American English Phonetics

Another American English Faculty Project

There are several ways in which the GA V-system can be subdivided.

Lax and Tense Vowels

First, a distinction that Dutch learners find easy to grasp is that between lax and tense vowels. This is because Dutch, too, has a distinction of this nature: Dutch zit, Fred, kap contain lax vowels, for instance, while Piet, scheer, paal contain tense vowels. Often, tense vowels are long and lax vowels short, but this is not a necessary connection in either English or Dutch. For example, the tense Dutch vowels in Piet, Ruud, Loek are short, and the lax GA vowel in bag is long. Another characteristic of lax vowels is that they cannot occur without a following consonant: Note that there can be no word */pɛ/, but that /piː/ is fine (and is the word for the letter P, for instance).

Diphtongs and Monophtongs

Another difference is that tense vowels may be (but need not be) diphthongs, while lax vowels are always monophthongs (cf. Greek mono ‘single’ and the verb stem phthong- ‘sound’) and di- ‘two’). This distinction also exists in Dutch: the tense vowels in wie, ga are monophthongs, while those in ei, bui, kou (or kauw) are diphthongs. A diphthong is a combination of two vowels in the same syllable. In fact, even tense vowels that are here classed as monophthongs, like the vowels in Dutch zee, reu and zo, as well as GA /iː, uː, eɪ, oʊ/ are somewhat diphthongized, and in the case of GA /eɪ, oʊ/ this diphthongal character is expressed in the phonetic symbols. The only ‘pure’ tense monophthong of GA, therefore, is /ɑː/.

Weak and Strong Vowels

Secondly, there is a distinction which is somewhat more difficult to grasp, and that is the distinction between weak vowels and strong vowels (the latter are known as full vowels.) A word like Dutch eega (‘spouse’) has the word stress on the first syllable, but the second syllable nevertheless contains a strong vowel. Compare this word with zege (‘victory’), in which the second syllable contains a weak vowel.

First, we give the strong V-system of GA.


/ɪ/ tin – /tɪn/
/ʊ/ foot – /fʊt/
/ɛ/ shell – /ʃɛl/
/æ/ cat – /kæt/
/ʌ/ run – rʌn/


/iː/ bean – /biːn/
/uː/ spoon – /spuːn/
/eɪ/ pain – /peɪn/
/oʊ/ home – /hoʊm/
/ɑː/ bomb – /bɑːm/
/aɪ/ fine – /faɪn/
/aʊ/ crown – /kraʊn/
/ɔɪ/ boy – /bɔɪ/


A separate list is given of the strong vowels that can occur before /r/ in the same syllable. They are as follows:

/ɪr/ beer – /bɪr/
/ʊr/ tour – /tʊr/
/ɛr/ air – /ɛr/
/ɔr/ or – /ɔr/
/ɑr/ car – /kɑr/
/ɜr/ bird – /bɜrd/

Notice that we do not use a length-mark before /r/ in such cases. This is because the /r/ is really pronounced as part of the vowel. Such vowels are said to be r-colored.

The weak vowels only occur in unstressed (‘weak’) syllables. The difference between ‘strong’ and ‘weak’ syllables is very important for the realization of particular consonants.

/ə/ about – /əˈbaʊt/
/ɪ/ extend – /ɪkˈstɛnd/
/i/ happy – /ˈhæpi/
/u/ insinuate – /ɪnˈsɪnjueɪt/
/oʊ/ window – /ˈwɪndoʊ/

1. /ɪ/ varies with /ə/. On the whole, speakers tend to use /ɪ/ before /k,g,ŋ/
2. /i/ occurs before vowels and at the end of the word
3. /u/ occurs before vowels and in initial syllables
4. ‘weak’ /oʊ/ is the same vowel as the strong /oʊ/, but ut occurs in an unstressed syllables, so you might also say “GA /oʊ/ is weak when unstressed”

GA comprises two varieties. Speakers from California, Canada, and increasingly other parts of the United States, pronounce GA /ɒː/ and GA /ɑː/ alike. So words like caller, caught, hawk, dawn, which are /ˈkɒːlər/, /kɒːt/, hɒːk/, /dɒːn/ in Chicago or New York, are /ˈkɑːlər/, /kɑːt/, hɑːk/, /dɑːn/ in San Francisco or Toronto. In this course, we will not use /ɒː/, but give /ɑː/ only. If you would like to know where the vowel /ɒː/ is used by New Yorkers, you are advised to study the optional section 6.3.7. Notice that before /r/, the distinction is always maintained: barn is different from born in all varieties of American English.