Episode Transcript

American English Vowels

Hey there. It’s Hadar and this is the Accent’s Way.


Today I have a different lesson for you. And that’s because I have my magic marker in one hand and my vowel chart on the wall.

And we’re going to talk about all the vowels of American English. I’m gonna walk you through this vowel chart. You might have seen it in the past.

So we gonna talk about all the strange and funny symbols here and what they represent. But also I’m gonna teach you how to pronounce them and what are the challenges that you might be facing as you trying to pronounce these sounds as a non-native speaker.

So, let’s begin.

This is a diagram of your mouth basically. So you need to think of it as if it’s the profile of a person as if I’m standing like this and all the vowels on the left part of the chart are front vowels that means that the tongue is rolling forward to produce those vowels, okay. These are front vowels in comparison to back vowels where the tongue pulls back okay.

So, basically, the horizontal axis shows you the position of the tongue, the placement of the tongue in comparison to the front of the mouth: the front or the back.

Now the vertical axis is basically the position of your jaw. So as you go higher on the chart then the mouth is more closed, the jaw is more closed, for example I-I and as you go down the jaw drops.

Now technically it’s not really the position of the tongue but it’s actually the space between the tongue and the upper palate okay. And as you open your mouth there is more space between the tongue the body of the tongue or the highest part of the tongue and the upper palate okay.

So, position of the tongue in relation to the front of the mouth or position of the tongue in relation to the roof of the mouth. Clear? Good.

Now there are a few other elements that we’re gonna talk about as we go along Let’s begin with front vowels and I’m gonna take my magic marker for that.

So as we go to the left part of the chart in the highest point of the chart we see the i sound. i.

This sound is the i as in ‘see,  ‘we’ and ‘she’. Okay it’s a high vowel,  high because the tongue is high. It’s a tense vowel because all the articulation organs are really tense. The lips pull to the sides of it -i-I, we, she. Okay?

And that is in comparison to the relaxed ‘ɪ’ sound that also exists in American English.

Now as you can see it’s a little lower here, a little lower on the chart that means that the tongue is a little lower.

So one of the ways to do that is to just drop your jaw a little bit – ɪ, ɪ. It’s a relaxed sound, it’s the laxed ‘ɪ’ sound and we find it in words like, fish, ship, and rich. Okay, relaxed ɪ sound.

As you can see so I have, in green we have here the five neutral vowel sounds that exist in some languages: a, e, i, o, u.

So in comparison to those five neutral vowel sounds, we see that there are two different ɪ sounds and none of them sound like a neutral i sound, okay.

So one is more tense: i-I, she, we, and one is relaxed, actually going closer to a real ‘e’ sound: fish, rich, and ship, ship.

It’s relaxed, so the jaw is dropped, the jaw is dropped also because I want to bring the tongue a little lower, the body of the tongue right so it doesn’t touch, it’s not close to the upper palate, because as you can see it’s a little lower on the chart – ɪ, ɪ – kid.

Now, it’s not ‘e’. This is a neutral ‘e’ sound as in,  it doesn’t exist in English, but it’s a neutral e. So a lot of people may say something like ‘set’ ‘set’, but it’s not ‘set’ it’s ‘sit’, ‘kid’, ‘rich’ right.

Now if we go a little lower we get to the American ‘ɛ’, ‘ɛ’ as in ‘red’, ‘head’ and ‘said’. Notice that it’s not ‘seɪd’ it’s not the diphthong eɪ.

In blue we have diphthongs, diphthongs are vowels that change in the middle of pronunciation or actually, you can think of it as two vowels that go together within the same syllable. So here this is an ‘ɛ’ sound. Just a bit more open than a neutral e sound that might exist in your language if you are a Spanish speaker, for example. ‘ɛ’, ‘ɛ’, rɛd, hɛd, sɛd.

Okay now that’s the ɛ sound.

If I drop my jaw a bit more low, my tongue a bit more remember I need to keep the tip of the tongue forward cuz it’s on the front, on the left side of the chart right then we get to the æ as in ‘cat’. æ, ‘bad’, ‘cat’, ‘happy’, right. ‘cat’ and ‘bad’ and ‘laughed’.

So we have the tense i as in ‘seat’, the relaxed ɪ as in ‘sit’, the ɛ as in ‘set’ and the æ as in ‘sat’.

Now do it with me. seat, sit, set, sat. ‘bead’ – tense I, ‘bid’-relaxed I, ‘bed’ that’s the ɛ sound, and ‘bad’, right.

So, these are pure vowels, the four pure vowels in American English: i,   ɪ,  ɛ,  æ.

Now let’s look at diphthongs in the front, okay. So we have the ‘eɪ’ as in ‘day’, as you can see it’s a little higher that means that the tongue is a little higher for the ‘eɪ’.

That’s a changing vowel. Now it’s really important because that’s how you distinguish between, let’s use a different color here, that’s how you distinguish between ‘sell’ and ‘sale’, right. Because that’s the ɛ sound: /sɛl/. And here you have a changing vowel: /seɪl/.

So you start with an ‘e’ and then actually the tongue is going towards the ɪ sound: ‘eɪ’. ‘eɪ’, right.

So you have to reach that ɪ-part. Imagine as if you’re adding j sound like an ‘yes’:, day, sale, fail, safe, date, okay.

So that’s a long eɪ-sound and it is long because it’s a diphthong, so you’re gonna like squeezing two vowels together. That’s the ‘eɪ’.

And here if we go a little lower we see that the æ sound, that’s the ‘a’ as in ‘cat’, exists in a diphthong as well.

Now we see that we start with æ and then we move into the ‘ʊ’ sound. All the way back here.

So basically you’re going like this. The front part of the tongue is pulling back, or the tongue is, the tongue pulls back and you start with æ and you move into ʊ because that’s the ‘æʊ’ as in ‘now’, ‘now’, right.

So we have ‘now’, ‘brown’. Now, it’s really deceiving cuz it’s spelled with ‘o’ and ‘w’, but basically, it’s that ‘æ’ as ‘cat’ sound in American English, ‘æ’ and then you move to the ʊ sound. ‘Now’, ‘brown’, ‘sound’, right. ‘Sound’.

Now, it’s not mistake to say ‘saund’. What have I done here? I just pulled my tongue back and I started with a more neutral ‘sa- und’, ‘saund’, a.

But, if you are going for the American accent, then the first sound is definitely closer to the ‘æ’ as in ‘cat’, ‘sound’.

Now the last diphthong we have here is ‘aɪ’ as in ‘my’, okay. ‘My’, ‘life’. And also just the word ‘I’.


So here you start with an open mouth because it’s, you know,  the bottom of the chart. That means that the jaw is at its most open position – ‘a’,  the tongue is in the front – ‘a’, and then you transition to an ‘ɪ’ right away.

aɪ, aɪ, ‘laɪf’.  It’s not ‘laf’, it’s not ‘a’ right. It’s ‘aɪ’. You have to hear the transition. Again, here you can think as if you’re adding a ‘j’ sound in the middle – I, my, might, okay, not ‘mat’.

So, the transition is really important to clarify that this is the vowel that you’re using, okay.

So again let’s look at all the vowel sounds in the front part of the mouth. We have ‘ɪ’ as in ‘see’,  the ‘i’ as in ‘seat’, the ‘eɪ’ as in ‘day’,  the ‘ɛ’ as in red, the ‘æ’ as in ‘cat’, ‘aʊ’ as in ‘now’ and ‘aɪ’ as in ‘my’. I hope you’re repeating after me.

Now, let’s move on to the center, okay. This is the ‘schwa’ sound, the schwa is the most neutral vowel sound in American English. And look where it’s positioned, it’s right there in the middle of the chart. Because the tongue is basically at rest pose, so it’s resting there on the bottom part of the mouth.

The jaw is not too tense, it’s not too open, pretty much as if you’re just like what you’re doing right now if you’re not speaking. So you’re just sitting there, listening to me and your tongue is resting on the bottom part of the mouth, and that’s your ‘schwa’.

‘ə’,  it’s also a really short sound – ‘ə’. ə, ə, ə, that’s the schwa sound.

Now, if we go down a bit then we get the ‘ʌ’ sound, and this is it’s also called ‘a stressed schwa’, and that’s a ‘cup’ sound. Now while the schwa is always unstressed, so it’s always the unstressed syllable in a word, the ‘cup’  is always stressed. For example, cup, country, love, okay.

So that’s, I call it the neutral ‘a’ sound in American English. Even though it’s not exactly an ‘a’, but it’s the closest one. As you can see this is a neutral ‘a’ if you have that in your language, then this may sound pretty similar to you. And don’t mind the spelling patterns – money, company, right.

Don’t mind the spelling patterns because the fact that there is an ‘O’ doesn’t mean that there is an ‘O’ sound. Actually, it’s ‘a cup sound’: ʌ. /ˈmʌni/, /lʌv/, /ˈkʌntri/, and of course /kʌp/.

The third central vowel that we’re going to talk about today is the ɜ as in ‘stir’. You know, actually you can do something like this to indicate that this vowel is always associated with the R sound, okay? /ɜ/.

Basically, it’s like you’re taking the schwa sound – ə,  and you’re bringing the back of the tongue up a bit to create that ‘ər’ tension, ər, to make the R basically the size of the tongue touch the insides of the upper teeth: ɜr, ɜr.

So this is the most neutral sound combined with the R and we find it in words like ‘firm’, and ‘learn’, ‘her’, and everyone’s favorite ‘girl’. And we can also add ‘world’ here, right.

So even though there is an ‘o’ here and an ‘i’ and ‘e’ and ‘e’ and ‘i’ it’s all the same sound: ɜr. Girl, world, learn, her. And not ‘hɛr’, right, cuz I’m not adding an ‘ɛ’ sound here, cuz there’s not an ɛ sound here. ‘her’.

And that’s the ‘stir’ sound. Very neutral, the tongue is in the center, it’s just the sides of the tongue pull back a bit to create that R sound – /ɜr/.

Now let’s move on, let’s stick with the red this time,  let’s move on to the back vowels.

So here just like with the tense ‘i’ and relaxed ‘ɪ’ we have two ‘u’ sounds. And in many languages there is only one ‘u’ sound.

Now that’s a generalization because, you know, some speakers use actually just this u sound, some use the relaxed u sound, some don’t even have an ‘u’ sound in their language, or at least their lips are not rounded.

So, just take whatever I’m saying with a grain of salt when I’m talking about the five neutral vowel sounds in American English. It’s related to languages that have five vowels or at least the five out neutral vowel sounds.

Now, this is the tense ‘u’ sound, ‘u’ as in ‘you’, ‘you’. Now think about it – what is it that you’re hearing here that is different from how many non-native speakers may pronounce it – ‘u’, ‘u’?

It’ longer,  I can hear you, I know you just said that. ‘You’, right,  ‘you’. So it’s longer, as if I’m adding a W here,  right. You, two, and room – tense ‘u’.

So it’s a tense sound, the back of the tongue is all the way up there, the body of the tongue is really close to the soft palate in the back, right. And the lips round, actually, if we look at vowels on the right side here versus the left side. That means that these are also rounded, the lips are more rounded: uw, uw.

I gotta push my lips forward. ‘food’, ‘you’, ‘room’, right.

Now, in comparison to the relaxed ʊ. Now, if you look at it it’s as if I’m ticking if I’m moving from the ‘u’  to the ‘ə’, which is a neutral sound. So ‘u’ to ‘ə’. The relaxed ʊ is somewhere in the middle.

So you need to think about the relaxed ʊ as in ‘book’, ‘foot’ and ‘look’ as a middle sound between the tense ‘u’ and the schwa, right.

Does that make sense? Okay. Let’s let’s look at it again.

So tense ‘u’ and this is the relaxed ʊ. So it’s not ‘buk’, ‘fut’, ‘luk’.

It’s ‘bʊk’, ‘fʊt’, lips are not really rounded, and ‘lʊk’. ‘tʊk’ , ‘pʊʃ’, ‘pʊl’. All of them have the same vowel sound and that’s the relaxed ʊ sound, okay.

Now if we move down the chart, okay. So let’s let’s go through these diphthongs.

Here we have the ‘oʊ’ as in ‘go’. Now, this is a neutral O sound and that actually does not exist in American English. So there is no O in English. There are similar sounds.

There is the ‘ɔ’ sound that is a bit more open, but a neutral O does not exist.

So a lot of times when people try to make that ‘oʊ’ diphthong as in ‘goʊ’  and ‘shoʊ’ and ‘oʊnly’, they end up saying something like ‘only’ and ‘go’ and ‘show’, right.

So they don’t round the lips at the end to an ʊ sound. And you may even want to think about it as if you’re adding a W at the end, right.

‘ow’, ‘o(w)nly’, ‘do(w) n’t. A long vowel,  a changing vowel and you’re transitioning from the O the ʊ.

oʊnly, hoʊtel, right, not ‘hotel’, definitely not ‘hatel’, ‘show’.

Okay, so that’s a long ‘oʊ’ as in ‘go. As you can see,  we are going a little lower.  We’re going down the chart that means that the jaw is a bit more open, and the tongue is still in the back.

You can hear that the sound resonates differently than the ‘e’ sound or ‘i’ sound, that it’s all about the front of the mouth.

Now let’s move on. Here we have the ‘ɔ’ as in ‘daughter’ sound, ‘daughter’, or ‘law’. So, if we are thinking of this sound in isolation, typical spelling patterns that represent the sound are:  ‘aw’, ‘au’, sometimes ‘ou’, ‘all’  like ‘tall’ and ‘fall’,  and ‘alk’  like ‘walk’.

Now, I want to tell you something about this ‘ɔ’ sound when used alone. Now, it doesn’t exist in all dialects of American English. So, for example, it is more likely to be found or at least you’ll find these words pronounced with the ‘ɔ’ sound on the East Coast, right.

You’ll hear ‘lɔw’ and ‘tɔl’ and ‘dɔter’, ‘ɔ,’ ‘ɔ’. But on the West Coast, people actually merge this sound with the ‘a’ as in ‘father’, a back open vowel sound, right. I’ll talk about this in a sec, but in the meantime, let’s talk about the merge.

So, in some dialects, this ‘ɔ’ sound will be pronounced as ‘a’. So instead of ‘dɔtər’ you’ll hear ‘datər’,  instead of ‘lɔ’ you’ll hear ‘la’, ‘fɔl’ -‘fal’, right.

So you’re you’re like, basically, the difference between those two is that if it’s lower on the chart that means that the mouth is more open, and the lips are less rounded: a, a, right. ‘father’,  ‘law’.

Now, this is not a rounded sound, I cheated when I created this chart, and technically it’s supposed to be here. Because on the right side the vowels are more rounded.

So, for those of you who are going to pick on what I’ve done here, know that I did it because it looks better.But I always explain it, so the ‘a’ as in ‘father’ sound is supposed to be here because it’s not rounded.

The pair of the ‘a’ father that is rounded is this ‘ɑ’ sound that exists only in British English, not in American English. And that is the ‘honest’ vowel, ‘honest’, ‘coffee’. And all of these vowels, all of these words are pronounced with this ‘ɑ’ sound in British English.

But with ‘a’ as in father, this is why I’m going to erase this, ‘a’ as in father. So here we have ‘coffee’ and ‘honest’, right. So all of those words that are spelled with O are actually pronounced with ‘a’: father, coffee, honest.

On the West Coast you’ll also hear ‘fall’, ‘tall’, ‘law’. On the East Coast, you’re more likely to hear ‘fɔl’, ‘tɔl’, ‘lɔ’. So the lips are a bit more rounded and the jaw is more closed, and also the tongue is a little higher for this one (ɔ).

Now this, the ‘ɔɪ’ sound, and as you can see there is another diphthong hiding underneath all my writings here. This is the ‘ɔɪ’ as in ‘toy’ that exists in all dialects, right.

The ‘ɔɪ’ as in ‘toy’.  So let’s take the black marker here, and then write down ‘toy’, ‘boy’ and ‘coin’. And here we move from the ‘ɔ’ sound, so you need to drop your jaw a little bit, to the ‘ɪ’ as in ‘sit’. tɔɪ, bɔɪ, cɔɪn,  right, okay. So I think that’s it.

So let’s look at all the back vowels here. We have the tense ʊ as in ‘food’, the relaxed ʊ as in ‘foot’, ‘oʊ’ as in ‘go’, ‘ɔɪ’ as in ‘toy’, ‘ɔ’ as in ‘daughter’ (but you can also pronounce it as ‘dɑter’), and the ‘a’ as in  and ‘father’, ‘coffee’, ‘honest’ and ‘office’.

Now, let’s go through all the sounds one more time, and I’m going to leave some time for you to repeat the words that I’m saying, okay. Starting from the front part of the chart. Let’s begin.

i as in ‘seat’, ɪ as in ‘sit’, ɛ as in ‘red’, æ as in ‘cat’, eɪ as in ‘day’ , aʊ as in ‘now’, aɪ as in ‘my’.

ə and that is the schwa as in ‘around’, ‘o’clock’, hɑlə-deɪ.

And then we have the ‘kʌp’ as in’ cup’, ‘love’,  ‘fun’, ‘country’.

‘ ɜ r’ as in ‘stir’ and ‘girl’.

Then we move on to the tense u as in ‘food’, ‘room’, ‘you’.

ʊ – ‘cook’,  ‘look’, ‘book’.

oʊ, my jaw drops, oʊ, ɔ.

ɔɪ, ‘boy’, ‘toy’.

And then the ‘a’, my jaw is really open, the lips are not really rounded. ‘a’,  ‘office’, ‘coffee’ and ‘honest’.

What do you think?

I hope this simplifies a little bit, maybe it confuses you right now. But if you watch it again, you’ll see that it does make sense. And understanding what are the vowels in American English and understanding what vowels you don’t have in your native tongue will help you focus on the things that will improve your pronunciation, that will improve your clarity.

Because if you are mispronouncing or if you don’t have this distinction between the tense i and relaxed ɪ, different words are going to sound the same: ‘sheep’ and ‘ship’ are going to sound like ‘sheep’ and ‘sheep’. Or ‘sale’ and ‘sell’, right. Or ‘bed’ and ‘bad’.

If you don’t have these two vowels in you’re in native tongue, and you can, by the way, go to Wikipedia and look for the vowel chart of the sounds in your native tongue, right. And then see how it is different from the vowel chart of American English, right. What vowels don’t exist in your native tongue.

So, and then you don’t want to confuse the ɛ and the a or the u and the ʊ,  right tense u, then relaxed ʊ, so on and so forth.

So, this is just understanding the vowels.  In order to really own them and to use them you need to do some more work. So you need to tackle the sounds that are challenging for you, to practice it, to teach your mouth to pronounce those sounds clearly and accurately every single time.

And then to drill it in words, phrases and sentences in order for you to develop the muscle memory, so you won’t have to think about it every time you speak.

Now if you wanna learn more with me come check out my website theaccentsway.com, or my YouTube Channel Accent’sWay English with Hadar.

And there you’ll find hundreds of different videos about how to pronounce the sounds of American English, about American intonation, and also motivational videos that will inspire you and get you to do the work.

Have a beautiful rest of the day and I will see you next time in the next video.