In this part of our British Accent Training series on vowels, we’re looking at vowel length. Many different languages around the world have very simple vowels. Italian, for instance, has only seven. But English, spoken in the British Accent, has 23. And making sure the vowel you’re speaking is the right length is a crucial step towards pronouncing it correctly.
We said in the first series that we wanted a language to talk about vowels; some terms with which to analyse them. The length of the vowel is the first of these. Vowels come in three categories – but this article is only going to talk about two of them: short and long vowels.
What’s the difference between the two? Well, think of the difference between the words ‘see’ and ‘sit’. With ‘see’, the vowel is long; and if you emphasise the word, you emphasise the vowel, not the consonants. You say ‘I seeeeee youuuuu’ instead of ‘I ssssssee yyyyyyou’.
But with its short counterpart, ‘sit’, you emphasise the consonants in the word if you want to make it stronger. Imagine the exhausted dog trainer saying ‘ssssssit!’. The vowel is so small it is almost lost – skipped over instead of extended.
So short vowels tend to be short, tight, and almost skipped over. Long vowels are extended. With short vowels, you emphasise the consonants. With long ones, you emphasise the vowel.
Here’s the issue: there is no firm rule to tell you whether you should be saying a long vowel or a short vowel. Nothing in the written letters will tell you immediately whether the word is a long vowel or a short one.
But you can work it out for yourself. Take a one-syllable word from the article above. Try saying it out loud. Work out if it sounds better with the consonants emphasised or the vowels emphasised. Work this through with an English-speaking friend if you can’t tell yourself. If you feel like the consonants are the meat of the word, it’s short. If the vowels are more prominent, it’s long.
And best of luck! Next time, we’ll be looking at the third type of vowels: diphthongs!