Difference Between Long and Short Vowels
Vowel length is a way of talking about the different vowel sounds that a person can make when dealing with a single letter. It refers to how long it takes to say that sound.
The typical rule is that long vowels say their name. In English, the vowels are all named after one of their longer sounds. In the word ‘note’, the O is pronounced like its name and sounds like ‘oh’. That means it has a long vowel sound. The word ‘not’, on the other hand, has more of an ‘ah’ sound, which is the short O. The ‘oh’ sounds longer than the ‘ah’, which is why it’s considered the long O.
However, some letters have more than two sounds. The word ‘amalgamation’ has four of the letter A, but only two of them are pronounced the same way. While the second and fourth have the normal long and short A sounds – the second being the short A, and the fourth is the long A – the first and third have an ‘uh’ sound. The ‘io’ at the end of the word also has an ‘uh’ sound.
When a vowel has more than two possible sounds, it makes sense to compare them by saying which one is longer. For instance, while the rounded ‘ah’ sound is considered the short O sound, it is still longer than the short A, which is a flat ‘ah’. Specifying how much longer one sound is can help to distinguish them when explaining how to pronounce the vowels in a written word. This is especially important because of English pronunciation rules.
There are no rules that apply for every single word, without exception, in the English language. For one thing, many English words were originally loanwords. French and Latin were major contributors to the language and a lot of words were taken from them. The problem is that the Italic languages have a different way of pronouncing what they write than Germanic. What makes that worse is that there are a few cases where the spelling of the word was taken, but not the pronunciation. Another complication is the various accents in English. For example, Americans would probably pronounce the word ‘can’t’ with a short A sound, while someone speaking Received Pronunciation English would use the short O sound.
With all that in mind, pronouncing a word based on how it is spelled can be tricky. One of the more obvious rules is that the vowel is long when there is a silent E on the end. Like above, ‘not’ and ‘note’ have different vowel pronunciations. However, the E on the end of ‘note’ is not pronounced. It is just there to show how the O is said. When there is a silent E on the end of a word, it is a good bet that the vowel just before it is a long vowel.
Similarly, there are times when more than one vowel is stacked together, such as in ‘ceiling’. When there is more than one vowel together, it is much more likely that both of them join together to form a long sound. There are still exceptions to that, like in ‘science’. Both vowels are pronounced there. When the double vowel begins with A or E, then they are much more likely to say their name.
Overall, English is a confusing language and sometimes it’s very difficult to match spellings with pronunciations. This is why vowel length is specified for some words.
To summarize, vowel length is based off of the perceived length of the vowel sound. In English, all vowels are named after their long sound, so the long vowels say their names. The rest of the time, they are shorter sounds, but they can cover more than one short sound.
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