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Music and sounds – speech

This month we celebrate World Speech Day on the 15th – that’s why we are examining all things related to sounds and speech this month.

Throughout the month we will look at speech, voiced consonants, unvoiced consonants and accents. And so, onto speech and sounds.

The phonetic alphabet

Did you know that there is actually an entire alphabet dedicated to sounds? Think about the English language and the fact that the letter C can sometimes be spoken and sounded as a ‘c’, and sometimes as a ‘s’. There are two different sounds there. The ‘c’ sound and the ‘s’ sound. That could be quite confusing!

We are putting to one side the English alphabet and looking at what we call the international phonetics alphabet. You’ve probably seen the international phonetics alphabet in one way or another. If you’ve ever opened a dictionary, the phonetics – the way to pronounce a word – are usually in parentheses and help us work out how a word should sound.

The reason it is international is that sounds can actually move across different languages. And we always have a lot of overlap. So sometimes the sounds are the same, but the letters that we use across different languages, are different. Which is why we have one central alphabet.

I want to look specifically at vowel sounds in English.

Vowel sounds

The five vowels in English are:

A, E, I, O, U.

They are the only vowels in English. Or are they? They certainly are the only ones in written English.

Do you remember when you were taught vowel sounds at school?

It was ah, ih, eh, oh, uh.

We actually still use those vowel sounds. Think about ‘i’ in fish and ‘o’ in clock.

But we still use those other vowel sounds as well. ‘A’ in train. ‘e’ in tree. We might only have five written vowels but we actually have 10 vowel sounds so far, in speech.

We also have quite a few long vowel sounds. Think of ee, ar, ooh. Notice how these just one sound that we’re holding – ee, ah, ooh – we are not moving our mouth after we’ve started.


Dipthongs have two vowel sounds together and we slide from one to another in the same syllable. We do this automatically, especially as native speakers. It can be quite difficult to understand if English isn’t your first language because they are quite an English-specific thing.

Other languages have their own different vowel peculiarities too, but for us, dipthongs have us moving our mouths to make two different sounds in one.

We’ll talk more about this throughout March so keep coming back!