All about phonemes, phonetics and spelling



Basically, a vowel is any "open" sound where there is no obstruction or "blocking" caused by the teeth, tongue, lips, palate or other articulators. In the English alphabet, there are 5 vowels: A, E, I, O, U. But there are many more vowel sounds in the English language. For example, the /e/ vowel sound is usually represented by the letter "E". But when you put two "E" letters together, like in "speed" (/spi:d/), you get a long vowel sound: /i:/.

Single vowel

A single vowel sound is any vowel that is not a diphthong (see below). A single vowel can be short or long.

Short vowels

This is the list of the short vowels in standard (RP) English:

/ɪ/ as in ship
/ʊ/ as in book
/e/ as in egg
/æ/ as in cat
/ʌ/ as in cup
/ɒ/ as in hot

Schwa -  /ə/

The schwa is a special type of short vowel. It is a very "weak" sound that is never stressed. This means you often find the schwa in words with more than one syllable. Here are some examples:

mother: /'mʌðə/
America: /ə'merɪkə/

Long vowels

In the British English phonemic chart, long vowels are easy to recognise, because they have a colon (":") symbol after them. Some long vowels are basically longer versions of short vowels (like /ɪ/ and /i:/).

Long vowels in English:

/i:/ as in sheep
/u:/ as in boot
/ɜ:/ as in learn
/ɔ:/ as in door
/ɑ:/ as in car


A diphthong is a  two vowel sounds, one after the other. There is movement or "glide" between the two parts of the sound. For example, to say the /eɪ/ dipthong, like in the word "cake" (/keɪk/) first say /e/, then say /ɪ/ without stopping. Your mouth will move from the /e/ shape to the /ɪ/ shape. This is the "glide".

Diphthongs of English:

/ɪə/ as in beer
/eɪ/ as in same
/ʊə/ as in tour
/ɔɪ/ as in coin
/əʊ/ as in nose
/eə/ as in hair
/aɪ/ as in fly
/aʊ/ as in house

Go to the next page to learn about consonants

Transcribe words to and from phonetics