The long and short vowels of English

If you can hear the difference between the words ship and sheep, then you already know something about long and short vowels of English.

The same idea applies to pairs such as look and Luke. These pairs are differentiated by their vowels only, which are often thought of as “long” and “short” variants of one vowel.

The vowels are very closely related and might even sound identical to some learners, but to English speakers, they are completely different; in fact, most English speakers probably aren’t aware of the connection.

If you are a student who finds these sounds challenging, it will help to know more about them.  The same goes for ESL instructors whose students find them difficult.

Why “long” and “short”?

The long and short vowels of EnglishThe terms long and short were most likely borrowed from Latin and Greek grammars.  You see, at one time, all Latin vowels came in pairs.  These pairs were different not in sound, but in duration; that is, the long a was actually held longer than its short counterpart.

The same occurs in Czech, wherein long vowels are 1.8 times longer than their short partners.  Finnish, Ancient Greek, Proto-Slavic and–that’s right–Old English also display this feature.

Now, the vowels in sheep and ship and the other vowels of English that are called either “long” or “short” are different in quality (the sound), not quantity (duration).  However, these “long” and “short” vowels were probably different in duration at some point in the past (the Old English period), and came to be distinguished by sound later on.

It is for these reasons that we think of them as “long” and “short”; the terms were conveniently borrowed from Latin and Greek grammars, but they also reflect a past stage of English.

How did quantity change to quality?

English pronunciationIn the previous paragraph, you probably wondered how vowels distinguished by duration came to be distinguished by quality.  The answer is actually quite simple: In the pair sheep-ship, there is still a slight difference in duration.

Since the vowel in ship does not require the tongue to travel as far, it doesn’t take as long to articulate that sound.  On the other hand, the vowel in sheep is articulated with the tongue thrust as high and forward as possible, so it takes slightly longer to articulate.  When distinguished only by duration, these vowels might have been identical in sound.

However, over time, the short partner got more lax and ended up like the vowel in ship.  Once they were different enough, there was no longer a need to use duration as a distinguishing feature.

Implications for students

The following short/long partners tend to cause students the most difficulty.  The exact status of the third and fourth of these pairs might not be entirely clear or agreed upon.

  • The sheep/ship contrast involves the tongue being high and forward.  The vowel in ship is just slightly more lax (the tongue is slightly lower and farther back).
  • The look/Luke contrast involves the tongue being high and all the way back (lips rounded).  In this case, it is the vowel in look that is more lax (not as far back and not as high).
  • The long/short status of the above pairs is probably accepted by everyone.  However, the vowels in bat and bet may or may not be viewed as long/short partners.  To Russian speakers, the slightly longer vowel in bat sounds identical to the vowel in bet.  In this case, it is the vowel in bet that is a bit more relaxed, with jaw closed a bit more.  It can therefore be helpful to think of these as a long/short pair.
  • The vowels in bait and bet might also seem to be a long/short pair.  Spanish speakers would not hear a difference between them, pronouncing both a lot like bait.  It is the vowel in bet that is the more lax of the two.
  • The first and last vowels in the word Pakistan are pronounced like the a in father (UK English) or the shorter a in cat (American English).  This contrast is sometimes seen as long/short, but the a in cat is a bit more lax with the tongue slightly more forward.

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