IPA Vowel Symbols

Below is a list of all the vowel symbols of the International Phonetic Alphabet, with an explanation of where you can hear these sounds in different words, dialects and languages.

(For a quick guide to IPA Consonant symbols, go here. And for a more detailed tutorial of the International Phonetic Alphabet, go here.)

When you first start reading the IPA, I would recommend consulting this chart as much as possible, as well as looking at the standard IPA chart. It won’t take that long for this weird alphabet to be like second nature.

Basic Vowel Symbols

I’ve going break these symbols up into two groups. The first group are “basic” vowel sounds–these are the sounds you most frequently hear in dialects of the English language.

The second group of vowels are “other” vowels. You will encounter these somewhat less commonly in English.

Symbol English Equivalent

i

The “ee” in “Fleece” in most varieties of English.

ɪ

The “i” in “Kit” in American & most British dialects

e

The “e” in “Bet” in Australian English. Also, the first vowel in the dipthong “face” in American English.

ɛ

The “e” in “Dress” in most American and British dialects.

æ

The “a” in “Cat” in American English.

a

a” in Scottish English “father” or “a” in Italian and Spanish. The first sound in the American English dipthong “kite”

ə

This is the lax, neutral sound in American and British “comma” or “afraid.” It is called the Schwa.

ɑ

The “a” in “father” in most American and British accents. The “o” in “not” in American English

ɒ

The “o” in “lot” in most British dialects. The “ough” in “thought” in Standard American English

ɔ

The “ough” in “Thought” in Standard British and some American accents.

ʌ

The “u” in “Strut” in American English.

o

The “oa” in “Goat” in many Irish Accents. The “ough” in “thought” in many modern British accents. Also, the first vowel in the dipthong “goat” in American English.

ʊ

The vowel in “Foot” or “could” in American English and Standard British English.

u

The vowel in “goose” in American English.

Advanced Vowel Symbols

Then there are the less common, or less commonly-used symbols, which are as follows.

Symbol English Equivalent

y

Like the “ee” in American English “fleece” except with the lips rounded.   Can be heard in a few Scottish dialects in the word “goose.” This is also the “u” in French “tu.”

ʏ

Like the “i” in American English “kit”, except with the lips rounded. Some London and Scottish accents use this to pronounce “Goose.”

ø

Like the “eh” in “bet,” except with the lips rounded. Used in very few English dialects. The “ur” in “nurse” in strong New Zealand accents.

œ

Like the “eh” in “bet,” except with the lips rounded (like [2] above, only with the tongue a bit lower). Used in very few English dialects. Possibly the “ur” in “nurse” in very strong Cockney accents.

ɐ

The “u” in “Strut” in many modern British dialects. This sound is like /a/ described above, except with the tongue very slightly higher in the mouth.

ɜ

A bit like the “ur” in “nurse” in standard british English. The middle of the tongue is placed more or less in the middle of the mouth, and the lips are unrounded.

ɞ

Like /ɜ/ above, except the lips are rounded.

ɘ

Like /ə/ above, except with the tongue very slightly higher in the mouth.

ɵ

Like ɘ above, except with the lips rounded.

ʉ

This is a fairly common sound in English, but requires a bit of explanation. This is the “oo” sound in “goose” as it is pronounced in many London dialects, California English and many Scottish dialects. It is like the “oo” in Standard American “goose,” except with the tongue drawn further forward in the mouth.

ɨ

Like /ʉ/ above, except the lips are not rounded.

ɤ

Like /o/ above except the lips are NOT rounded. Extremely rare in English and most other languages for that matter. A bit like the “u” sound in Japanese.

ɯ

Like /u/ above, except the lips are NOT rounded. Like /ɤ/ above, this is very rare in English and other languages. Again, it’s a bit similar to the “u” in Japanese.

IPA takes a little while to get used to, but once you get it, it’s easy to understand!

Copright (c) 2011 by Ben Trawick-Smith. All rights reserved

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18 Responses to IPA Vowel Symbols

  1. Ed says:

    A good example for /ɵ/ is the GOAT vowel in Hull (and other places nearby, but it is stereotypically associated with Hull). It is long in this case /ɵ:/.

    Apparently /œ/ is used in LOT in broad Geordie. http://www.bl.uk/learning/langlit/sounds/case-studies/geordie/vowel-sounds/

    • trawicks says:

      Funny you mention Geordie. I’ve heard /ɵ/ referred to as the GOAT vowel there as well. JC Wells also mentions it as an the first element in a particular GOAT allophone in RP: [ɵʊ]. Not that such a realization is particularly surprising, as it’s more or less just a rounded version of [əʊ].

      • Ed says:

        Actually I’ve had a look at that Geordie link again, and it is listed as male broad Geordie variant for GOAT. You are right indeed.

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  3. Martoons says:

    I guess a lot depends on our accents too. After all, a British accent is so different to an American, and us Australians are different again. But it’s interesting all the same. Thanks :-) Martin

  4. Legal Centre says:

    I agree with Ed, regional dialect can vary immensely. Did you know that UK sign language is also different across the different regions of the UK? I am from the South of England and our accents are often compared to Australians!

    • Lily says:

      My husband is from south England and Americans are always asking him if he is Australian. He’s even had a few Aussies think he was Australian! I guess his accent has been influenced enough by mine (Chicago) to equal an Australian accent.

  5. Alex says:

    Martoons is spot on. A lot does depend on accents. Having been born in Canada, but raised almost my entire life in the United States, I see a very distinct difference in dialects between my relatives and myself. For instance, the phonetic pronunciation of the words “about” and “been” really stand out between the American and Canadian. I believe the word “center” is spelled only this way in American English, while all the other dialects spell it “centre”. This has always intrigued me.

  6. Danny says:

    If we go back to the Geordie accent, I’m from the area and you only have to go 20mile or so to Sunderland and the accent to people from the region is totally different, yet to people from outside the north east they think it is exactly the same. Mind you to people from outside the north east they probably think its the same because they just cant understand what we’re saying anyway

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  8. Ben says:

    Yikes!
    Anyone got a favorite simplified version of IPA vowels?

  9. Becky riggins says:

    is the ‘upside-down-m’ the silent japanese ‘u’ that comes after a stressed ‘s’ like in Yokosuka or the long ‘u’ Fuji, or tsunami in romaji translations of hiragana and katakana? if I have proper unicode, I don’t know how to use it. also, when I first learned about the russian czars, some english speaking Ukrainians still spelled it ‘tsar’. this would have been 1986, so I was wondering, if you switched the ‘ts’ in tsunami with the ‘cz’ in czar would it change the pronunciation in romaji. in both romaji and pinyin I’ve noticed that things are more intuitive and based on what is said rather than what is heard by people with good hearing. Why else for instance would the capitol of china be spelled Peking, when the pronunciation is closer to Beijing, why would the souchow university outside shanghai ‘ch’ be pronounced like the ‘j’ in the french name jacques rather than like a soft ‘sh’ like in the english machine or a hard ‘cc’ or ‘tch’ like italian or french respectively? Is it the vowels that change accents and therefore the sounds of the consonants? the relationships of ‘p’ to ‘b’ and ‘b’ to ‘p’ is well remarked, if not well understood and if a long ‘a’ changes to a long ‘e’ does the consonant before the vowel also change in tonal language. did the hard ‘ch’ in souchow change to a soft ‘z’ or ‘j’ because the vowel changed from open to more closed? i am not asian myself but have studied a bit of japanese, my brother sings and we are very interested in understanding tonal language and vowel drift. could use some help, if anybody knows particularly the japanese ‘u’, it’s actually higher on my priority list than the chinese\pinyin questions.

  10. suleiman Mohammed Bashir says:

    I need more examples

  11. Quist says:

    I used to have trouble telling [a] and [ɑ] apart. Now I can hear the difference better. [a] sounds to me like a monophthongized /ai/ as in “hive”, whereas [ɑ] sounds more like a “de-rhoticized” /ɑr/ as in “star. Maybe thinking of them that way will help other people. Whether that helps you or not might depend on your accent though.

    I used to have trouble with the central vowels too. But then I realized that each one sounds like a “darker” version of the front vowel of the same height. So [ɐ] sounds like a darker version of [æ], [ɘ] sounds like a darker version of [e] (and [ɤ] sounds like an even darker version of [e]!), etc. Maybe that’s the reason the symbols of a lot of the central, unrounded vowels are based on the symbols of the front vowels (except they have a line through them or are flipped around). The symbols for some of the rounded vowels, on the other hand, are based on the symbols for the back rounded vowels of the same height. This makes sense to me because [ɵ] sounds like a “brighter” version of [o] and [ʉ] sounds like a brighter version of [u]. But my point is, trying to hear the similarities between vowels of the same height helped me a lot when I was learning the IPA so maybe it will help others.

  12. Peter says:

    Another way to describe [ɤ] is that it’s like a “dark l” [ɫ] without the front of the tongue being involved.

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  15. Manabendra Borthakur says:

    Hi, do u have idea on how to build IPA symbol change translator from one language to another language?

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