3) Vowels, consonants and syllables

Vowels, consonants and syllables

The building blocks of words are vowels and consonants.

Firstly, let me explain what vowels and consonants actually are. You may know that a, e, i, o, u, and, occasionally, y, are vowels, while the rest of the letters in the English alphabet are consonants. However, this doesn’t really give us much understanding of exactly why we consider these letters vowels and consonants.

1) Vowel sounds

A vowel sound is a sound made which – next to consonant sounds – is comparatively uninterrupted by closing of the mouth, vocal chords, teeth or tongue. Vowel sounds are also the sounds that can be sustained, as in singing. As already noted, the vowels are a, e, i, o, u and, sometimes, y. Each of these vowels has a short, long and schwa vowel sound.

Before starting I should note that there appears to be varying notation for these vowel sounds. I will mostly be following this notation from http://www.thefreedictionary.com/ for this section because it is more simple. However, a lot of others will follow this one, known as the International Phonetic Alphabet (IPA). It is worth at least being aware of the IPA because it appears to be more commonly used

Many online dictionaries have pronunciation notation available when you search for a word. Take a look at the following links to see an example of the http://www.thefreedictionary.com/ notation in use, first, then the IPA, second, for the word ‘hello’:

http://www.thefreedictionary.com/hello (gives hĕ-lō′, hə- )

http://dictionary.cambridge.org/dictionary/english/hello (gives: /helˈəʊ/)

Also note how the first example uses the single dash ‘-‘ to show the change in syllable and the second uses the apostrophe for the same reason. Further note that the bit after the comma in the first example, ‘hə-‘ is signifying a different way of starting the word.

You can also click to get audio of the word, to hear it in action. Furthermore, for an easier to read example, dictionary.com has the option of writing out the pronunciation in normal English:

http://dictionary.reference.com/browse/hello?s=t (gives: [he-loh, huh-, hel-oh] )

Here we have the short dash ‘-‘ breaking the syllables up, the part of the word that is supposed to be stressed in bold, and a few examples of different pronunciations.

Don’t worry about mastering all of this right now; I just want you to be aware of this because it is helpful for the following sections. In any case, I am only scratching the surface of the field of phonetics here, just to hopefully provide us with enough knowledge to get through the later grammar.

1.1 Short vowel sounds

As a reminder, I am mostly using this punctuation key for this section.

Short vowel sounds are when the vowel is shorter in duration, and can be denoted with the vowel letter + a curved mark above it as in ‘ă’. For example, ‘cat’ has the short ‘a’ vowel sound (ă) whereas ‘base’ has the long ‘a’ vowel sound (ā). The long sound can also be thought of as saying it’s name as it does in the alphabet. So in the short vowel ‘a’ sound ‘cat’, the ‘a’ sound isn’t the same as the alphabet, whereas the ‘a’ sound in ‘base’ is.

Examples of short vowel sounds from each vowel are:

ă: apt, anecdote, rat, tackle

ĕ: elk, elevate, get, dentist

ĭ: it, integrate, bin, spit, because

ŏ: flop, dog, stop, got, pot

ŭ: up, cut, sun, son, hug

You may have noticed that the last example in ĭ, ‘because’, doesn’t actually have the vowel letter ‘i’ within it. This same is true for ‘son’ within the ŭ sound. This demonstrates that it isn’t the vowel letter that we are talking about, but the vowel sound. Say the words out loud and compare them to the others. Can you hear the same sound?

1.2 Long vowel sounds

Long vowel sounds are when the vowel is longer in duration, and can be denoted with the vowel letter + a bar across the top, as in ā. For example the long ‘a’ vowel sound (ā) in ‘base’ is longer than the short ‘a’ vowel sound (ă) in ‘cat’. The long sound can also be thought of as saying it’s name as it does in the alphabet. So in the short vowel ‘a’ sound (ă) ‘cat’ the ‘a’ sound isn’t the same as the alphabet, whereas in ‘base’ it is.

Examples of long vowel sounds from each vowel are:

ā: age, ancient, train, reindeer

ē: east, eat, need, agony, read

ī: tight, smile, violence, eye

ō: toast, grow, pillow, virtuoso

ū: human, compute, you, few (in IPA this is denoted ‘u’, and in free dictionary key this is ‘o̅o̅’)

You may have noticed that the last example in ă, ‘reindeer’, ē, ‘agony’, ī, ‘eye’ and ū, ‘few’ don’t actually have the vowel letter within them. As with the short vowel examples, this demonstrates that it isn’t the vowel letter that we are talking about, but the vowel sound. Say the words out loud and compare them to the others. Can you hear the same sound?

Which vowel type is used can actually be very important to the meaning. For example, ‘read’ can be pronounced with a short vowel (ĕ) for the past tense, and a long vowel (ē) for the present, as in:

Past tense: I read the book yesterday.

Present tense: I will read the book now.

1.3 Scwha sounds

Another sound that vowels can make is the ‘schwa’ sound, often denoted with an upside down ‘e’, as in ‘ə.’ It is roughly pronounced with a short ‘uh’ sound. An example of this sound is the ‘uh’ at the beginning of the word ‘adept’. This is different to the short vowel, ă, as in ‘apt’ and long vowel, ā, as in ‘age’; instead, ‘adept’ is almost pronounced ‘uhdept’. Have a listen here to make sure you get it.

The schwa sound is actually the most common vowel sound in English because it can occur in relation to any vowel. For example:

adept = uhdept

synthesis = synthuhsis

harmony = harmuhny

decimal = decuhmal

medium =mediuhm

syringe = suhringe

In each of these examples, the schwa sound is being used in a weakly stressed vowel. For this reason, it is often called a ‘reduced vowel’. In English, there is one primary stress in a word, which is longer, louder and higher pitched than the rest. If we compare the schwa sound ‘adept’ with the long vowel, ā, in ‘age’ we see that the schwa sound at the beginning of ‘adept’ has a very weak stress in comparison to the much longer, louder and higher pitched stress at the beginning of ‘age’.

In fact, we can see the difference between a weak stress and a primary stress in the word ‘adept’. In the pronunciation part of some dictionaries it is written like this:


What we have here is a schwa sound, ‘uh’, at the beginning, and a short vowel sound, ĕ, in the middle. If you listen to the word you will hear that the schwa sound is very short, while the ĕ sound is longer, louder, and higher pitched.

In fact, we can even compare ‘adept’ when it is is an adjective, and when it is a noun.

As an adjective: ə-dĕpt

As a noun: ăd-ĕpt

Notice how, as a noun, the word begins with a short vowel ă sound, rather than a schwa. Listen to them both, by going, here, and clicking on the speaker sign to the right of ‘adept’. Also, notice that the primary stress in ‘adept’ – when it is a noun – is on that short vowel ă sound, not the short vowel ĕ sound.

An example when ‘adept’ is an adjective (ə-dĕpt)with the schwa sound is:

He is an adept writer.

An example when it is a noun (ăd-ĕpt) with the short vowel ă sound and the short vowel ĕ sound is:

With practice anyone can become an adept at writing.

Also see the entry at dictionary.com which gives us:

[adjective uhdept; noun ad-ept, uhdept]

The big thing to notice here is that the ‘uh’ sound is never the stressed syllable in bold.

This is a very brief discussion of the topic; one can go into much more detail with exceptions, patterns and the way it changes in different dialects.

Other vowel sounds

The long, short and schwa sounds are the most common vowel sounds. However, there are many more. I’m not going to go through all of them here, because I want to keep this more focused on the fundamentals. Take a look at the IPA chart for a comprehensive list, as well as a list of the diphthongs (defined as a combination of two vowel sounds which has only one syllable)  OK, that is all for vowel sounds; let’s move on to consonants, next. 

2) Consonant sounds

Consonant sounds are sounds which – in comparison to vowel sounds – are interrupted by closing of the mouth, vocal chords, teeth or tongue. You can take a look at the more detailed IPA English consonant sounds here. The IPA system is good because it deals with, for example, the fact that the ‘c’ and ‘k’ sounds sometimes make the same sound, as well as combination consonant sounds such as the sound the ‘th’ makes in ‘father’.  However, to keep things simple, here are some examples from a system which gives each consonant its own sound:

/b/ sound as in brick

/c/ sound as in cat

/d/ sound as in dry

/f/ sound as in five

/g/ sound as in green

/h/ sound as in hot

/j/ sound as in jump

/k/ sound as in keep

/l/ sound as in lost

/m/ sound as in massive

/n/ sound as in nice

/p/ sound as in pretty

/r/ sound as in right

/s/ sound as in seed

/t/ sound as in train

/v/ sound as in vote

/w/ sound as in water

/y/ sound as in yellow

/z/ sound as in zoo

Try saying them out loud to yourself. Do you notice some closing of the mouth, vocal chords, teeth or tongue as you pronounce each of them? Another contrast to vowels sounds is that consonants sounds cannot be sustained, as often seen in singing, whereas vowel sounds can. Try to think of some songs and take note when the sustained element of lyrics happens. You should notice that this occurs on the vowel sounds. This further adds to the evidence that there are interruptions in the airways during the pronunciation of consonants, because these interruptions are preventing the sounds from being sustained.

2.1 Is ‘y’ a consonant or a vowel sound?

But what about ‘y?’ Well, ‘y’ is a consonant sound when it is at the beginning of a word, like ‘year,’ or within some words like ‘beyond.’ However, most of the time when it is in the middle of a word, like ‘gym’ or the end of a word, like ‘buy’ it takes on a vowel sound. In regards to the beginning of a word, ‘y’ can take on the short ĭ vowel sound in words like ‘gym,’ turning it into a vowel. Furthermore, in words such as ‘buy, the ‘y’ becomes a diphthong: defined as a combination of two vowel sounds which has only one syllable. So, in our example of the word ‘buy’ we have both the vowel sound of ‘a’ and ‘I.’ This might not seem right at first, but try saying the last two letters of ‘buy’ over and over. Do you see that your mouth is combining the ‘a’ and ‘I’ sounds into a single syllable? There are two notations I see around for this. This simply gives it the short vowel ī sound, whereas this denotes it as ‘aɪ’, which alludes to it being a diphthong.

One fun way of telling if a sound is a vowel or a consonant is by blocking your nose with your fingers and then trying to sustain, or sing, the sound. You should find with vowel sounds that the sound comes out of the mouth, while with consonants it gets blocked in the nose

3) Syllables

Now that we have some idea what vowels and consonants are we can look at the very important concept of syllables. Syllables are very strongly connected to vowel sounds. In fact, you can have a syllable in a word without any consonant sounds, but it is rare to have syllables without vowel sounds. Because of this, a syllable is generally a good way of measuring how many different vowel sounds there are in a word. Consonants can be added to the word, but they will not increase the number of syllables. Let’s look at some examples, then come back to discuss it some more:

Dog (dôg) (1 syllable: the ŏ vowel sound)

Water (wô′tər) (2 syllables, the ŏ and ‘ə’ vowel sounds)

Benefit (bĕn′ə-fĭt) (3 syllables, the ĕ, ə and ĭ vowel sounds)

Identical (ī-dĕn′tĭ-kəl) (4 syllables, the ‘ī’, ĕ, ĭ and ə vowel sounds)

Intimidating (ĭn-tĭm′ĭ-dāt′-ĭng) (5 syllables, the ĭ, ĭ, ĭ, ā and ĭ vowel sounds)

While a vowel sound doesn’t need a consonant in principle, in reality, most words are going to be a mix of vowel and consonant sounds. Can you think of any words which are only vowel sounds? I can only think of ‘a’ and ‘I’.  It’s also interesting to take the vowel sounds (and therefore the syllables) out of words and see what happens to them: ‘dog’ becomes ‘dg,’ ‘water’ becomes ‘wter’, ‘benefit’ becomes ‘bnft’, ‘identical’ becomes ‘dncl’ and ‘intimidating’ becomes ‘ntmdtn’ all of which are very difficult to clearly pronounce.

As I mentioned earlier, you can use the online dictionaries to help you count how many syllables there are in a word. The good thing about looking it up is you become more familiar with the notation, and therefore have a way to formalise the sounds.

4) Questions

Here are some questions that summarise this section. A recommended exercise is to practice explaining the answers to them either to yourself, or to others. Be as detailed and as systematic with the explanations as possible.

1) What is a vowel and a vowel sound? Describe the 3 main types.

2) What is a consonant and a consonant sound?

3) What is a syllable and how do you count them?

Now let’s look at the subject and predicate.

NEXT: 4) Subject and predicate

Posted in English Grammar