Vowel Length in American English

Feb 1, 2021

Vowel Length in American English


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Long vowels, short vowels, medium vowels - in spoken English, does the length of the vowel really matter? Yes! There's a rule to vowel pronunciation that you won't find in a dictionary, but native speakers use it. And if you can master this pronunciation rule, both your vowels AND your consonants will improve! Learn how native speakers change the length of vowels in American English in this video - and then practice with me at the end!

(Video Transcript)


Hi, I’m Julie with San Diego Voice and Accent, and in this video you’ll learn about vowel length in American English.


I’m going to play a short video of people saying the word no in American movies. The reason I’m going to show you this video is because I want you to listen to the way they pronounce the word no, and specifically the way they pronounce the OH vowel. 


Some of them will say the vowel quickly, and others will hold out the vowel for a really long time. Listen and see what you notice about the word no.


OK, you get the idea. There were some quick OH vowels, some long OH vowels, and some OH vowels that were somewhere in the middle. But, in any of these examples, did the length of the OH vowel change the meaning of the word, no?


And the answer is, no! You can have a quick OH vowel - 




and you can have a long OH vowel -




but the meaning is the same. No and noooooo both mean no.


Ok, so in American English, vowel length does not change the meaning of a word. But sometimes a vowel will be held out a little longer than other times, and this is important because if you learn this vowel pronunciation rule, your vowels will improve, yes, but also your consonants will improve! And I’ll tell you why, here’s the rule:


Vowel length rules in American English

When a vowel comes before a voiceless consonant, it is typically said for the shortest duration.


When a vowel comes before a voiced consonant, it is said a little bit longer.


And when a vowel comes at the end of a syllable, also called an open syllable, the vowel is said for the longest duration.


This means that in the word heat, the EE vowel is typically said for the shortest duration. 




And in the word heed, the EE vowel is typically held out a little longer.




And in the word he, the EE vowel is typically held out the longest.




Heat, heed, he


Now, of course I could always say heat with a really long EE vowel - 



Or a super quick vowel -



And it still means the same thing: heat. But in general, native speakers will follow this vowel length rule. 

How vowel length improves consonants

Many of my clients have difficulty with pronouncing a voiced final consonant, like the D, B, or G consonants. They might pronounce the words heat and heed the same, as heat. So if this is the same for you - if you struggle with making the words heat and heed sound different or hawk and hogfocus on the vowel. You can trick your listeners into hearing a voiced consonant if you say a longer vowel. 


Vowel length practice

Let’s practice vowel length in American English. I’m going to say three words, each with the same vowel, but one will have a voiceless consonant, one will have a voiced consonant, and if possible, one will be an open syllable. Repeat after me, and try to imitate the slight differences in the length of the vowel.














I hope this video helped you to understand how to use vowel length in American English. Thanks for watching! And let me know how I can help you master the American accent!