English Vowel Sounds (19 of them)
A neutral British English accent uses 19 vowel sounds, they are (in the order they appear in the sound chart above):
Written English has just 5 spellings – a e i o & u, through combinations of these spellings, we can produce the 19 sounds above.
Each sound uses a unique position of the mouth – with a different jaw, lip & tongue position as follows:
The first point to consider for each vowel is the position of your jaw – is it nearly closed as in /i:/, half way open as in /ɜ:/ or fully open as in /ɑ:/, which is the sound your dentist will ask you to make in order to see inside your mouth.
Next, we must think about the tongue – is it high at the front of the mouth, like the short vowel /e/, is it flat, like as in the long vowel /ɜ:/, or is it high at the back, as in /ɔ:/.
Finally we need to think about the lips – are they spread like in /i:/, relaxed as in /ɜ:/ or rounded as in /ɔ:/.
On top of the position of the mouth, we need to consider the quality of the vowel – this is its length and volume. The higher the level of stress on any vowel sound, the longer it will be. The categorisation of vowels as ‘long’ and ‘short’ is therefore quite unsatisfactory – the length of a vowel is affected by its level of stress and the sounds around it.
So if you thought that ship and sheep could be distinguished by the length of the vowel, think again – you need to make 2 completely different positions with the mouth (1 and 2 in the chart).