Many symbols have been used for English vowels. The most familiar system for British English (BrE) was designed by A. C. Gimson over half a century ago as an ‘explicit’, ‘realistic’ description of upper class pronunciation at that time: Received Pronunciation or RP. Since then, both society and speech have changed, especially vowel sounds, although the number of vowel contrasts is about the same. So Gimson’s symbols are now less realistic: pronouncing them with their true IPA values sounds old-fashioned, even amusing, to native speakers. The Gimsonian symbols are also phonologically misleading, suggesting an odd subgrouping of the long vowels and diphthongs.
In the following chart I use IPA symbols to represent contemporary vowels in way that attempts to be phonetically and phonologically more realistic. Also shown, in slanting brackets, are the more traditional Gimsonian symbols where these differ.
The vowels fall into phonological groups, according to what may follow them within a word:
- short (checked) vowels: always require a following consonant (except for unstressed schwa ə, which may end a word)
- long (free) vowels: do not require a following consonant, and may end a word
- diphthongs (middle two columns): may occur before consonants or vowels, eg lie, like, lion
- r-vowels (right column): do not occur before a vowel in the same word; before a vowel in the next word, linking r is used, eg far, farm, safari, far‿out
The NEAR vowel is highly variable, and the PURE vowel is increasingly replaced with the NORTH vowel. Altogether there are 18 to 20 vowels, depending on whether we retain a distinct PURE vowel, and also on whether or not we treat commA and STRUT as distinct or as stressed-determined variants. I discuss the whole vowel system at length, with audio illustrations, in this article. I’ve also written the following individual blog posts on the vowels of commA and STRUT, LOT and NORTH, FOOT, FLEECE, NEAR, SQUARE and PURE.