216: The Cardinal Vowels--long e /i/, oo sound /u/, short o /ɑ/, and short a /æ/

All about that vowels diagram that shows the vowel sounds placed over a sort of square-like shape that’s bigger on the top than it is on the bottom. 

Hi again, and welcome back to Seattle Learning Academy’s American English pronunciation podcast. My name is Amanda and this is our 216th episode.

After three episodes talking about some of the intricate details of pitch and intonation, today I’m going to return to vowel sounds and specifically talk about the four cardinal vowels. The last episode I did on vowels was episode 211, comparing the short a and short o. The short a and short o happen to be two of the four cardinal vowels.

Cardinal vowels are the 4 vowel sounds that are the most extreme and can be used as preference points for the other vowel sounds. 

Cardinal vowels are the 4 vowel sounds that are the most drastic, or extreme, in the vowel system. They are the sounds with the most vocal tract movement and they can be used as preference points for the other vowel sounds. 

The cardinal vowel system is not specific to English. In fact, it’s meant to be used to compare all of the vowel sounds of all the world’s language. Since this is an podcast about English pronunciation, specifically American English pronunciation, I’m going to explain the cardinal vowels from that perspective. 

For you lucky podcast listeners, I also have a very special (but limited) offer for you to get even more practice with the concepts I’ll talk about in this show. Listen at the end of this episode for details.

Maybe you’ve seen the diagram that shows the vowel sounds placed over a sort of square-like shape that’s bigger on the top than it is on the bottom. If not, go to the transcript for this episode and take a look at what I’m talking about. I put an image there to help you see what I’m describing. Just go to Pronuncian.com, spelled p-r-o-n-u-n-c-i-a-n, and click “podcasts.”

That vowels diagram can be very helpful for understanding what the tongue is doing when we create vowel sounds. The four sounds in the corners of the vowels diagram are the four sounds we care about today. Those sounds are the:

I’ll discuss them in that order.

The long e—which sounds like (long e), as in “keep”—is always in the upper, left corner of the diagram. That shows that our tongue is higher and more forward for that vowel sound than any other vowel sound. If you say the long e sound (long e), you will feel your tongue vibrate toward the front. Almost every language of the world has this vowel, so it’s a nice place to start when learning to “feel” vowels. 

Say the long e after me: long e, long e.

Say it again, and hold the sound, so you can physically feel the vibration on your tongue: long e

(So) long e is the highest, most forward vowel sound. The highest, most back vowel sound is the oo sound—the sound (oo sound) as in “soon.” Again, many languages of the world have this sound. Say the oo sound after me (oo sound).

Now let’s say the oo sound and hold it. I want you to notice that the vibration on your tongue has moved back from where it was for the long e. Say the oo sound with me (oo sound).

Now, to compare the tongue’s vibration: let’s say the long e, then the oo sound: (long e, oo sound)

Let’s do it again and notice that the lips also change shape. For the long e sound, the lips are relaxed, while the oo sound is created with the lips made into a small circle: (long e, oo sound).

We all know that minimal pairs are great tools for comparing vowel sounds. Listen to these three long e/oo sound pairs:

beam, boom
feed, food
seen, soon

Now we know that long e and oo sound are high vowel sounds. The long e is highest forward vowel, and oo sound is the highest English back vowel. Now let’s move on to the bottom back vowel. In American English, the short o sound is our lowest, most back vowel. The short o sounds like (short o) and is sound in the word “top.” 

Try saying the short o sound (short o). Good. Now say (short o), top.

Let’s compare the oo sound with the short o sound. I want you to notice how your jaw lowers (meaning your mouth will open more). Also, your tongue lays more flat and the vibration on the tongue moves back even more for the short o sound than it did for the oo sound. 

I’ll say the oo sound, then the short o, and I want you to repeat both: (oo sound, short o)

Let’s say them again, holding each sound a little longer, so you can really feel the difference between them: (oo sound, short o).

The lips will still be rounded for the short o sound, but that’s more a because the jaw lowers for the sound than that they are intentionally made round. They actually stay pretty relaxed. Let’s say the sounds again, noticing the shape of the lips: (oo sound, short o)

Of course we have some minimal pairs between these two sounds as well. Listen closely:

boom, bomb
hoop, hop
shoot, shot

(See all vowels minimal pairs.)

If short o was our low, back vowel, can you guess which is the low, front vowel? Here’s a clue: I mentioned it at the beginning of this episode. Can you think of it?

The low, front vowel is the short a sound: (short a) as in “cat.” This is a pretty tough sound for a lot of non-native English speakers. It doesn’t exist in a lot of languages and so saying it can sound very, well, very foreign to you.

Listen to the short a (short a). Let’s compare the short o, the low, back vowel, to the short a, the low front vowel: short o, short a. Short o, short a.

Try saying both of those sounds and feel the way the whole tongue shifts forward for the short a. Short o (short o), short a (short a). Let’s say them both again: (short o, short a). 

A few minimal pairs to compare the short o and short a are:

hot, hat
odd, add
lock, lack

Now, to come full circle, we need to compare the short a (our low, front vowel) to the sounds we started with, the long e (our high, front vowel). Listen to the sounds. I’ll say the short a, then the long e: (short a, long e). Now you say the sounds and notice that your jaw is more open for the short a sound, then it closes a bit for the long e (short a, long e). Notice how the shape of the lips naturally changes as the jaw closes for the long e: (short a, long e).

A few minimal pairs to compare the short a and long e are:

fat, feet
cap, keep
man, mean

And those are the four corner cardinal vowel sounds of American English. Let’s say them again, in the order you learned them today: long e, oo sound, short o, and short a. Ready?

(long e, oo sound, short o, short a)

One more time:

(long e, oo sound, short o, short a)

We have two minimal sets that we can use to compare all four of these sounds to each other. I’m going to say the words in the same sound order of long e, oo sound, short o, and short a. I’ll leave time for you to repeat the entire set after me:

heat, hoot, hot, hat
beam, boom, bomb, bam

Let’s do that again:

heat, hoot, hot, hat
beam, boom, bomb, bam


Now, about that special offer I mentioned earlier. I have created a special practice supplement for this episode that includes 100 minimal pairs similar to the sets of comparing two sounds that we did above. The supplement is a downloadable PDF file with MP3 listen-and-repeat audio. This special supplement is free if you make any other purchase from the Pronuncian products page any time in the next 3 weeks. Three weeks from the day I publish this, however, both the supplement and the offer will go away. Poof! Gone! 

So, to get your copy, go to the Pronuncian Books and Products page and choose any product that you’d like to buy. Then add the Episode 216 Supplement. In the checkout screen use the promotion code “Episode216.” That’s it. The cost of the supplement will then be deducted and, after your payment, you’ll be emailed a link to download the PDF and MP3 with all one hundred minimal pairs. That’s more minimal pairs than even in the minimal pairs section for individual sounds on Pronuncian. 

You really can’t get this content anywhere else. Of course, it’s a win because you get more learning material, but you also get to feel great about supporting this podcast and all the free content we keep on Pronuncian.com. We absolutely, 100% rely on you to keep things going year after year, and we sincerely thank you for your support.

That’s all for today everyone. Thanks for listening! Bye-bye.