Vowel Chart 2017-04-03T09:20:18+00:00

British English Vowel Chart

This chart represents all of the vowel sounds in a contemporary Standard Southern British English Accent. The chart may look different from others you have seen in the past.
If you have any questions/confusions, I suggest you look at the FAQs below the chart.

Each vowel is represented by an International Phonetic Alphabet (IPA) symbol. Underneath the symbol is a lexical set keyword written in capital letters.

You can:

  • Change the Symbols by clicking on the dictionary you use.
  • Listen to the Vowels by clicking on the vowel symbols.
  • Listen to Words with a particular vowel sound by clicking on the arrow.

The recordings are by a male native speaker born in 1987.

If you are using a mobile phone, then turn the phone on its side to view the whole chart more easily.





If you have any comments, then tweet me @ImproveAccent
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If you find it challenging to pronounce some of these vowels, then I recommend taking my online course
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Frequently Asked Questions

The symbols used are from the Oxford Dictionary, unless otherwise stated.

I made this vowel chart to represent the contemporary Standard Southern British English accent. Most charts reflect an old-fashioned variety of English pronunciation. It’s useful to learn how people speak in the 21st century – because these are the people you will hear and speak to.
The arrows showing front/back and high/low indicate approximately where the vowels are made inside the mouth. Do I mean where they are made physically or something else? Well, I’m planning to write a blog post about this confusion in the next few months.

In terms of a few specific vowel positions on the chart:

Certainly the GOOSE vowel should be central in the chart. The GHOUL vowel in “Other Symbols/Sounds” is placed further back.

I feel that the FACE, DRESS, and SQUARE vowels start in the same place rather than FACE starting higher and SQUARE starting lower. It’s certainly not a perfect arrangement and I haven’t found a satisfactory solution yet.

Dictionaries are edited by different people who have different ideas about how to best represent the sound system of English. This is why different symbols are used.

Moreover, most dictionaries are quite conservative and represent a more old-fashioned pronunciation. This means that the FLEECE and GOOSE vowels are shown as monophthongs and the vowels in GOAT-GOAL and GOOSE-GHOUL are not distinguished.

All of the dictionaries I’ve listed in the chart have their advantages:

Oxford Dictionary

IPA symbols are more contemporary (SQUARE as /ԑː/, different starting point between PRICE /ʌɪ/ and MOUTH /aʊ/) and the relationship between NURSE /əː/ and LETTER /ə/ is simpler to understand. But GOAT and GOAL are transcribed the same.

Audio recordings of words.

Free online.

Cambridge Dictionary

IPA symbols are less contemporary (SQUARE as /eə/, same starting point for PRICE and MOUTH, GOAT/GOAL transcribed the same). NURSE transcribed as /ɜː/.

Audio recordings and transcriptions of words both for UK and USA side-by-side.

I have noticed quite a few transcription/audio errors in this dictionary. Despite tweeting them about this, nothing has been changed.

Free online.

Longman Pronunciation Dictionary

IPA symbols are sometimes contemporary (GOAT-GOAL difference) and sometimes not (SQUARE as /eə/, same starting point for PRICE and MOUTH). NURSE transcribed as /ɜː/.

UK and USA pronunciation and audio side-by-side. Very detailed in terms of alternative pronunciations.

You have to buy the paper dictionary but it comes with a virtual dictionary you can load onto your computer with audio. (It does not work on a Mac and no app is currently available.) The virtual dictionary also has exercises to help practise English pronunciation.

CUBE

IPA symbols are accurate for the contemporary Standard Southern British English accent (for example: SQUARE as /ԑː/, different starting point between PRICE /ɑj/ and MOUTH /aw/), NURSE as /əː/, FLEECE and GOOSE as diphthongs /ɪj/ and /ʉw/).  However, there is not yet a distinction between GOAT/GOAL and GOOSE/GHOUL. The transcription system was devised by Geoff Lindsey and a detailed explanation can be found on his blog here.

Unfortunately, there is no audio yet and the interface takes a little getting used to. However, I would love this transcription model to be taken up by the other dictionaries so that the accurate transcriptions could be used with their audio recordings.

Free online.

To sum up: I would choose the Oxford Dictionary as your first point of reference because of better symbols and audio.

Ideally, I’d prefer CUBE’s transcriptions on the Oxford website.

If you’re interested in a further discussion of the Oxford symbols, see the question below: “Further Discussion of Oxford Symbols”

A lexical set is a group of words that have a feature in common.

For example, the words fleece, beat, seat, and sheep all contain the same vowel /iː/, so they belong to the same lexical set. We can give this lexical set a name (or a keyword) to make it easier to refer to in conversation. This particular lexical set is called FLEECE.

Another lexical set is called KIT. All of the words in the KIT set have the /ɪ/ vowel (examples include kit, bit, sit, and ship).

Many non-native speakers have problems with distinguishing between FLEECE and KIT words.

The names of these lexical sets were devised by the linguist John Wells. If you’re familiar with the sets, you’re probably wondering why I chose START and NORTH rather than PALM and THOUGHT. The reason is to highlight the fact that the Standard Southern British English accent is non-rhotic: we don’t pronounce the letter <r> when there is no vowel sound afterwards. So the vowel in START is the same as PALM, and the vowel in NORTH is the same as THOUGHT.

All the words on the chart have been carefully selected so that they form minimal pairs.

beat and bit are an example of a minimal pair. The words sound the same apart from one sound – the vowel in the middle. Notice the IPA transcriptions: /biːt/ – /bɪt/. By listening to minimal pairs, you can hear the difference between vowels more easily.

Many of the words also show the effects of pre-fortis clipping. If you click the FLEECE words, you will see beat and bead. The first word has a shorter vowel because it is before the unvoiced (or fortis) consonant /t/, the second has a longer vowel because it is before the voiced (or lenis) consonant /d/. Essentially the vowel is clipped (=made shorter) before a fortis consonant. You might transcribe these words narrowly (=more detailed) as [biˑt] and [biːd] (where ˑ indicates a shorter vowel and ː indicates a longer vowel).

The effects of pre-fortis clipping are most perceptible in the long vowels and diphthongs. Have a listen to the 2nd (shorter vowel) and 3rd (longer vowel) words listed in the following vowels on the chart: FLEECE, GOOSE, CHOICE, GOAT, NORTH, FACE, START, MOUTH, and PRICE. Although traditionally described as a short vowel, the TRAP vowel /a/ quite clearly has a big difference in vowel length before unvoiced/voiced consonants – listen to bat/bad. The short vowels do have a slight difference in length, but not as much as the other vowels.

You can find some interesting vowel contrasts below (find the words on the chart and listen). If you find it challenging to make a difference between some of these vowels, you will benefit from signing up to my online course.

FLEECE /iː/ – KIT /ɪ/: beat /biːt/ – bit /bɪt/, bead /biːd/ – bid /bɪd/

DRESS /ԑ/ – TRAP /a/: bet /bԑt/ – bat /bat/, bed /bԑd/ – bad /bad/

DRESS /ԑ/ – FACE /eɪ/: bet /bԑt/ – bait /beɪt/, bed /bԑd/ – bade /beɪd/

DRESS /ԑ/ – KIT /ɪ/: bet /bԑt/ – bit /bɪt/, bed /bԑd/ – bid /bɪd/

GOOSE /uː/ – FOOT /ʊ/: cooed /ku:d/ – could /kʊd/

GOOSE /uː/ – GHOUL /uː/: coot /kuːt/ – cool /kuːl/*

GOOSE /uː/ – CUTE /juː/: coot /kuːt/ – cute /kjuːt/, cooed /kuːd/ – queued /kjuːd/

GOOSE /uː/ – GOAT /əʊ/: coot /kuːt/ – coat /kəʊt/

NURSE /əː/ – SQUARE /ԑː/: curd /kəːd/ – cared /kԑːd/, bird /bəːd/ – bared /bԑːd/

NURSE /əː/ – DRESS /ԑ/: bird /bəːd/ – bed /bԑd/

NURSE /əː/ – START /ɑː/: bird /bəːd/ – barred /bɑːd/

NURSE /əː/ – STRUT /ʌ/: curd /kəːd/ – cud /kʌd/

NURSE /əː/ – NORTH /ɔː/: curd /kəːd/ – cord /kɔːd/

NORTH /ɔː/ – GOAT /əʊ/: caught /kɔːt/ – coat /kəʊt/, cord /kɔːd/ – code /kəʊd/

NORTH /ɔː/ – LOT /ɒ/: caught /kɔːt/ – cot /kɒt/, cord /kɔːd/ – cod /kɒd/

GOAT /əʊ/ – LOT /ɒ/: coat /kəʊt/ – cot /kɒt/, code /kəʊd/ – cod /kɒd/

GOAT /əʊ/ – GOAL /əʊ/: goat /gəʊt/ – goal /gəʊl/*, coat /kəʊt/ – coal /kəʊl/*, code /kəʊd/ – cold /kəʊld/*

TRAP /a/ – START /ɑː/: bat /bat/ – Bart /bɑːt/, bad /bad/ – barred /bɑːd/

STRUT /ʌ/ – LOT /ɒ/: cut /kʌt/ – cot /kɒt/, cud /kʌd/ – cod /kɒd/

STRUT /ʌ/ – FOOT /ʊ/: cud /kʌd/ – could /kʊd/

SQUARE /ԑː/ – NEAR /ɪə/: bared /bԑːd/ – beard /bɪəd/

PRICE /aɪ/ – FACE /eɪ/: bite /baɪt/ – bait /beɪt/, bide /baɪd/ – bade /beɪd/

PRICE /aɪ/ – TRAP /a/: bite /baɪt/ – bat /bat/, bide /baɪd/ – bad /bad/

PRICE /aɪ/ – START /ɑː/: bite /baɪt/ – Bart /bɑːt/, bide /baɪd/ – barred /bɑːd/

MOUTH /aʊ/ – START /ɑː/: bout /baʊt/ – Bart /bɑːt/, bowed /baʊd/ – barred /bɑːd/

MOUTH /aʊ/ – TRAP /a/: bout /baʊt/ – bat /bat/, bowed /baʊd/ – bad /bad/

 

*These are near-minimal pairs. So there is more than one sound that is different, but it should be easy to hear the vowel contrast.

I purposefully haven’t used the word phonemic. The chart shows phonemes and (I think) important allophones. You could call this a phonetic or allophonic chart if you want. I’m calling it a Vowel Chart.

The vowels in GOAT and GOAL are usually transcribed the same, but there is clearly a difference in vowel quality for most native speakers. Even though the difference is not phonemic, I imagine that most non-natives will want to know that the vowel is pronounced differently – especially if that is what they will hear from native speakers.

If you are interested in the GOAT-GOAL difference, I suggest reading the question further down this page.

 
Many of the following answers require the reader to have a basic/good understanding of phonetics and phonology.

Detailed Discussion of Specific Vowels:

Both vowels are usually diphthongal (i.e. the vowel quality changes during the vowel). Listen to the audio on the chart or to any native speaker and you’ll start to notice this. Most dictionaries represent them with one symbol which suggests both are monophthongs (i.e. the vowel quality does not change during the vowel).

The linguist Alan Cruttenden says1 the following about the FLEECE vowel /iː/: a slight glide from a position near to [ɪ] is common among GB speakers, being more usual than a pure vowel.

He describes2 two types of GOOSE vowel /uː/ in SSBE3: (i) a more centralised monophthongal vowel [üː] or, with unrounding, [ɯ̈ː]; and (ii) a short diphthong [ʊu] or, with unrounding, [ɨ̞ɯ̈] (these being particularly common in final position, e.g. do, shoe, who). He also notes that /uː/ was transcribed as a diphthong (/uw/) as long ago as 1900.

He then states that centralisation of /uː/ is greatest following /j/ (CUTE vowel), and that a more monophthongal fully-back [uː] is more common before /l/ (GHOUL vowel).

1 Gimson’s Pronunciation of English (2014, 8th edition), page 111
2 page 133
3 He prefers the term General British (GB) to Standard Southern British English (SSBE).

Nowadays, the SQUARE vowel is the monophthong /ԑː/ (which means that there is no perceptible change in vowel quality). A more old-fashioned pronunciation is with the diphthong /eə/. Listen to the difference in the recording below (first the contemporary monophthong /ԑː/, and second the old-fashioned diphthong /eə/).

In the contemporary British English accent, the NEAR vowel is commonly pronounced in two different ways. It’s important to recognise both variants because you will hear both.

1. /ɪə/ (often [iə]). This pronunciation is shown in the blue diphthong box on the chart above. It is used by the Oxford, Cambridge and Longman dictionaries.

2. /ɪː/. This pronunciation is shown in the NEAR 2 orange long vowel box under Other Symbols/Sounds on the chart. It is used by the CUBE dictionary.

Listen and compare the sounds and words from the two NEAR boxes on the chart. If you are a non-native speaker, I suggest you choose the vowel that’s easiest for you to pronounce – or switch between the two like native speakers do. 

Yes – but the NURSE /əː/ vowel is longer – which is shown by the ː symbol. Some dictionaries make it unnecessarily confusing by using the symbol /ɜː/ for the NURSE vowel.
Yes! I suggest that we follow CUBE’s transcriptions here because they are more accurate.

PRICE /ɑj/ starts further backward near the START vowel.

MOUTH /aw/ starts further forward near the TRAP vowel.

I believe that a more old-fashioned pronunciation of these vowels is with the starting positions swapped: PRICE as /aj/ and MOUTH as /ɑw/.

There is no difference in vowel quality between the two vowels. However, the HAPPY vowel appears in unstressed syllables at the ends of words.

The reason why I have included the HAPPY vowel /i/ on the chart is because dictionaries often use a different symbol compared to the FLEECE vowel /iː/. FLEECE has the length mark ː to show that it is longer.

Sometimes speakers make the HAPPY vowel shorter – but sometimes it’s exactly the same length as the FLEECE vowel. So often there is no difference in vowel quality or quantity.

An old-fashioned pronunciation of the HAPPY vowel was /ɪ/ – like the KIT vowel. This is no longer used in the Standard Southern British English accent, however you will hear it pronounced this way in some Northern British English accents. Listen below to the word happy being pronounced in the Standard Southern British English accent as /hapi/ and then as /hapɪ/:

Usually short. But when it is in a single syllable and followed by a voiced consonant (bad, bag, cab), or when it is before a nasal consonant in a stressed syllable (man, jam, Japan) it can be quite long. Listen to the pronunciation of bad on the chart.
The conservative pronunciation of the CURE lexical set was with /ʊə/.

This /ʊə/ vowel is disappearing and the words in the CURE lexical set are being pronounced with other vowels instead.

Here are some options:

1) /ʊə/ pronounced as /uːə/ like GOOSE /uː/ followed by schwa /ə/.

2) /ʊə/ pronounced as /ɔː/ like the vowel in NORTH. This means that the following words are homophones (=sound the same): sure=shore, boor=bore, poor=pore/pour.

3) /ʊə/ pronounced as a long FOOT vowel [ʊː].

If you click on the CURE vowel words on the chart you will hear each word pronounced in the three different ways.

When the GOOSE vowel appears before syllable-final (Dark) /l/, then it sounds more monophthongal (i.e. the vowel quality does not change) and further back. Listen to the difference between coot and cool on the chart.

I know that dictionaries don’t transcribe GOOSE and GHOUL words differently. But if you listen to the Oxford Dictionary audio pronunciations of coo /ku:/ and cool /ku:l/ you can clearly hear that the vowels are different. Here are the recordings (coo then cool) below:

 
Some speakers pronounce the GHOUL vowel exactly the same as the NORTH vowel. This means that cool will sound like call /kɔːl/, and tool will sound like tall /tɔːl/.
The CUTE vowel simply has a /j/ or an /i/ sound before the /uː/. Listen to the differences between these words on the chart: coot /kuːt/ – cute /kjuːt/, cooed /kuːd/ – queued /kjuːd/

I’ve included this on the chart because many non-native speakers perceive the CUTE vowel as being a separate vowel sound to the GOOSE vowel. However, many linguists would consider the CUTE vowel to be the same as GOOSE but with a /j/ consonant before it, rather than a vowel in its own right.

This vowel is optional to pronounce.

Listen to the word pronunciations on the chart. In the first recording I am pronouncing the /ə/ vowel, in the second I am not.

The two pronunciations of hidden might be transcribed as: [hɪdən] and [hɪdn̩] where [n̩] shows that the consonant is syllabic.

When the GOAT vowel is followed by a syllable-final (Dark) /l/ then it changes its quality from /əʊ/ to [ɒʊ].

I know that most dictionaries don’t transcribe GOAT and GOAL words differently. But if you listen to the Oxford Dictionary audio pronunciation of go and goal you can clearly hear that the vowels are different. Here are the recordings (go then goal) below. The audio is played once at normal speed and then slowed down:

 
Listen to the following words from the GOAT and GOAL boxes on the chart to compare: goat – goal, coat – coal, code – cold.

Keeping the vowel quality as [əʊ] in words like GOAL sounds quite old-fashioned and posh, so I wouldn’t recommend it. Listen to a younger and more contemporary English speaker from the Oxford Dictionary pronounce the word swollen with [ɒʊ], and then an older and more conservative speaker from the Cambridge Dictionary pronounce it with [əʊ]. The audio is played once at normal speed and then slowed down:

 
I said that the process of /əʊ/ being pronounced as [ɒʊ] occurs before syllable-final /l/. But how do we know if the /l/ is syllable-final or not in words which have a vowel after the /l/?

In the word goalie does the /l/ belong to the first or second syllable: goal.ie or goa.lie? The full-stop indicates the break between syllables. At the moment, native speakers aren’t sure either – so you may hear both [gəʊli] and [gɒʊli].

A minimal pair for many speakers is wholly [hɒʊl.i] and holy with [həʊ.li]. In contrast, holly would be pronounced /hɒli/.

 
Discussion of Symbol Choices

This vowel was previously closer to the cardinal [ʌ] quality, but it became fronted in the first part of the twentieth century. Nowadays it’s more like [ɐ] (and I regularly hear closer realisations towards [ə]).

Arguments for keeping /ʌ/: this is the symbol already used in all textbooks/dictionaries, and it is easy to write.

Arguments for changing to /ɐ/: this is a more accurate representation of the sound for those (=not many) who are familiar with the IPA vowel symbols.

Further discussion of Oxford Symbols (devised by Clive Upton) in response to the blog post by John Wells here.

I recommend you read the end of his blog post before reading my comments.

1) DRESS as /ԑ/. The symbol looks similar to capital ‘e’ (E) so it is a simple character to write and understand. It’s clear that it sounds closer to cardinal [ԑ] than [e] for those who understand IPA symbols. For those who have both [ԑ] and [e] vowel qualities in their native language, the choice of symbol is better for teaching.

2) TRAP as /a/. The symbol is more accurate than /æ/ – and simpler to write and understand.

3) NURSE as /əː/. This choice clarifies the relationship between /ə/ and /əː/ more clearly. We use /ɪ/ in unstressed and stressed syllables, so why not /ə/? We already stress /ə/ in GOAT /əʊ/, as well as the possibility of stressing /ə/ in a few casual speech forms because /bɪˈkəz/, going to /ˈgənə/, yup /jəp/.

Other “short-long” pairs have a clear qualitative difference – that’s why we should continue using different symbols: /uː/-/ʊ/, /iː/-/ɪ/.

(In the case of FLEECE-KIT, I’d argue the difference is more qualitative than quantitative – in one study the /ɪ/ vowel in lid was shown to be 2.4 centiseconds longer than the /iː/ vowel in meat.)

4) SQUARE as /ԑː/. The diphthong pronunciation is associated with an older and/or posh demographic (in my opinion). The majority of English learners are young/middle-aged and they do not want to appear posh (for fear of sounding pretentious). So the vowel should be represented as a monophthong – as it is surely pronounced by the majority of non-rhotic native English speakers.

If some students find it easier to produce a diphthong, then that isn’t a huge problem – but why not encourage the majority pronunciation?

5) PRICE as /ʌɪ/. I agree that the starting point /ʌ/ is unhelpful. It is probably meant to signify cardinal [ʌ], but then this is confusing for the quality of STRUT /ʌ/ (see question about STRUT symbol above). What is useful about the /ʌɪ/ symbol is that it shows a different starting point compared MOUTH /aʊ/. Perhaps a better transcription would be CUBE’s /ɑj/. See question further up this page: “the PRICE and MOUTH vowels start in different places?”

I don’t hear people making the same starting point – and neither will non-natives.

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