Want to work on your pronunciation in English? In this post, we’ll look at the pronunciation of vowels using specific examples. These descriptions will help you learn the British accent called Received Pronunciation.
Learn the theory behind British pronunciation and practice it along with this course from SuperMemo: Say It Better. British English
How to pronounce /iː/
The vowel /iː/ is close, front and long, and it is pronounced with spread lips.
To produce /iː/, you need to do three things. First, open your mouth just a little. There should be little space between your parted lips as well as between your upper and lower teeth. Then, move your tongue forward so that its tip touches the back of your lower teeth and its front is high and very close to the palate. Next, put your thumb and index finger on the corners of your mouth and smile so that you can feel that your lips are spread. You can also look in a mirror and smile to see the corners of your mouth moving apart. Say the sound that comes out for a few seconds. It should be [iiii], a very long /iː/. You will need to make the vowel /iː/ suitably long in different words depending on how fast you are speaking. Like all vowels, /iː/ can change its actual length a little depending on the sounds next to it.
The vowel /iː/ is pronounced in the following places:
- At the beginning of a word: easy, eat, Eve, east, evening
- After a consonant or consonants: seek, leak, peel, cheese, speak, sweet, street
- At the end of a word: be, me, tea, she, free, spree
Chances are that your language contains the sound /iː/ or its shorter version /i/. You should beware of the following errors:
- Making /iː/ too short so it sounds like /i/.
- Not spreading your lips enough, so your vowel sounds too similar to /ɪ/, particularly if you make it too short.
- Opening your mouth too much so your vowel is too close to /ɛ/.
- Raising your tongue too much at the end so you end up saying [ij].
How to pronounce [i]
The vowel [i] is short, close, front, and pronounced with spread lips.
To produce [i], you need to do three things. First, open your mouth just a little. There should be little space between your parted lips as well as between your upper and lower teeth. Then, move your tongue forward so that its tip touches the back of your lower teeth and its front is high and very close to the palate. Next, put your thumb and index finger on the corners of your mouth and smile so that you can feel that your lips are spread. You can also look in a mirror and smile to see the corners of your mouth moving apart. Say the sound that comes out for a few seconds. It should be [iiii], a very long /iː/. Now make the sound short and you will produce [i].
The vowel [i] is a variant of another short vowel, /ɪ/, hence the square brackets instead of slashes in transcription. This means that the two pronunciations never occur in the same place in a word.
The vowel /i/ is pronounced in the following places:
- At the end of a word: city, every, Germany, happy, lucky, many, puppy, rocky
- At the end of some pronouns when they are not stressed in a sentence: he, she, me, we
- In the middle of some words in an unstressed syllable: everyone, radiator.
Although the sound [i] exists in many languages, here are some errors typical of English language learners:
- Making [i] too long so it sounds like /iː/, e.g. in easy /ˈiːzi/ the first vowel should be long and the second short
- Opening your mouth too wide and saying /e/ or /ɛ/.
Placing your tongue closer to the central position and pronouncing /ɪ/ instead of [i] in the previous examples is not an error as such, but a feature typical of older upper-class speakers from England, what some people call “the Queen’s English”.
How to pronounce /ɪ/
The short vowel /ɪ/ is generally close and front, though compared to [i], it may be called less tense. If you pronounce [i], your tongue is in the front position, the mouth is open just a little and the lips are spread (you “smile”). Try to begin by saying a long [iii] sound and then only slightly move your tongue towards the central position, open your mouth more and relax the muscles around your lips. This might require some practice. If you overdo the movement of the tongue, jaw and lips, you will end up pronouncing a central vowel such as /ɜː/ or /ə/.
The vowel /ɪ/ can be stressed, but it is often unstressed. In words such as minute /ˈmɪnɪt/, missing /ˈmɪsɪŋ/ or /ˈwɪmɪn/, the first vowel /ɪ/ is stressed and the second unstressed. In words such as city or pretty the unstressed vowel at the end is pronounced [i]. The examples above also show that different letters are used to represent /ɪ/ in spelling: “i”, “e”, “o”, “u” as well as “y” (gym, crypt).
The vowel /ɪ/ is pronounced in the following places:
- At the beginning of a word: ill, in, is, it, if
- Between consonants: hit, lip, miss, pill, three times in Mississippi /ˌmɪsɪˈsɪpi/
Many languages have a vowel very similar to /ɪ/ but spell it differently from English. Possible errors include:
- Pronouncing [i] or /iː/ instead of /ɪ/, e.g. deep instead of dip, bead instead of bid
- Opening the mouth too wide and saying /e/ or /ɛ/ as a result
- Moving the tongue too far back and getting too close to /ə/ or a similar vowel
- Stressing unstressed syllables containing /ɪ/; for instance, speakers of French may overpronounce the -ing suffix in doing, making, bringing.
How to pronounce /ɛ/
The vowel /ɛ/ is short, mid and front, and pronounced with spread lips. To pronounce /ɛ/, place your tongue in the front position as for /iː/, but open your mouth slightly more than you would for the “relaxed” vowel /ə/. You can start by saying a long [iii] and gradually open your mouth more towards the position for /æ/ as you release the “smile” of spread lips. The target sound /ɛ/ is about half the distance from /iː/ to /æ/. Many European languages contain /ɛ/ or a very similar vowel, so perhaps you will not find it difficult to pronounce. Note that unlike the vowel /ɜː/ (despite similar-looking symbols), /ɛ/ is short and front.
The vowel /ɛ/ is pronounced in the following places:
- At the beginning of a word: Ed, end, empty, epic, exit, any, the names of letters F, L, M, N, S, X
- After a consonant or consonants: let, bed, tend, trend, friend, mess, chess, dress, impress.
Like most short vowels, /ɛ/ cannot occur at the end of a word. In foreign words containing /ɛ/ or a similar vowel at the end, English speakers often pronounce /eɪ/, as in café.
The most common errors concerning the pronunciation of /ɛ/ include:
- Pronouncing a close vowel similar to /ɪ/, resulting in e.g. pin instead of pen or rid instead of red
- Pronouncing the open vowel /æ/ instead of /ɛ/, particularly in any, many, also bad instead of bed etc.
- Saying /iː/ instead of /ɛ/ in words with irregular or misleading spelling: the verb read in the simple past and past participle forms, the word lead meaning “the chemical element Pb” and the place names Reading, Greenwich, Leicester all contain /ɛ/, not /iː/.
The aforementioned pronunciation of /ɛ/ and /ɪ/ in the same or a very similar way is a feature of some regional English dialects, but it is not recommended to English language learners.
How to pronounce /æ/
The vowel /æ/ is short, open and front, and it requires unrounded lips. In order to pronounce /æ/, place your tongue in the front position, open your mouth comfortably wide and do not round or unnaturally spread your lips. You can start by saying /ɛ/ and gradually open your mouth wider until you reach the vowel /æ/. Make sure you do not raise your tongue, or the vowel will be different. You can compare this vowel to the sound of a crying baby [æææ], but remember not to make it long in actual words.
In some words, American English uses /æ/ and British English /ɑː/. Nonetheless, numerous words contain /æ/ in both British and American English, e.g. gas, mass, cat, mat, rat, Max, Jack, Paris.
The vowel /æ/ is pronounced in the following places:
- At the beginning of a word: apple, ash, atom, Alex, ant
- After one or more consonants: bat, back, sack, spam, crash, pram, track, strap.
Look at the issues that speakers of different languages may have in pronouncing /æ/:
- Like most short vowels, /æ/ is not used at the end of a word, e.g. the words sofa, pasta, panda, Ada all have the unstressed vowel /ə/ at the end.
- If the orthography of your language contains the letter “æ”, note that the English vowel /æ/ may be pronounced differently from the sound you associate with this letter.
- If you relax your lips or tongue, you may pronounce /ʌ/ instead of /æ/, confusing e.g. bad and bud, lack and luck.
- If you raise your tongue too much, you may pronounce /ɛ/ instead of /æ/, making bet and bat sound the same. This is a regional accent feature, but English language learners are advised to pronounce /ɛ/ and /æ/ differently.
How to pronounce /ə/
The short, mid, central vowel /ə/ is known as “the schwa”. Unlike all the other vowel categories described in this course, so-called “full vowels”, it appears only in unstressed syllables (excluding British English diphthongs). Thus, when you pronounce /ə/ on its own, make sure it is never as strong or loud as vowels in stressed syllables. The pronunciation of /ə/ is simple. You need to relax all the muscles around your lips, place your tongue in a relaxed middle position, and open your mouth about as much as you would for /ɛ/. If you look in a mirror, you should see yourself making a face of someone who doesn’t understand something and doesn’t know what to say. Then say the sound /ə/ without using your face or tongue muscles – remember to make it short.
The vowel /ə/ can be pronounced in the following places:
- At the beginning of a word: about, among, attack
- After one or more consonants: in the first syllable of confirm, machine, the last two syllables of vegetable, comfortable
- At the end of a word: sofa, pizza, banana.
The biggest problem with the vowel /ə/ is not how to pronounce it but where to use it. English spelling is particularly complex, and /ə/ can be spelled in several different ways, e.g. “a” as in along, Poland, “e” as in enemy, “i” as in family, “o” as in contain, “u” as in suggest. These are but a few basic examples. Most errors result from pronouncing not /ə/ but a stressed vowel instead. Depending on the spelling, speakers may confuse it with /ɛ/, /ʌ/, /æ/, /ɒ/, /ʊ/ or any similar vowel in their language.
How to pronounce /ʌ/
The vowel /ʌ/ is short, between mid and open, and central. Like other central vowels, it requires the lips to be neutral, i.e. neither spread nor rounded. To pronounce /ʌ/, first relax all the muscles around your lips, place your tongue in a relaxed middle position, and open your mouth wider than you would for /ɛ/ but not as wide as for /æ/. Your lips should remain relaxed as you do so. Say the sound /ʌ/.The description above resembles the one for the “schwa” sound /ə/, but there are two differences between these two vowels: /ʌ/ is more open than /ə/, and /ʌ/ is a full vowel occurring in stressed syllables while /ə/ is never stressed.
The vowel /ʌ/ is pronounced in the following places:
- At the beginning of a word: up, us, under, uncle, ugly
- After one or more consonants: bun, tough, bust, crust, trust
- Sometimes in a syllable which does not receive the main stress: at the beginning of undo, unsee, undergo, understand (the main stress is on the last syllable).
Look at the issues that speakers of different languages may have in pronouncing /ʌ/:
- Confusing /ʌ/ with the front vowel /æ/ can make the pairs luck and lack, but and bat sound the same. This problem is related to pronouncing the front vowel [a], which exists in some languages.
- Raising your tongue can result in a vowel similar to /ə/ or the British /ɜː/, e.g. pronouncing fun and fern the same.
- Retracting and lowering your tongue can result in a vowel similar to /ɑː/, thus e.g. cut and cart can sound almost the same.
- Like most short vowels, /ʌ/ should not be used at the end of a word.
Some British dialects do not have /ʌ/ at all, using the vowel /ʊ/ instead. This regional feature is not recommended to English language learners.
How to pronounce /ɜː/
The vowel /ɜː/ is long, mid and central. It is actually pronounced in almost the same place as the schwa sound /ə/. However, there are two major differences between these vowels: /ɜː/ is a long vowel and it is usually stressed, while /ə/ is never stressed or long. The pronunciation of /ɜː/ is quite simple. You need to relax all the muscles around your lips, place your tongue in a relaxed middle position, and open your mouth about as much as you would for /ɛ/. If you look in a mirror, you should see yourself making a face of someone who doesn’t understand something and doesn’t know what to say. Then say the sound /ɜː/ without using your face or tongue muscles – remember to make it long. The long sound [ɜɜɜ] that you have just made is a common sound of hesitation for English speakers.
The vowel /ɜː/ is pronounced in the following places:
- At the beginning of a word: err, earn, urn, earth, early
- After one or more consonants: fern, learn, fertile, stern, turtle, work
- At the end of a word: fur, her, sir, prefer.
The most common errors include:
- Confusing /ɜː/ with a front rounded vowel [ø] which is often spelled “ö” and can be found in several languages, e.g. French, German, Swedish, Finnish and Hungarian
- Saying /ɛr/ as in very instead of /ɜː/, particularly where the letters used in the spelling are “er” or “ear” (Bert, serve, earn, learn)
- Misinterpreting irregular spelling: /ɜː/ can be spelt in several ways, including “er” (Bert, serve), “ear” (earn, learn), “ir” (first, firm), “or” (word, world), “ur” (curb, lurk), also “olo” (colonel).
How to pronounce /uː/
The vowel /uː/ is long, close, back and rounded. In order to pronounce it, open your mouth just a little, as you would for /iː/, move your tongue to the back position, as for /ɔː/ or /ɒ/, and round your lips, though not as much as for whistling. You can practice by saying the sound [iii] and moving your tongue to the back as you round your lips. If you have done so correctly, your sound is the more conservative version of the vowel /uː/. However, for several decades more and more native speakers of Standard British English have been using a more central /uː/, transcribed [uː]. If you want to pronounce it, practise moving your tongue and lips between the front [iii] and the back [uuu] and roughly halfway between these two sounds stop and round your lips. Remember that /uː/ is long, unlike the short and less rounded vowel /ʊ/.Many languages have a long or short vowel which is very close to the English /uː/. You may find that you do not need much practice before you arrive at an acceptable pronunciation of /uː/.
The vowel /uː/ is pronounced in the following places:
- After /j/ at the beginning of a word: use, youth, useful, union, unite, the pronoun you when stressed, the name of the letter U
- After one or more consonants: spoon, truth, Lucas, chewing, hoover
- After a consonant and /j/ in British English, but not in Standard American English: tune, student, duty, duke, news
- At the end of a word: boo, Sue, shoe, crew, true, through, queue.
Some common errors concerning the pronunciation of /uː/ include:
- Making the vowel short or confusing it with /ʊ/, resulting in e.g. pull instead of pool
- Pronouncing a front rounded vowel /y/ or its long version /yː/, which exists in French, German and many other languages, instead of a back vowel, e.g. the French word tu instead of the English too.
How to pronounce /ʊ/
The short vowel /ʊ/ is generally close, back and rounded, though not as much as /uː/. When you pronounce /uː/, the tongue is in the back position, the mouth is almost closed, and the lips are rounded. Try to begin by saying a long [uuu] sound and then move your tongue a little towards the central position, open your mouth more and relax the muscles around your lips to make them less rounded. This might require some practice. The target sound should be neither /uː/ nor /ə/ but one roughly halfway between these two. Remember to make it short.
The vowel /ʊ/ is pronounced in the following places:
- After a consonant: book, cook, look, wood, put, push, wolf, woman, sugar
- In the stressed versions of these modal verbs: could, should, would
- In a syllable which does not receive main stress, e.g. in the compound words living room, bedroom, bathroom, where the stress is on the first syllable (the word room is otherwise pronounced /ruːm/ when stressed). Other examples of this kind include phrasal verbs in which the verb contains /ʊ/: put on, pull off. Note that in phrasal verbs the main stress is on the adverb/preposition, not the verb.
The vowel /ʊ/ does not occur at the beginning or at the end of a word.
The most common errors include:
- Pronouncing the close, back and rounded vowel /uː/ or short [u] instead of /ʊ/; in this way look sounds like Luke, wood and would like wooed
- Moving the tongue forward and lower and relaxing the lips, which results in /ə/
- Misinterpreting the spelling which represents the vowel /ʊ/. We can see that /ʊ/ can be spelled “u”, “o”, “oo” or “ou” (put, wolf, look, could). Thus, learners may pronounce /uː/, /ɔː/, /ʌ/ and other vowels instead of /ʊ/, e.g. /ʌ/ in bush, butcher.
How to pronounce /ɔː/
The long vowel /ɔː/ is mid, back and rounded. There are two ways in which you can arrive at a correct pronunciation of /ɔː/. If you know how to pronounce /uː/ and /ɑː/, say the vowel [uuu] and gradually open your mouth more until you reach [ɑɑɑ] and then go back. About one third of the distance from [uuu] to [ɑɑɑ], you will pronounce [ɔɔɔ]. You can also relax the tongue and lips and say the central vowel /ə/, and then move your tongue to the back position as you make your lips rounded (but not as much as for /uː/). Remember that /ɔː/ is long, which makes it different from the back vowel /ʊ/ and the British English vowel /ɒ/. If you speak e.g. German or one of the Scandinavian languages, you may realize that your first language pronunciation contains a vowel very similar to /ɔː/.
The vowel /ɔː/ is pronounced in the following places:
- At the beginning of a word: all, oar, awful, awesome, order
- After one or more consonants: ball, port, sport, taught, form
- At the end of a word: more, bore, core, tore, floor, folklore, jaw, Shaw.
The following errors may occur:
- Pronouncing a more open vowel between /ɔ/ and /ɑ/ which exists in many languages
- Pronouncing a more closed vowel similar to /uː/ or /ʊ/, resulting in pull or pool instead of Paul
- Confusing /ɔː/ with a diphthong, e.g. /əʊ/ in words like broad
- Misinterpreting the spelling “au” as /aʊ/: audio, August, autumn, because, taught should be pronounced with /ɔː/, not /aʊ/.
How to pronounce /ɑː/
The long vowel /ɑː/ is open, back and rounded. However, it is not as rounded as the other back vowels, particularly /uː/. In order to pronounce /ɑː/, move your tongue to the back position as for /uː/ and a little in front of the position for /ɔː/. Then open your mouth comfortably wide. If your language (e.g. Spanish or Italian) has a front open /a/, first say a long [aaa] and then move your tongue towards the back as you change the lip position from slightly spread to slightly rounded. If you speak one of the Scandinavian languages or Finnish, your first language pronunciation probably has a vowel very close to the English /ɑː/. Remember that /ɑː/ should be long and must not be confused with either the short central vowel /ʌ/ or the less open back vowel /ɔː/.
The vowel /ɑː/ is pronounced in the following places:
- At the beginning of a word: arm, arch, art, artist
- After one or more consonants: bark, dark, charm, card, father, start
- At the end of a word – /ɑː/ without /r/: bar, car, far, jar, star.
British English often uses the long vowel /ɑː/ where American English pronunciation contains the vowel /æ/, e.g. in pass, class, bath, path, dance, France, chance and the contracted modal verb can’t.
Typical errors include:
- Confusing /ɑː/ with the short central vowel /ʌ/, resulting in buck instead of bark or luck instead of lark
- Pronouncing the short front vowel /æ/ or adjacent non-native English /a/
- Making it a nasal vowel (as in French) by raising the back of the tongue, e.g. before /n/ in dance, chance.
How to pronounce /ɒ/
The vowel /ɒ/ is short, open, back and rounded. There are two ways of arriving at its correct pronunciation. To try the first one, open your mouth quite wide, move your tongue to the back position and pronounce /ɑː/. Then, move your tongue a little further back, round your lips (though not as much as you would for /uː/) and say a short sound – this should be /ɒ/. To try the other one, place your tongue at the back, open your mouth in the mid position, round your lips and as you say /ɔː/, open your mouth more without changing the position of the tongue or relaxing your lips too much – you should now be able to say /ɒ/. Many languages in Europe have a short vowel which is similar to /ɒ/ but it may be less open.
It is important to remember that /ɒ/ does not exist in American English, where /ɑː/ and in some words /ɔː/ are used instead. English language learners who often listen to American English pronunciation in films, songs etc. may need some practice before their pronunciation of /ɒ/ becomes consistent.
The vowel /ɒ/ is pronounced in the following places:
- At the beginning of a word: ox, often, option, orange, also on, off, of when stressed
- After one or more consonants: wash, job, lot, rock, spot, stock, body, proper.
Just like most short vowels, /ɒ/ cannot occur at the end of a word.
Some common errors concerning the pronunciation of /ɒ/ include:
- Confusing /ɒ/ with the mid central vowel /ʌ/, resulting in e.g. luck instead of lock or gut instead of got
- Pronouncing long /ɑː/ in body, dog etc. as in American English
- Confusing /ɒ/ with the less open long vowel /ɔː/, resulting in e.g. court/caught instead of cot.
For a full coverage of the British pronunciation, see the course Say It Better. British English. With this course, you’ll easily practice pronunciation along with STT (speech to text) speech recognition exercises.
Are you also interested in American pronunciation? If so, check out our course Say It Better. American English.