PRONUNCIATION – THE DIPHTHONGS

Audio blog post by Dr. Isaacs. Click to listen and read along! (Part 1)

We’re at the end! We’ve covered long and short vowels, vowels that aren’t quite either long or short, and that dreaded schwa and its partners in crime. So what do we have left? Two sounds, both with one thing in common. Let’s get to it.

Diphthongs

Let’s learn a bit about these last two sounds, and extend this lesson some. These last two sounds are diphthongs. In other words, these are the equivalent of two simple vowel sounds we place together to make a more complex sound that we usually consider just one. As it turns out, diphthongs are everywhere in English. For example, the sound \ā\ (the long a) is a diphthong. It is made by linking the short e sound with the long e. Try it. Say these two sounds quickly together. You’ll come up with a sound like \ā\.

The following is a table that breaks down the long vowel diphthongs into their individual vowel sounds. For the purposes of completeness, I’ve included the long u sound (\ū\) that phonics uses. (Keep in mind this reflects standard American English pronunciation, not British English.)

Listen to this audio to hear how most long vowels are actually diphthongs.

Long vowel

\ā\

\ē\

\ī\

\ō\

\ū\

First vowel sound

\e\

\ē\

\ä\

\ȯ\

\ē\

Second vowel sound

\ē\

N\A

\ē\

\ü\

\ü\

Audio blog post by Dr. Isaacs. Click to listen and read along! (Part 2)

As you can see, most long vowels are actually diphthongs. (And remember – long vowels are merely how you say the letter that represents the vowel itself.) The only exception is the long e sound (\ē\). And if you look at the letter y, in saying it, you may discover that it is actually a triphthong! Think of it! The letter is composed of three vowel sounds: \ū\, \ä\, and \ē\. But because we say the letter so quickly, we don’t think of it as a complex sound.

Those final two vowel sounds

The final two vowel sounds we will go over are also diphthongs. Instead of appearing as a long vowel sound, they are actually written out so it’s easier to consider them diphthongs. The first one is \au̇\ (which makes the sound “ow”). Examples of this sound appear in words like cow, about, and ground. The second one is \ȯi\ (which makes the sound “oy”). Examples of this sound appear in words like coy, moist, and destroy.

So why dwell for so long on diphthongs? As it turns out, diphthongs are quite common in English. Newcomers to English who speak languages with few diphthongs sometimes find them hard to pronounce; however, I once heard about an Italian singer who felt that English was the most beautiful language he had ever heard precisely because of its diphthongs. (Italian has significantly fewer than English.) It’s good to train your ear to recognize diphthongs, and if nothing else, dropping this knowledge amongst fellow spellers will definitely raise your “word nerd” quotient!

The end of vowels!

For the majority of spellers, this can conclude our lesson on vowel sounds! Expert spellers – especially those who are delving into French and German – should pay attention to a future blog post on sounds that appear often in those languages. But for 99.99% of the words that appear in the English language, we are finished! Stay tuned, though…we will soon zoom through a single lesson on consonant sounds!


Photo credit: Morning Cows by Dumbo711.