The Thinking Sound – /ɜː/

Which sound do English speakers make when they think? Er, well, it’s /ɜː/ – the central vowel. Difficult for learners because many languages do not have a similar sound. In today’s article, we’ll explore how to pronounce it, how it’s spelt, and how with certain intonation it can mean ‘disgusting!’.

How to Pronounce /ɜː/

/ɜː/ is a neutral vowel, firmly in the centre of the mouth, your tongue should be flat – not forward like /iː/ not back like /ɔː/, flat as a freshly ironed shirt /ɜː/. Your jaw should be half open, and your lips should be relaxed, not rounded or you’ll sound French [œ], so relax the lips, altogether now /ɜː/. 

Words & Spellings of /ɜː/

Nearly all spellings of /ɜː/ contain an <r> which is silent in GB English.  The most common spellings are <ur> as in TURN and BURN, < ir > as in DIRT and BIRD, & <er> as in PREFER and SERVANT… perfect. It’s also <ear> as in EARN and SEARCH, & <our> like in JOURNAL and COURTEOUS. 


Most words spelt with <wor> are pronounced with /ɜː/: WORD, WORK, WORTH, WORLD, WORSE, WORM and WORSHIP. Watch out for WORE and its participle WORN, which are pronounced with /ɔː/ and take care with WORRY, which is /ʌ/.


English never fails to throw up at least one bizarre exception, and here it is: the <olo> in the word COLONEL is pronounced with /ɜː/, so it is a homophone with KERNEL, which is the central part of a nut, but often used more generally to mean the essence of something, like in the phrase ‘a kernel of truth’.

/ɜː/ in Accents 

In posh accents the jaw is more open towards /ɑː/, so HEARD and HARD sound similar. Some Northern English speakers use /ɜː/ instead of the diphthong /əʊ/ – which is no joke you know? In Liverpool, they don’t say /ɜː/ at all, it’s replaced with /ɛː/, so WHERE and WERE sound the same: “Where were they sir?” In American the ‘r’s are pronounced – yes they CERtainly are, so /ɜː/ may be transcribed /ɝ/.

/ɜː/ in Exclamations

/ɜː/ is the sound used to think in English, and it’s often spelt ER for that purpose. Er, where was I? Ah yes,  /ɜː/ can also mean ‘disgusting’ if it’s said with a falling intonation pattern and perhaps a little vocal fry at the end: UGH. Altogether now, UGH!

/ɜː/ in Sayings

/ɜː/ is found in the very common English saying ‘to err on the side of caution’, meaning don’t take any risks. It also appears three times in the motivational catchphrase, ‘the early bird catches the worm’, meaning you shouldn’t laze around in bed all day if your diet consists of slimy burrowing hermaphrodites. UGH, how disgusting!