How Many Vowel Sounds Does English Have?

How many English vowel sounds are there? Well, it depends on what variety of English we’re talking about. Here’s a brief overview for British and American English.
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How Many Vowel Sounds Does English Have?

English has five vowels, right? A, E, I, O and U. Sometimes we count Y, too — so maybe six? While this might be true about the written language, it’s not the case for spoken English. There are many more distinct English vowel sounds (or phonemes) that can make the difference between otherwise similar words.

Exactly how many vowel phonemes English has depends on which variety of the language we’re talking about. In this article, we’ll use Standard Southern British English (SSBE) and General American English (GenAm) as our reference accents. Other English accents will have a slightly different number of vowel sounds, but generally speaking, English has around 20 distinct vowel phonemes. This makes it one of the most complex vowel systems of any language in the world. Let’s get into the details.

What Is A Vowel?

In order to count the number of English vowel sounds, we need to know what counts as a vowel. Technically speaking, vowels are produced by releasing air from the lungs through the oral and/or nasal cavity. From there, we typically modify these sounds with our vocal cords, mouth and lips to produce distinct vowel sounds.

However, this description can also include sounds like the W in “with,” the Y in “year” and the R “red.” But these are not vowels because they lack the vital characteristic that all vowels have in common: Vowels are syllabic, meaning they can be a syllable all on their own.

Types Of Vowels

From here, we can divide English vowel sounds up into a couple of categories: short vowels, long vowels, diphthongs, vowels before historical R, and weak vowels. First, the distinction between short and long vowels is pretty self-explanatory. Next, diphthongs are vowel phonemes that begin as one vowel sound and slide into another, but still only make up one syllable.

Meanwhile, vowels before historical R have undergone many changes in the history of English, and so this is an important category to consider. This is especially true because our two reference accents differ on this a lot, as SSBE has lost all traces of historical R when not at the beginning of a syllable. Finally, weak vowels are like short vowels, except they can never appear in a stressed syllable and they can end a syllable.

Vowels In Standard Southern British English

From this point, we’ll reference lexical sets and the International Phonetic Alphabet quite a bit, so a little background or research on these topics will be helpful for following along.

Standard Southern British English has 19 distinct vowel phonemes. Here’s the full list, with their relevant lexical sets below:

/ɪ/ /e/ /æ/ /ʌ/ /ɒ/ /ʊ/ /iː/ /ɔː/ /uː/ /ɑː/ /aɪ/ /eɪ/ /ɔɪ/ /aʊ/ /əʊ/ /ɪə/ /ɛː/ /ɜː/ /ə/

Short vowels

Lexical set Transcription Examples
KIT /ɪ/ myth, pretty, women
DRESS /e/ bread, many, friend
TRAP /æ/ cat, man, Africa
STRUT /ʌ/ son, courage, blood
LOT /ɒ/ watch, knowledge, Austria
FOOT /ʊ/ took, good, put

Among SSBE’s short vowels, spellings vary pretty widely. The one thing that remains constant is the TRAP vowel, which is always spelled with a letter A. This is a reliable way to tell it apart from the STRUT vowel, which many English learners confuse it with.

Long vowels

Lexical set Transcription Examples
FLEECE /iː/  sea, people, police
THOUGHT, NORTH, CURE /ɔː/  water, four, sure
GOOSE /uː/  new, due, tuna
BATH, PALM, START /ɑː/ fast, half, car

Diphthongs

Lexical set Transcription Examples
PRICE /aɪ/  try, night, height
FACE /eɪ/  say, stain, freight
CHOICE /ɔɪ/  noise, loiter, boy
MOUTH /aʊ/  noun, cow, shower
GOAT /əʊ/ slow, toe, mauve

Here we can see more examples of how spelling is not a reliable indicator of how many vowel sounds English has. The same spelling can represent distinct vowel pronunciations, and in reverse, the same pronunciation can be represented by multiple spellings.

With historical /r/

Lexical set Transcription Examples
NEAR /ɪə/ clear, tear, beer
SQUARE /ɛː/  fair, chair, heir
NURSE /ɜː/ mercy, earth, word

As mentioned above, since SSBE lost all /r/s that were not before vowel sounds, all syllable-final /r/s are dropped in pronunciation too. This left a set of vowel sounds which are still written with the letter R in spelling, but have no remnant of the /r/ sound in them in this accent.

Weak vowel

Lexical set Transcription Examples
LETTER, COMMA /ə/ hammer, about, common

The weak vowel is also known as a schwa, and it just so happens to be the most common vowel sound in English. It can be tricky to see at first because the knowledge of spelling often overrides our perception of a spoken sound. But once you become aware of it, you’ll notice it everywhere. 

Vowels In General American English

General American English has 21 distinct vowel phonemes. They are as follows:

/ɪ/ /ɛ/ /æ/ /ʌ/ /ʊ/ /iː/ /ɑː/ /uː/ /aɪ/ /eɪ/ /ɔɪ/ /aʊ/ /oʊ/ /ɪr/ /ɛr/ /ɔr/ /ɑr/ /ʊr/ /ɝ/ /ɚ/ /ə/

Short vowels

Lexical set Transcription Examples
KIT /ɪ/  myth, pretty, women
DRESS /ɛ bread, many, friend
TRAP, BATH /æ/  cat, fast, pass
STRUT /ʌ/  son, courage, blood
FOOT /ʊ/ took, good, put

More or less the same as SSBE, GenAm’s system of short vowels differs only in that there is no difference between the sets TRAP and BATH, so the words “gas” and “grass” are perfect rhymes. Also, notice that the DRESS vowel is written with a different symbol in GenAm than in SSBE because the GenAm vowel tends to be much more open.

Long vowels

Lexical set Transcription Examples
FLEECE /iː/  sea, people, police
LOT, THOUGHT, PALM /ɑː/  watch, caught, half
GOOSE /uː/  new, due, tuna

Diphthongs

Lexical set Transcription Examples
PRICE /aɪ/  try, night, height
FACE /eɪ/  say, stain, freight
CHOICE /ɔɪ/  noise, loiter, boy
MOUTH /aʊ/  noun, cow, shower
GOAT /oʊ/ slow, toe, mauve

GenAm’s distribution of diphthongs is identical to SSBE’s, but one minor difference is the transcription of the GOAT vowel: Here it starts with a much rounder vowel sound.

With historical /r/

Lexical set Transcription Examples
NEAR /ɪr/  clear, tear, beer
SQUARE /ɛr/  fair, chair, heir
NORTH /ɔr/  boar, four, chore
CURE /ʊr/  pure, ensure, couture
START /ɑr/ car, alarm, Arctic
NURSE /ɝ/  mercy, earth, word

Since GenAm has retained the /r/ sound in all positions, this subset of vowels is quite large. We transcribe all of them as a vowel plus /r/, except for NURSE which has its own special symbol, used to indicate an “R-colored vowel.” We can also think of the NURSE vowel in GenAm as a syllabic /r/. This means that we could say that there isn’t vowel sound at all in this word, and instead the /r/ makes up the syllable itself.

Weak vowels

Lexical set Transcription Examples
LETTER /ɚ/  feather, entered
COMMA /ə/ ninja, common, original

Unlike SSBE, GenAm makes a distinction between these two sets since all historical /r/s are kept. For example, this means that the words “clear” and “idea” do not rhyme in GenAm.

Other Varieties Of English

As you can see, the details of these accents’ vowel sounds vary a bit, but the number of distinct sounds is not that different. Other accents of English will have some different phonemes, too, but the actual number of vowel sounds doesn’t change much.

Scottish English has one of the simpler vowel systems of modern English — it’s changed less over time compared to other varieties of English — but even it still has 20 distinct vowel phonemes. Australian English, for example, has more or less the same system as SSBE with 19 vowels, though the qualities of the vowel sounds differ somewhat.

So next time someone tries to tell you there are only five vowels in English, you can tell them otherwise!

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