English diphthongs – a brief introduction

This article is taken from the EBC TEFL course Madrid syllabus.

OK, firstly what are English diphthongs? They are a combination of two vowel sounds that, when spoken, blur into each other forming a single syllable is about the best definition there is.

What aren’t English diphthongs? If two vowels appear next to each other in a word but form separate syllables, for example: the “ia” in “hiatus” or the “io” in “iodine”. The “ia” and “io” vowel combinations are not English diphthongs because the vowel sounds are pronounced separately. An example of an English diphthong is the “ou” combination in “sound”.

As English is a language of exceptions and certain eccentricities, please note that the letters “w” and “y” can be classed as vowels when dealing with English diphthongs. For example: “hay” and “now“. The “ay” sound in “hay” takes the same sound as “ea” as in “break” and the “ow” sound in “now” takes the same sound as “ou” as in “noun”.

There are (of course) conflicting opinions about exactly how many English diphthong sounds there are ranging from 8 to 10. According to Daniel Jones there are 10 English diphthong sounds, according to J. D. O’Connor there are 9 and according to A. C. Gimson there are 8 English diphthong sounds. Feel free to choose your preferred set!

Normally an English diphthong has a long sound, unless of course it doesn’t, as in “wood” or “said“. English diphthongs, like many other parts of English need to be memorised. For example: the “ai” English diphthong pronunciation varies by context as in, “Jerry said he had bought his ticket.” and “Jerry paid for his ticket in cash.” In this example, the “ai” English diphthong is short or long depending on the word it is used in.

Here are some common examples of diphthongs in use: Vowel sounds

  • Long a – say, paid, algae, grey, veil, steak
  • Long e – mean, been, ceiling, hear, pier
  • Short e – said, head
  • Long i – pie, buy, height, eye
  • Long o – glow, sew, toe, loaf, soul
  • Long u – tour, poor, juice, tool
  • Short u – book, should, wood

Non-vowel sounds

  • coin, toy
  • hair, bear, aeroplane
  • loud, how
  • Saw, taught, pour

Why are “pour” and “tour”, “bear” and “hear”, “hair” and “paid” pronounced differently?

Here’s what our external Chief Moderator Dr. Paul Brett has to say.

“One could equally ask why an English diphthong is used in writing or just a single vowel for the same sound or indeed a different diphthong for same sound.

Said (led), Paid (stayed), Pour (for), Tour (sewer), Hear (beer), Bear (rare)

Depending on pronunciation variations, differences can also happen with same word.

“Where were (wur) you last night, you said you were (wuh) coming with us?”

There are (some) standard patterns of pronunciation to English diphthongs’ written versions of course but context, meaning, sentences, etc. can change even one word’s pronunciation. Listening is the best way to learn good pronunciation. For those of you who are interested in learning more about pronunciation, my recommendation is to read “English Pronunciation in Use Advanced Book” by Martin Hewings, ISBN 9780521693769 (Amazon: UK, USA).”

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