How Long is an English Vowel Sound?

Here’s a moment most students and teachers of English pronunciation will be familiar with:

Well, let’s test that answer: you are now going to hear 6 words, each one will either be SHIP or SHEEP, all you need to do is decide which one you hear. Ready?

1.           2.         3.         4.         5.         6.

1. ship (970 milliseconds)
2. ship (480 ms)
3. ship (1190 ms)
4. sheep (880 ms)
5. sheep (600 ms)
6. sheep (500 ms)

So the /ɪ/ vowel sound in SHIP is not necessarily shorter than the /iː/ vowel in SHEEP, this is not then the main difference between them. The key difference is the lower position of the jaw and more central position of the tongue in /ɪ/; the position of the mouth is always different.

In a normal, (citation) context, in which no special intonation is added to the words, it is true that SHEEP will generally be a tiny bit longer than SHIP, but I really mean a tiny bit – a few milliseconds. OK, let’s have a go everyone: SHIP, SHEEP.

‘LONG’ vs ‘SHORT’ Vowel Sounds

Generally speaking, some vowel sounds tend to be longer than others, but no vowel sound has a fixed length and many other factors affect length, as we are about to see. English contains 6 single (monophthong) vowel sounds that are normally short(ish):

/ɪ/ in PIT
/ʊ/ in PUT
/e/ in PET
/ʌ/ in PUN
/æ/ in PAT
/ɒ/ in POT

5 monophthong vowels that are normally a bit longer

/iː/ in FEET
/uː/ in FOOD
/ɜː/ in FIRST
/ɔː/ in FOUGHT
/ɑː/ in FARM

and 7 double position long vowels (diphthongs) which are normally slightly longer still:

/eɪ/ in FAME,
/aɪ/ in FINE
/ɔɪ/ in FOIL
/əʊ/ in FOAM
/aʊ/ in FOUND
/ɪə/ in FEAR
/eə/ in FAIR

Each of these sounds will change length in connected speech, for three main reasons, as we will now see:


The consonant sound directly after a vowel sound will affect its length. Listen to the different lengths of the sounds /ɪ/ and /iː/ from longest to shortest:


leave /liːv/
seed /siːd/
tea /tiː/
team /tiːm/
hid /hɪd/
peace /piːs/
sing /sɪŋ/
hiss /hɪs/
lip /lɪp/


Most noticeably, whenever a voiceless consonant sound /p,t,k,f,s,θ,ʃ,h,tʃ/ comes after a vowel, it makes its length shorter. So compare CARD with CART, BEAN with BEAT  and NO with NOTE and you will notice that the second word in each pair was shorter. This means that the supposedly ‘long’ vowel in PEACE is actually normally shorter than the ‘short’ vowel in HID even though you will see them transcribed as /piːs/ and /hɪd/ in dictionaries.


One peculiar pair of words that can confuse learners for this reason, is LOSE and LOOSE. The /uː/ in LOSE /luːz/ is in fact longer that the same sound in LOOSE /luːs/, as the first word ends in a voiced consonant /z/ and the second in a voiceless /s/. The extra vowel in LOOSE has no effect at all on length other than perhaps to confuse learners.


Listen to the following three words, paying attention to the length of the first syllable /kɑː/ in each case:

CARP /ˈkɑːp/
CARPET /ˈkɑːpɪt/
CARPENTER /ˈkɑːpɪntə/

Notice that /kɑː/ was progressively shorter in each word? This is because the weak vowels after the stressed syllable eat into the space available for the ‘long vowel’. In connected speech, this causes long vowels to reduce in length significantly.


The main stress in a unit of speech will often be longer than normal, compare the length of the word YES /jes/ in this example:

Yes I think I ↘will.

The last syllable in a unit of speech with a fall-rise pattern will also be noticeably longer:

Can we ↘↗go?

How to Learn Vowel Length.

It may help for newcomers to English pronunciation to divide vowels into SHORT, LONG and DIPHTHONG sounds to begin with, simply to learn the range of 19 sounds. It is essential from the beginning, however, to learn the sounds as unique positions of the mouth using the jaw, tongue and lips.

Once the range and position of the sounds is established, their length should be studied in relation to the three factors covered in this article: voicing, reduction, and intonation. So to go back to the original question about the difference between the pronunciation of SHIP and SHEEP, the full answer would be something like this:

“The mouth position is different, with a more open jaw and central tongue position for SHIP, and SHEEP is generally a tiny bit longer.”

To which the teacher should reply:

This article uses IPA (phonetic) symbols – you can learn them in the free Pronunciation Studio Starter Pack containing pronunciation notes and diagrams for each sound with audio, and an English IPA chart. 

By | 2018-01-03T13:23:38+00:00 January 24th, 2017|Pronunciation, Teaching|12 Comments


  1. Marrone January 24, 2017 at 3:19 pm - Reply

    All this sounds interesting, but it might rather confusing for beginners.

  2. Penny January 24, 2017 at 5:36 pm - Reply

    Yes, Marrone, I agree it probably would be. But even with beginners I (EFL teacher) would try to make them HEAR the differences in vowel length and would definitely point out mispronunciations of some common words (eg fit/feet). I probably wouldn’t ‘teach’ pre-forttis clipping unless I was specifically working in a pronunciation class or speech coaching, but some of my advanced students have figured it out for themselves when I’ve asked if they can hear the difference (eg feed/feet or word/work).
    Intonation causes the biggest headaches for me!

  3. Pip key January 25, 2017 at 5:05 pm - Reply

    This is a bit like splitting hairs and it hardly helps us poor teachers trying to get our students to even start to hear the difference between ship and sheep. One of the most difficult aspects in teaching English.

  4. Noel Chivers January 25, 2017 at 6:44 pm - Reply

    It’s beginners that need this most. They’ll find it a lot easier to digest than teachers do to teach.

  5. Paolo January 26, 2017 at 10:51 am - Reply

    I remember my EFL teacher in high school back in Italy would tell us that the difference between /iː/ and /ɪ/ was only the length of the sound. Bless her…
    It took me 8 years in England and a master degree in Applied Linguistics and TESOL to finally get the sound right! As an EFL student, I think the trick is to focus on the right position of jaw and tongue, as well as understanding where in the mouth the sound is produced.

  6. Debbie January 27, 2017 at 8:19 am - Reply

    Thanks very educating,will need more of the audio files to teach my students

  7. kerma January 27, 2017 at 4:51 pm - Reply

    Thanks . It is very helpful !

  8. Steve February 5, 2017 at 7:45 am - Reply

    Another really interesting, well-written and humorous blog. I love you guys!

  9. Charlotte Martinez February 14, 2017 at 7:15 pm - Reply

    I really like these articles, are really helpful, keep doing it. Thanks,

  10. Dzmitry March 9, 2017 at 3:27 pm - Reply

    Thanks for the article. Comparing /iː/ and /ɪ/, you write that “[t]he key difference is the lower position of the jaw and more central position of the tongue in /ɪ/”. For some readers it might be unclear what central position is and where the tongue should go when one switches from /iː/ to /ɪ/. As I understand, the tongue retracts a bit from the front towards a more central position, and also goes down with the jaw. Is that right?

  11. Dr Suresh Ponnurangam March 29, 2017 at 6:09 am - Reply

    It’s really interesting and inspiring for teachers.

    Thank you.

  12. LarsF May 6, 2018 at 8:00 am - Reply

    Very interesting indeed, but since the diphtongs /ɪə/ and /eə/ are seldom heard amongst younger people, it would be even better if presenting FEAR and FAIR with long monophtongs /ɪ:/ and /ɛ:/. Most readers of this page are likely to be considerably younger than David Attenborough and hence it would, I think, be more appropriate to teach the ‘modern’ sounds.

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