What is a vowel?

Learn about the different vowel sounds and the role they play in mastering phonetics.

icon of a star with a smiley face

Aaron Boyles

February 2024

What is a vowel?

Learn about the different vowel sounds and the role they play in mastering phonetics.

icon of a star with a smiley face

Aaron Boyles

February 2024

What is a vowel?

Learn about the different vowel sounds and the role they play in mastering phonetics.

icon of a star with a smiley face

Aaron Boyles

Feb 2024

Key takeaways

  • Vowels constitute the gentler sounds – Where consonants tend to capture harder, harsher sounds, vowels are generally softer and more pleasant.
  • Vowels are responsible for language as we know it – The invention of vowels helped shape the idea that specific characters correspond with specific word sounds, developing written language as we know it today.
  • Vowels are flexible – Vowels function in all sorts of interesting ways depending on their context and application.

You may have heard of buying a vowel before in game shows like Wheel of Fortune, but can they really be that valuable? Turns out, though, that vowels are very much worth every penny of in-game currency and then some. Vowels fundamentally shifted the way people developed written language thousands of years ago with the ancient Greeks, and they continue to shape how we pronounce and understand words to this day. 

In general, vowels are letters that represent word sounds, specifically sounds that are more “open,” meaning that you make the sound without using your lips or tongue to block part of the sound.

Try it yourself! With a long “ah” sound like in “awe,” your mouth is wide open and the sound flows freely. Compare that to the short “t” sound of a word like “tick.” Notice how your tongue sticks to the back of your top teeth to block out the air flow? That’s what separates vowels from consonants.

The vowels in English are a, e, i, o, u, and sometimes y. All other letters are consonants and are pronounced fundamentally differently with only a handful of exceptions. This small batch of letters can dramatically alter how we pronounce words, so it is worth understanding a few basic concepts about them in order to better understand how the English language works. 

Before we dive in, it’s worth noting that while certain letters can often indicate the presence of vowel sounds, pronunciation can be tricky. In certain circumstances, consonants can make vowel sounds, and vowels can be part of consonant sounds. Learning more of the mechanics of vowels can help you better understand what exactly makes a vowel sound and how to recognise them.

Different types of vowels


This intimidating word simply refers to a vowel sound that requires only one position of the mouth parts like the lips, tongue, and jaw. “Mono” means one like in monocle, so just remember that if a vowel is a monophthong, you won’t change your mouth shape when saying it. 

Some examples of monophthongs are the “i” sound in “rich” or the “oo” sound in “boot.” Note how you don’t have to move anything in your mouth to pronounce these specific vowel sounds.


Following the pattern with monophthongs, diphthongs are vowel sounds that require two mouth positions to create. Usually, you’ll see two vowels next to each other to indicate this kind of vowel sound. 

For example, try saying the word “bear” out loud. Notice that the “e” requires something like a smile to pronounce, then drops when you get to the “a” right next to it. These are both part of the same syllable or word part, but they require the mouth to move to fully pronounce.


Tri, meaning three, of course refers to vowel sounds that require three quick movements to pronounce. These sounds really stretch what can fit into one syllable, but they are more common than you would imagine. 

For instance, look at the word “fire” and say it aloud. On the backend of the word, we start with the distinct “i” sound followed quickly by a sort of “er” and a very brief “uh” right at the end.

Characteristics of vowels

Vowels vary dramatically in pronunciation depending on the context, and these wide-ranging sounds comprise openness, backness, and roundedness. 

  • Openness. Openness applies to all vowels because you pronounce these sounds without any obstruction by the lips, tongue, or throat.  
  • Backness. Backness refers to how the tongue sits at the back of the throat while pronouncing the vowel sound. Vowels with more backness originate more in the throat. For instance, the “oh” sound in “boat” has more backness to it than the “i” in find, which comes more from the front of the tongue. 
  • Roundedness. Roundness highlights how rounded your lips become when they pronounce the vowel sound. The “oo” of “boot,” for instance, has a great degree of roundness to it.

The role of vowels in phonetics

Before vowels, consonants insinuated word sounds, but readers had to rely heavily on context to determine exactly what the word was supposed to be. Vowels clarify how the consonant sounds connect and helped shape written language as we know it today where certain characters reliably correspond with specific sounds. 

Vowel sounds are also generally more pleasant to the ear, so they tend to be more present in words with more positive connotations. “Beauty,” “gleam,” and “shine” all prominently feature vowel sounds that grant a phonetic lightness to the words that complement the positive connotations of those words.

Vowel sounds and letter correspondences

Vowel sounds can vary in length depending on the context. Short vowel sounds generally take less time to pronounce and work to complement other sounds in the syllable. The “eh” sound in “bed” is short and bows to the “b” and “d” sounds. Long vowel sounds make the sound of the name of the letter. The “e” in “feet” sounds exactly like the name of the letter “e,” which is an easy way to determine if the vowel sound is long.

The positioning and number of vowels affects whether the vowel is short, long, or silent. Below, you’ll find a rundown of the most common configurations of letters and how they affect vowel pronunciation. 

Short vowel sounds:

  • There’s only one vowel in the word, and the word ends with a consonant
    • Examples: bed, fed, hot, dish
  •  If a word has two vowels, but they are separated by two or more letters 
    • Examples: apple, elephant, octagon 


Long vowel sounds:

  • If the word ends in a silent “e”, the vowel earlier in the word is long
    • Examples: drape, frame, game
  • If you have two vowels back-to-back, the first one takes the lead with a long sound and the second is silent.
    • Examples: train, meet, moat

Is Y a vowel?

In most instances, “y” functions as a consonant; however, the letter can also produce vowel sounds in the right context. A general rule of thumb is that if a “y” is not at the start of the word or the start of a syllable, it functions as a vowel. For example, “yard” begins with a harsh consonant sound, but the “y” in “cycle” is a vowel sound. Usually, the vowel sounds that “y” can make are variations of what you would see from “e” and “i” because “y” often replaces these letters to make the words comply better with English spelling conventions. For instance, English words seldom end in “i”, so we use “y” instead in words like “city” or “mighty.”

Challenges with vowels

Vowels are already a little tricky to remember, but when you begin to factor in things like regional dialects, non-native speakers can have a particularly difficult time. Given how language naturally evolves over time, differences in geography, culture, and even climate can influence how people pronounce vowels. In the United Kingdom, the Received Pronunciation is taught as the formal pronunciation with clearly enunciated and often rounded vowels. Compare that to the vowels of northern English, where the vowels move more to the back of the throat when spoken. Even further north, in Scotland, the Gaelic influences not only alter the pronunciation on vowels, but can also swap them out entirely. These regional differences vary greatly and usually require acclimation for those unfamiliar with the dialects. 

Learning vowel sounds in English can be difficult even with dialectical variety. With consonants, there are very few options for pronunciation. Once you learn the letter and a few letter combinations, you can usually reliably pronounce the sound. Vowels vary so dramatically that remembering all the different sounds can be a real challenge if you have not grown up hearing the variations. This is why non-native speakers tend to struggle with vowel sounds more often.

In short, vowel sounds are a varied and complex part of the English language. Most native speakers take for granted just how flexible these sounds can be, but without this flexibility, our 26-letter alphabet would be much less versatile and expressive.

Explore vowels with DoodleEnglish

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Designed by teachers, it creates each child a unique work programme tailored to their needs, boosting their confidence and skills in English. Try it for free today!

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FAQs about vowels

Assonance is when words share vowel sounds on the accented syllable, which means the part of the word that gets the most emphasis when pronounced. Assonance is often used as part of rhyme to create harmony in the word sounds of a piece.

While some words may not have the letters we associate with vowels, virtually every word in the English language has a vowel sound. In these cases, usually the “sometimes y” comes into play to provide the necessary vowel sound. Some onomatopoeia words like “shh” or “umm” technically do not have vowel sounds, but they are seldom considered real words.

A vowel is a word sound that is open, meaning that the lips, tongue, or throat does not block any part of the sound. These sounds often contextualize consonant sounds to complete the unique pronunciation of a word.

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