Pronunciation Tutorial 3: English Vowels and the International Phonetic Alphabet

Pronunciation Tutorial 3: English Vowels and the International Phonetic Alphabet


Hi, this is Gabe from TowerofBabelfish.com. This is the third and final tutorial on English
pronunciation and the International Phonetic Alphabet. In the first two videos, we talked
about the three characteristics of consonants: Voicing, Place and Manner. In this video,
we’re going to talk about vowels. So.. where consonants were all about how you
obstructed your airflow, vowels are about how you let the air through. They, too, have
3 characteristics. They are: Height, Rounding, and Backness. We’ll discuss them in that order. I’ll be discussing three English dialects
here: • General American, which is a sort of average
dialect of the central Midwest • Received Pronunciation or the queen’s
english, or BBC english, which originally came out of Southeastern England
and we’ll talk a little bit about • Californian, my dialect. If you have another dialect, there’s a pretty
good chart over at Wikipedia with 10 different dialects and all the differences between them.
That’s linked in the video description below. The concepts will be the same, only some of
the vowels you use will be a bit different than the ones I use. So! Let’s start with three vowels, • i – see
• E – bed • ae – cat If you say them in that order, you’ll probably
notice that your jaw drops more for E than i, and even more for ae. You can say these
vowels without your jaw’s involvement, and it’s what many classical singers learn to
do over time. They go [singing] What your jaw or your tongue are doing is
increasing the distance between the back of tongue and the roof of your mouth. This is
vowel height. i is a closed vowel (or sometimes called a
high vowel), and ae is a more open (or low) vowel. Every vowel has a measurable vowel
height, and it’s measured by the sound it makes. If I sing a series of vowels and change
their vowel height, if you listen carefully, you’ll hear one pitch moving up and down – it’s
a really high whistle. It should be around these pitches [whistles] i e ae a. If you’ve
heard of Tuvan throat singing, that’s a big part of what they’re doing. And if you haven’t,
you should – it’s really neat stuff. Linguists measure this pitch to determine
the height of whatever vowel you’re saying. Now let’s compare i and u as in food. First
focus on your lips. You’ll notice that they come together in a circle for u and are relatively
relaxed with i. This is rounding. Just like with consonant voicing where you had voiced/unvoiced
pairs like d and t and z and s, each vowel comes in rounded and unfounded forms, and
on the IPA vowel chart, here, the rounded vowels are on the right side of each line
and unrounded on left, so i is on the left side of this pair, and u is on the right. Now start paying attention to your tongue
and compare I and u. Go back and forth between them for a couple of seconds. You should start
to notice that the back of your tongue pulls back around a centimeter for u and goes forward
for i. You’ll get the same effect with uh and eh, although the tongue will move back
a little less between those two. As you might have guessed, this is vowel backness. U and
uh are backed vowels, and I and eh are fronted vowels. At this point, we have the vocabulary
we need to talk about vowels and look at a vowel chart for English. Here are the vowels in the English dialects
we’re discussing. You’ll notice that height is arranged up and down, and backness left
and right. Rounded vowels are written on the right, and unrounded on the left. The backed
vowels in most English dialects are father, butt, put, food U takes some practice to isolate, because
it never occurs alone in English – there’s always a consonant after it. Like in book,
look and foot. It’s written a bit to the left on the chart because it’s not as far back
as u, if you go U u U u, your tongue will come forward on U. The fronted vowels are: ae E ih i cat, bed, sit, see. again you’ll notice that
your tongue retracts a bit on ih as in sit because it’s a slightly more backed vowel
than i. this sound is O, as in caught, law. it’s a
rounded vowel, and my dialect – californian – doesn’t have it at all. When I say caught,
I use the same vowel as in father – the open backed unrounded a, and I really have to force
myself to make a difference between them it’s not natural at all to my mouth. Father – caught. This symbol in the middle is called a schwa,
and it’s important to note that it’s different in every language. In English, It’s the sound
in about and a tree, the bushes, and it has most of the same characteristics as uh, like
sun. The main difference is that sun is accented
and clear about its three characteristics, and schwa, as in about, is unaccented and
a bit indistinct. It’s not quite clear what it is, really. Many languages have unaccented
schwa vowels, and part of picking up a good accent is figuring out their rough characteristics
– in German, it’s is somewhere between eh and ih, Liebe, and French is pretty-much in
the same place as deux, – le feu, for example. Now American English has two schwas, actually
– the normal one, and the R-colored one. You can see there’s a little squiggly R added
to it – this is a diacritic, and it modifies the vowel it’s attached to. We’ve already
seen a couple of these in the consonant section – the velarizing diacritic – we used it in
the voiced alveolar lateral consonant l, and the devoicing diacritic, for the icelandic
hnifur. So the R-colored or rhotic diacritic just means that during the vowel, either the
tip of your tongue goes up – RR- , or the back of your tongue bunches up -RR-, or both.
If the vowel is unaccented, then you use the r-colored schwa – winter, runner. RP speakers
don’t have this sound, and say winter and runner. If the vowel is accented, then you
can’t use a schwa anymore – part of the definition of a schwa is that it’s unaccented and unclear
– and so in received pronunciation, we use the only really central vowel in English – 3,
as in turkey, and in america, we color this vowel with R and get URkey. AR[ɑ˞ and OR
ɔ˞ can exist, but since it happens at the end of the vowel instead of all the way through
(most people say start and not stRRRRt), it’s usually written like this or this [ɑɚ] or
[ɑɹ]. There’s another back open a vowel, and you’ll
notice from its placement on the right that it must be rounded. This vowel doesn’t exist
in general american, but in received pronunciation, you round on the word hot There are only a few vowels left, and we’ll
get to them in a little bit. This chart is arranged in a trapezoid for
a clever reason, because if you think of it as a side view of your mouth, with your lips
on the left and your throat on the right, then you can trace this trapezoid with the
back of your tongue. Say i, and Imagine a point right at the highest part of your tongue,
here. If you say u i, that point will move from here to here in your mouth. You can trace
the sides of that trapezoid with I ae and u a, and you can make a diagonal line between
ae and a, since ae is not as open as a. If you think about the directions you go when
you do this, you can get a pretty good sense of what’s going on. You start with i and you
go back, u, down, u a, forward, a ae, and back up to i. Many vowels in your target languages can be
found by taking your vowels and modifying just one of their characteristics, particularly
rounding, since you either round or you don’t, for the most part. If you take i and round
it, you get y, which you’ll find in German and French. If you take u and unround it,
you’ll get m, which shows up in many Asian languages. Now there’s something important that’s missing
here. When you ask most people what the vowels are in English, they’ll typically say AEIOU.
Now we have i; where are the others? And what may be surprising for some of you (it was
surprising to me when I learned it) is that none of the others are single vowels at all
– they’re mostly two vowels, or diphthongs. When you say “ay” as in say, you’re combining
two vowels – eh and Ih. In general, you spend most of the time on the eh and glide up to
ih right at the end. Learning to separate these two sounds can be helpful, because the
more single vowels, or monothongs you have, the more versatile your tongue and ears will
be when learning the vowels in a new language, and you might as well take advantage of the
vowels you already have in English. If you learn to stop on the first vowel of
EI as in SAY, you’ll find a more closed e, which brings you much closer to the /e/ vowel
in, say, German in the word “seele”. Now if this is your first time hearing it, they might
sound pretty similar. say, seele, but if I pronounce the german word with an English
diphthong, it might get easier to hear the difference. sayle, seele, sayle seele. Learning
to hear the two vowels in your diphthongs can help out a lot in figuring out a new language’s
sounds. Ju isn’t exactly a diphthong, it’s written
like this in IPA and you’re already familiar with the palatal approximant j. This approximant
is quite close to the vowel i, and The main difference between ju and iu is that most
of the time is spent on the u instead of the i. So you say ‘ju’ instead of ‘i’ The American diphthongs are day my boy no
and now, and if you add combinations with R, you get near, hair and tour. RP has most of the same ones, but for O, RP
switches the closed o for a schwa in “no”, and all of the R combinations – since they
don’t have R-colored shwas – use normal schwas as well, so you get near, hair, tour. Now there’s one last thing that’s pretty important,
and it’s something that makes vowels significantly trickier than consonants to master Here is another way of depicting the vowel
chart – this one is a graph of the sound made when pronouncing these vowels. It still forms
a trapezoid, and when you graph it this way, than you still get frontal vowels on the left,
backed vowels on the right, open vowels on the bottom and closed ones on top. There are
two things I want to point out here: one, take a look at the differences between the
two graphs. On the left we have general American and on the right received pronunciation. Look
at these vowels. In American, this is eh as in bed. In British, it’s more closed, e as
in bed. You can use graphs like this to adjust your own vowels in the direction of the new
vowels you’re trying to learn. The other thing to notice is the large circles around each
vowel. Vowels don’t land in an exact spot on these charts, and if you’ll notice, the
British e even switches symbols to a closed e. These are average locations for a vowel,
and each of these symbols can only give you a general idea about the character of a vowel.
E in British, for example, is much more open than the e in German seele, even if they use
the same symbol. These symbols correspond to regions or categories of vowels with a
decent amount of wiggle room. When you’re learning vowels, you’ll need to
keep in mind that to get the exact character of your target vowels, IPA isn’t enough – you
will need to listen to and mimic recordings. the IPA is there to give you two things: First, it gives you the general sense of the
vowel in terms of its height, backness and roundness, and second, to keep the vowels
consistent within a language. Every time you see i in English, it will be
the same – seat, eat , feet, keep. Same thing with bed – an American is going to say bed
red said, and a Brit, depending on where he’s from, may say bed red said, but no one is
going to be switching between them for different words, bed red said. So a closed o in Italian
o as in cosa rosa can be different than a closed o in another language – German’s closed
o is Significantly more closed. Sohn. Rose. But once you learn the Italian closed o, it’s
going to be exactly the same for every word that uses that IPA symbol in Italian, so where
that symbol is a little bit vague when it comes to describing all languages, it means
something very specific when it comes to describing one language. So, to quickly sum up the English vowels,
in General American, you have: i, ih, eh, ae, u, uh, ah, ah, uh, ur, and
sometimes the schwa. And the main differences in RP are : e bed
gets a little more closed, the IR is no longer r-flavored, bird, a hot. The diphthongs EY, AI, OI, OU, AU and some
R flavored ones. Ear, hair, tour. RP switches just a few of these: No, Ear,
Hair, Tour There are triphthongs, but they’re just R
added to a diphthong, like in flower and fire, flower and fire, and that should wrap it up
for English. If you want to memorize the symbols and concepts
in all three of these videos, either use my Anki deck or make your own, and stay tuned
for future videos. I’m going to be doing tutorials for French, German, Italian, And eveeentually
Russian. That’s it! Feel free to subscribe up top,
and until next time!

100 thoughts on “Pronunciation Tutorial 3: English Vowels and the International Phonetic Alphabet”

  1. Oh my gosh thank you so much for these videos! I never though about learning IPA! I had like my own IPA ( for perro I would do something like 'pair-oh' by the word to remember how it sounded lol ). My mom made me in my brother learn to read with 'Hooked on Phonetics', so we could "sound-out" words we didn't know growing up and now I can sound out french words! It's so cool, It's like that moment when you a kid and all those foreign symbols turn into words and you can read, I'm so excited! 🙂

  2. thanks for this helpful video. I just got a question. when you are explaining how to pronounce from i to u, that means you have to pull back your tongue order to pronounce the u. I'm asking this silly question cuz in other sources they say to press the tongue agains your bottom teeth.
    hope you can reply. THANKS!!

  3. I just graduated with a 4 year degree in musical theatre, and I cannot believe IPA was never introduced. Wish I would have studied this myself a lot sooner; thanks for the great instruction!

  4. Gabe, this is absolutely wonderful. I teach speech in a theatre program in Chicago and have yet to find something as cogent aurally and visually as this. Thanks for making and posting this excellent resource.EXCELLENT IPA vowel lesson by a classical singer. NO ancient Edith Skinner crap. Lots of cross reference to other languages and dialects. GREAT placement of front and back vowels. NO nasalization. Clear differentiation of IPA as descriptive and its application to language and lexical sets.

  5. If for a high vowel like /u/ the tongue is made to completely obstruct the airflow, then a velar consonant is produced. If in the high vowel /i/ the tongue is made to fully obstruct the airflow, what consonant is produced? palatal?

  6. As far as I know, /ʊ/ is usually placed to the right of a dot/bullet in the IPA. So it would be rounded too.
    Thank you very much for the video.

  7. Thank you for the series of videos. I have seen three so far. Imagine all the time I wasted as a child learning a second language's pronunciation without your videos. Now I just to review your method.

  8. Thank you very much indeed for this great piece of work. I've been studying English language for the second year and this video helped me very much with understanding what we learnet during the first year of phonetics and phonology course at my university. The clear and logical way that you presented the vowel diagram made me realize and appreciate full power and amount of information it carries. Thanks again and best regards from Poland.

  9. This is great!! Thank you!
    I did notice, though, that you can hardly pronounce the "caught" vowel. Even when you tried to demonstrate it, you didn't quite get it!
    I'm from CT and we pronounce that vowel all day, even in words like "ball" and "fog", so… 🙂

  10. Thank you so much for these fantastic videos! Love the clear explanations and examples – this will definitely help me in my phonetics class.
    Just wanted to ask you where you got your mid sagittal diagrams from… I need to learn how to draw them for each consonant for my exam, so if you could let me know – I'd really appreciate it!
    Many thanks

  11. Hi,
    Oh my God…..its really really the best one.Please help us to figure out these symbols sound in words,that's the part we always stuck…

  12. Excellent video! Like another comment said, it was much clearer and concise than my university lectures. Is there any chance of you doing that Italian pronunciation video?

  13. I don't think anyone has mentioned this yet, but in General American 'pot' has /ɑ/, not /ɔ/.  The only words written with 'short O' that have /ɔ/ in GA are almost all in final syllables ending in voiceless fricatives other than /ʃ/ (off, moth, loss), inconsistently in final syllables before voiced velars (dog, song), in multisyllabic derivatives of the previously mentioned words, off- words (office, coffee) and a few words that don't follow the rules like 'chocolate' and 'on'.  

    'Short O' in GA is /ɑ/ in those scenarios in a few rarer or later-introduced words like 'ping pong' and 'King Kong', but it's almost always /ɑ/ before all the stops but /g/ (cop, rob, pot, trod, rock), before /n/, /m/, /l/, and  /ʃ/ (don, bomb, doll, posh), and in multisyllabic words and their truncations (possible, donkey, Gothic, goth). 

    Check out the lot-cloth split for better details.

  14. Thank you SO much for your IPA videos, and in particular the first two. I'm reading A Brief History of the Spanish Language by David Pharies, and your videos have given me a good start toward learning the IPA symbols that apply to Spanish.

  15. This is such an amazing tutorial. Thank you!
    You deserve way more views and subscribers.

    Also, I think Schwa is my new favorite term in lunguistics. It just sounds hilarious.
    (Not the phone itself, but the name given to it.)

  16. Garbiel you're the man! Where is the Russian video you promised?! I'm about to do a semester abroad to study Russian I'm in desperate need of pronunciation help!!!

  17. Great video!
    I have a quick question that bugs me though: you mention in the video that you don't have the ɔ vowel at all. That bugs me a little and would be curious to know how you pronounce these words:
    Broad, law, cause, fall, talk.
    And what about north, four, etc.?
    How do American cot-caught mergers pronounce these words in general?
    Thanks!

  18. thanks man on posing this kin'off videos, this surely can help me in my Linguistics stuff 🙂 GODBLESS

  19. I just made an "alveolabial fricative"… it looked ridiculous. Or perhaps is was an alveolabial approximant. I put my lower lip close to my alveolar ridge and blew air through the small space.

    If this occurs in any natural language I would be surprised. Really surprised.

  20. for anyone learning English, they would be overwhelmed and have no chance of following your fast pace…and your throw away lines including idiom. However, English speakers learning other languages may get the gist. I have studied linguistics and am a language teacher, however, it's all just too much information too fast. Admire your intentions and hope you continue to refine as I think it helps to have an insight into the mechanics of pron.

  21. Super useful for an American trying to understand the IPA. I've studied so many languages without learning the IPA, and it's great to finally learn what some of these terms mean. (Don't give in to the people who say you should slow down–this is perfect for natives of English learning the IPA, which I think is your intention.)

  22. why is it the short in the vowel chart is in the front close side of the trapezoid where if we pronounce the short i is little lower and further back in the mouth?

  23. Hi Gabriel, my feed back:

    O seu vídeo seria ótimo, mas, primeiro: para quem você quer passar adiante essas informações?
    Por exemplo: se for para não nativos ou, estrangeiros como eu, como você acha que nós vamos entender essas informações?
    Secundo: Você está falando muito rápido.
    Terceiro: Você está fazendo uma palestra enorme toda em english, sendo que muitas pessoas como eu que necessita dessas informações, não tem fluência em english. Ex: eu só entendo: BLA-BLA-BLA…
    Para você saber o que eu estou sentindo, eu estou deixando meu comentário enorme, todo em português, para você saber como eu me sinto. Agora como vamos nos comunicar assim?
    Com certeza você não sabe português (eu acho). E está vendo como é difícil querer saber a informação e não entender o idioma?
    No meu caso eu preciso somente, sem explicações, as pronuncias do Vowels General American Pronunciation.
    I love the United States and this is nothing new. Everyone knows that Brazil loves the United States. I'd like Brazil and USA were one country. We are all Americans. We do Brazil, we are South and you northern USA. But please, you can make a Vidío only with pronunciation of American vowels, without explanation, because I will not understand anything. I am English estundante. And in Brazil we do not speak the scwa vowel and the word Thanks Th, as the Japanese (joke) but it is difficult. A hug my friend!

  24. Wonderful video, Gabriel. Could you kindly add clarification on your example in Italian? Since "o" is realized as either open or closed in Italian, depending on the word, your examples of cosa /ˈkɔsa/ and rosa /ˈrɔza/ are both fine examples of open o- as opposed to, for example, molto /ˈmolto/ which is closed.

  25. Wonderful I love this because I have such an ugly pronunciation and mainly is because my first, and second language is not English. I am following your videos to learn more. Thanks for sharing this !!!

  26. Gabriel, you are world class! You rescued me from despair in my attempts to 'hear' French. Thank you for providing this incredibly valuable resource.

  27. Fantastic, very well explained. A bit of a bummer that IPA vowels are not consistent across languages (isn't that the point of IPA sounds :)? ) – but not that big of a deal to learn anyway!

  28. I don't know which accent of Italian you used in your example, but in Standard Italian we say /'kɔsa/ and /'rɔza/ which is a different vowel from words like /'dove/ or /'kome/.
    P.s. I guess nowadays it has become acceptable to say /'kɔza/…

  29. If you sound out the diphthongs, you can figure out what the components are.
    In my dialect of American English:
    /day/ – [dɛi]
    /my/ – [mɑi]
    /boy/ – [boi]
    /no/ – [nʌu]
    /now/ – [næu]

    It certainly seems like the wiki page is showing for example [noʊ] as the pronunciation for GA
    but that doesn't strike me has the broadcast dialect. On television etc, I generally hear people
    pronouncing it [nʌu]. RP is similar but more fronted so you end up with [nəʊ]
    (You also pronounce it in your video as [nʌu])

    Any thoughts on why this dialect is referred to as General American?

  30. Americans really don't get our British /e/ sound as in /bed/. Please guys know that we don't say it like South Africans as this video suggests. My phonetics teacher at school was from Michigan, she did the exact same thing. Americans almost reset to a schwa to end the /e/ sound in /bed/, Brits just interrupt it with the consonant

  31. Am really grateful Sir…. I most confess that this very tutorial has remove my fear of general phonetics….I'm now ready and willing to become a phonetician or a phonologist…. thank you very much sir.

  32. I live in Minnesota, and this whole "say" and "boat" having diphthongs thing baffles me. Supposedly we don't pronounce them as such, but I have difficulty spotting a difference between my "A" and "O" and a that of a speaker of GA or RP. I figured out "I" after not too long, but this confuses me. Does anyone have any advice?

  33. The graphic at 11:05 is intriguing, how do I understand it? Hz is a unit of frequency (events per seconds) but "bark"? like a dog?

  34. Very useful video! Just be careful when you give the example of the two Italian words (rosa, cosa): You're still pronouncing them with a very closed O (rósa, cósa), when they should be: rɔːza, kɔːza.

  35. Gabe, I’ve decided to revisit the IPA since you’ve inspired me to become a polyglot, so I need to understand the IPA! One slight problem, I speak in a northern English dialect, not RP, and when you refer to how southern English sounds (btw you sound great! Just really posh :p). But since my dialect isn’t there, I feel slightly isolated but I can’t wait to learn everything.

  36. Quick question, if the /ɔ/ doesn't exist in your dialect, what sound do you guys use to say "force"? I'm pretty sure it's not /fɑrs/

  37. This is the ONLY video I've found that clearly explains and goes through all of the placements of the English vowels, their placements in the chart, and their symbols. Thanks you!!

  38. Fascinating video to be included in my adventures in learning Russian but what is with RP? Here in England we are English and we speak English. Not RP, not British English but English.

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