Vowel is a particular kind of speech sound


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One Vowel, Many Pronunciations


Vowels comprise the principal sounds of syllables and form a major category of phonemes which are the distinct sets of sounds that allow a listener to distinguish one word from another in speech. Standard spoken English has approximately 20 distinct vowel sounds, although regional dialectal variations account for more. As you can imagine, with each one potentially symbolizing multiple sounds on any written page, vowels letters are kept busy.

How a vowel is pronounced in English depends very much on who is pronouncing it and where they hail from. There are currently as many as 160 distinct English-language dialects worldwide. For example, Standard American English has fewer vowel distinctions than Standard Southern British English, so while a Londoner from Mayfair would likely pronounce the words "merry," "marry," and "Mary" in three distinctly different ways, for the majority of Americans all three sound pretty much the same. With 29, England has the largest number of distinct dialects, and that doesn't even take dialects from Wales, Scotland, Northern Ireland, The Isle of Man, or the Channel Islands into account. The United States has 27 recorded dialects; India clocks in at 14 distinct dialects, followed closely by Ireland with 13, and Australia with 9.

Long and Short Vowels

In the English language, each of the vowels can be pronounced more than one way, but the two most common variations are long pronunciation and short pronunciation. These variations are often represented by typographical signs: a curved symbol above a vowel represents short pronunciation: ă, ĕ, ĭ, ŏ, ŭ, while long pronunciation has by a horizontal line above the vowel: ā, ē, ī, ō, ū.



Vowels that have long pronunciations are most often modified by a secondary vowel that's generally silent. In words such as "late" or "tune," the letter "e" is added to modify the main vowel sound, while in words such as "goat" or "beat," the modifying vowel is the letter "a," and in words such as "night," "knight," "flight," and "right," the long vowel "i" is modified by the letters "gh."
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