Long vowel - short vowel

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For a note on how AWE organizes its group of articles on vowels, basically by aspects of sound and of writing, see category:vowels.

To start a discussion of 'long' and 'short' vowels is to enter very muddy waters. Not only is the distinction not regarded as useful in the modern study of Linguistics as applied to English, but where it is still to be heard, in the classroom teaching of the English language to young native-speakers, where it has real uses, it is interpreted in some very different ways.

To illustrate the complexities and ambiguities, we may examine the names normally given to the vowel letters in English. The names of A, I and O are pronounced as diphthongs (IPA: /eɪ, aɪ, əʊ, [or oʊ in American English]/); that of U as a quasi-diphthong (IPA: /juː/ - /j/ is described variously as a semi-vowel, and by phoneticians as a 'palatal approximant'. The only vowel whose English name is pronounced as a pure vowel (monophthong) is E (IPA: /iː/) - the sound of the vowel written as 'I' in most European languages, and its symbol in the IPA.

A distinction has traditionally been observed in the study of language, especially, for the purposes of AWE, in the English language, between so-called short and long vowels. This distinction is not supported by modern phonetics, which has developed more scientific measurements and has been unable to demonstrate a systematic difference on the grounds of 'length' of pronunciation. (The traditional 'values' were established before the Great English Vowel Shift, reflecting a reality which no longer exists in any simple sense, and owe much to the teaching of Latin grammar.) The tradition is lengthy and honourable, and of value in explaining some features of spelling, for example. Users of AWE may come across it in their studies, and may find it helpful. So we include a table of the differences between short and long vowels, with examples in British (RP) English usage.

Unfortunately, two separate traditions have developed of identifying 'long' vowels. One is related to vowels with a 'pure', or single, sound - those in which the tongue does not move during the pronunciation of the vowel, in which 'long' reflects the subjective perception of the length of time taken to produce the vowel sound - this is shown in the third column below. The other definition of 'long vowel' that is current defines 'long vowel' as being one pronounced as a diphthong (that is, one where the tongue moves during the production of the sound),shown in the fourth column. Both traditions view a short vowel as being a simple monophthong (in the second column). This is only a summary table: for more on the phonetics of any individual vowel, click on the link in the first column.

Other vowel sounds that are long in English include IPA: /ɜː/ (as in 'certain', 'heard', 'bird', 'sir' and 'fur') and IPA: /ɔː/ (as in 'awe', 'caught', 'bought' and 'wall'). Because their spellings are variable, they are not included in the table. Nor are the diphthongs (digraphs) IPA: /aʊ/, as in 'how' and 'out'; IPA: /aɪ/, as in 'why', 'light' and 'lie'; IPA: /ɔɪ/, as in 'boy' and 'choice'; IPA: /ɪə/, as in 'beer' and 'pier'; IPA: /eɪ/, as in 'air' and 'where'; IPA: /juə/, as in 'pure'.

Letter "Short" "Long" Diphthongal form Examples
Short long diphthongal
A IPA: /æ/ IPA: /ɑː/ IPA: /eɪ/ 'hat' 'heart' 'hate'
E IPA: /ɛ/ IPA: /iː/ - 'pet', 'bed' 'Pete', 'bead' -
I IPA: /ɪ/ IPA: /iː/ IPA: /aɪ/ 'din', 'sit' 'seen' 'dine', 'light'
O IPA: /ɒ/ - IPA: /əʊ/ 'not' - 'note'
U IPA: /ʊ/ and IPA: /ʌ/ IPA: /uː/ IPA: /juə/ 'put', 'foot' and 'but', 'putt' 'true', 'ooh' [com]pute, 'you'

Chalker and Weiner (1998), s.v. 'length', list

  • "the long vowels (in standard RP English)" as:
    • /i/ (as in 'green', 'heat' and 'machine'),
    • /u/ (as in 'food', 'route', 'rude' and 'blew'),
    • /a/ (as in 'cart', 'heart' and 'father'),
    • /ɜː/ (as in 'herd', 'heard', 'sir', 'nurse' and 'worse'),
    • /ɔː/ (as in 'cord', 'caught', 'saw' and 'bought').
  • They give the short vowels as
    • /i/ (as in 'bit', 'women', 'busy' and 'hymn')
    • /ʊ/ (as in 'good' and 'put'),
    • /e/ (as in 'bed', 'head' and 'any'),
[AWE, following Roach, 2004) also uses /ɛ/ to represent this sound in RP]]
    • /ʌ/ (as in 'hunt', 'love' and 'blood'),
    • /æ/ (as in 'hat'
    • /ə/ (as in 'mother' and 'away'),
[AWE uses /ər/ to indicate the common variation in RP when an '-r' sound may or may not be realized. See also rhotic and intrusive 'r'].
    • /ɒ/ (as in 'hot', 'wash' and 'laurel').