Understanding Vowels: Syllables, Monophthongs, Diphthongs & Triphthongs

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John ColtInglés
24 de mayo de 2017
30167
3 minutos
Do you know the terms monophthong diphthong and triphthong? In this article you'll learn the difference, and learn a deeper principal of English pronunciation too!


Syllables


Vowels can be monophthongs, diphthongs or triphthongs. To understand these terms you must first understand what a syllable is, and the best way to explain that is with an example.

Say each of these words to yourself:

  • Mouse (1 syllable)
  • Rabbit (2 syllables)
  • Kangaroo (3 syllables)
  • Barracuda (4 syllables)
  • Hippopotamus (5 syllables)

As you can hear, a syllable is a 'unit of pronunciation'. If we say that a word has one syllable or two syllables, that says something about the rhythmic character of the word.

Any word must have at least one syllable; even the word ‘a’ has one syllable. A word has two syllables when there are two vowel sounds divided by a consonant sound, or, to put it another way, two vowel sounds connected by a consonant sound. A word has three syllables when there are three vowel sounds divided/connected by two consonant sounds. And so on.

If we say that a word has one syllable or two syllables, that says something about the rhythmic character of the word.

Let’s take the word ‘occur’ as an example. Here we have two vowels – ə and əː – which are divided/connected by the consonant sound, k, making əkəː. This is a two-syllable word. If we look again at the word ‘rabbit’, we see the same structure. There are two vowel sounds in this word: æ and ɪ. Between these two vowel sounds is a consonant sound, b, making æbɪ. ‘Rabbit’ is a two-syllable word because it contains two vowel sounds with a consonant sound between them. (There are two other consonant sounds in ‘rabbit’ – r at the beginning of the first syllable, and t at the end of the second syllable – but these sounds do not affect the syllabic structure of the word.)


Monophthongs, Diphthongs & Triphthongs


Now that you understand what a syllable is we can look at monophthongs and diphthongs. A monophthong is where there is one vowel sound in a syllable, and a diphthong is where there are two vowel sounds in a syllable.

Say the word ‘funny’ out-loud. As you can hear, in ‘funny’ we have two vowel sounds –
ʌ and i – divided into two syllables by the consonant sound n. So we can say that ‘funny’ contains two monophthongs: ʌ and i.

Now say the word ‘guy’. Here we have the same two vowel sounds but this time they are stuck together in one syllable, without any consonant dividing them. So we can say that ‘guy’ contains one diphthong: ʌi. To put it simply: a monophthong is a single vowel and a diphthong is a double vowel.

A monophthong is where there is one vowel sound in a syllable, and a diphthong is where there are two vowel sounds in a syllable.

Let’s look at another example: the word ‘behind’. Here we have three vowel sounds: ə, ʌ and i. The ə is on its own, separated from the other two vowel sounds by the consonant sound h. However the ʌ and i are stuck together to make a double vowel, ʌi, which is the same diphthong in the word ‘guy’. So the word ‘behind’ has three basic vowel sounds divided into two syllables, the first of which contains a monophthong, ə, and the second of which contains a diphthong, ʌi: bəhʌind.

In English we also have a couple of triple vowels called triphthongs, such as in the word ‘fire’, which has three vowels ʌ, ɪ and ə stuck together in one syllable: fʌɪə.


Everything is Connected


At this point you might be feeling that this is getting quite complicated, but remember: all of the diphthongs and triphthongs are made from the monophthongs. For example, the diphthong ʌi, as in the word ‘guy’, is made from the two monophthongs ʌ and i. So, once you learn the monophthongs, the diphthongs and triphthongs are quite easy. Also, 4 of the monophthongs in English are simply shorter versions of other monophthongs. For example, we have a: (long, as in 'are') and ʌ (short, as in 'up'), ɛː (long, as in 'air') and ɛ (short, as in 'egg'). So, once you learn the long version, it’s easy to do the short version.

All the 24 vowel sounds are derived from only ten basic sounds. Every single word in English, regardless of its spelling, is pronounced using some combination of these ten sounds.

These ten basic sounds are: ɑː əː æː ɛː iː ɪ ʊː ʊ ɔː ɒ

All the 24 vowel sounds are derived from only ten basic sounds. Every single word in English, regardless of its spelling, is pronounced using some combination of these ten sounds.

Take some time to think about this principle. It will really help you on your journey into understanding the British accent.

Thanks for reading!

John

For 20% off one-to-one pronunciation training use coupon code mouse17 when you book.



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