
The first thing we should recognize is that the names of our vowels are not particularly helpful - in fact, they can sometimes be confusing. For example, the name A is pronounced as [ej]. We can spell that sound with ey (as in ‘hey’), eigh (as in ‘sleigh’), ay (as in ‘sway’), ai (as in ‘bait’), or a followed by a single consonant then a silent e (as in ‘vase’). In other words, matching the sound with the spelling or even the name of the letter is not straightforward.
Since we’re not concerned with the spelling at this point, but rather the sound and the IPA designation, let’s not incorporate the letters of the English alphabet for now.
Let’s start by taking a look at the single-sound vowels:
[ɑ:]* as in ‘far’, ‘psalm’, and ‘wander’
[ɔ:]* as in ‘caught’, ‘lost’, and ‘saw’
[ɛ] as in ‘them’, ‘wedding’, and ‘dress’
[i:] as in ‘believe’, ‘see’, and ‘funny’
[ə]* as in ‘comma’, ‘about’, and ‘mutt’
[ʌ]* as in ‘flood’, ‘cup’, and ‘funny’
[u:] as in ‘you’, ‘boot’, and ‘chew’
[æ] as in ‘cat’, ‘mad’, and ‘path’
[ɪ] as in ‘split’, ‘middle’, and ‘blip’
[ʊ] as in ‘put’, ‘foot’, and ‘should’
* [ɑ] and [ɔ] are similar to one another, and [ə] and [ʌ] are similar to each other. In some dialects, they may even be the same; in others dialects, the second sound in each pair is slightly lower and is held longer than the first in its pair.
We have 10 sounds here, and these are perhaps the most important IPA symbols to remember. While the vast majority of the consonant sounds are what you’d expect, the vowels are less clear. Furthermore, as we mentioned before, there’s not a consistent correlation between some of the vowel sounds and the letters used to spell them. Unfortunately, this is something you might just want to memorize (or keep a list on hand).
The [R] Sound
While we traditionally don’t consider the letter R to be a vowel, it does in fact act like one in many cases, especially when the letter follows a vowel. Try making the [r] sound right now. Think of how it sounds as well as how your mouth and tongue feel as you make it. Now consider it in a word, for example: ‘further’. We make the [f] sound, then the [r] sound, then the [ð] sound, then the [r] sound again. frthr. At no point do we make a U sound ([ə], [ʌ], [u], or [ʊ]); it doesn’t sound like ‘fuhrther’ or ‘foorther’ or ‘fourther’. Nor is there really any E sound. The vowel sound in each of the two syllables comes from the R and is a result of the vowel-R pair.
In IPA, we use [r] as a consonant sound and [ɜːr] as a vowel sound when we don’t hear another vowel together with it, as in ‘further’. If we do hear another vowel, we use that instead of the [ɜ:] symbol. For example, we use [ɑːr] in ‘smart’ and [ɔːr] in ‘fort’.
Double-sound vowels are essentially two single-sound vowels mashed together. Unfortunately, the sound produced by a pair of IPA symbols in a diphthong is not the same as the two sounds produced by the individual symbols. For example, [ɑɪ] makes the sound of [ɑ] and [i] together (not [ɑ] and [ɪ]), at least in American English. So again, you’ll either need to memorize these or have a list handy.
[eɪ] as in ‘made’ and ‘weigh’; also the sound of the name of the letter A
[ɑɪ] as in ‘fly’ and ‘mice’; also the sound of the name of the letter I
[oʊ] as in ‘show’ and ‘cold’; also the sound of the name of the letter O
[ɔɪ] as in ‘voice’, ‘boy’ and ‘moist’
[aʊ] as in ‘cow’, ‘proud’ and ‘about’
You can see that with diphthongs, the ɪ symbol makes the [i] sound, and the ʊ symbol acts like a W.
Try making each vowel sound separately for the first diphthong. First make the vowel sound in ‘bed’. Then make the voice sound in ‘flee’. /e/ and /ee/. Say them next to each other. Now go a little faster, blending the two sounds into one. You should be making the vowel sound that’s found in ‘day’. With the other diphthongs, break them into two separate sounds, then merge them together again.
It’s good to keep in mind that while diphthongs consist of two vowel sounds, they do not demand two syllables (in general, each syllable of a word has one pronounced vowel). The two vowel sounds should blend together; you might even notice your lips and/or tongue gliding into a new position from the beginning of the vowel until the end. For this reason, diphthongs are also called ‘gliding vowels’.
Finally, there are more diphthongs, which include r. But given what you know now, you can figure those out easily enough.