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I was talking to a person who said that there were only two. I think she said that the "ou" in house is one of the two.

I told her that the way the letter "i" is pronounced is a diphthong, and she said it wasn't. She said it was just one vowel, "i" and that that was that.

She said she studied phonics and was writing her thesis (on child development, I think) on this kind of stuff. She said her book said there were only two diphthongs and that I was wrong.

So, how many are there? I told her I think there are probably more like ten. I thought of six immediately, but she said they weren't diphthongs because her book didn't say they were.

  1. "i" in time
  2. "i" in bite
  3. "o" in bone
  4. "a" in bane
  5. "oi" in boink
  6. "ou" in house
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Every accent of English has its own diphthongs (and i as in the 'time' is a diphthong in every accent I have ever heard). – JAM May 23 '12 at 3:50
@JAM Only phonetically; I think the phonemic diphthong set is pretty fixed. – tchrist May 23 '12 at 4:14
She’s not using a standard phonetician sense of diphthong. She’s using the kind of stuff they teach second-graders in America. A diphthong is a syllabic vowel with a glide either before or aft. – tchrist May 23 '12 at 4:20
"phonics" != "phonetics". Don't worry about it too much... – Neil Coffey May 23 '12 at 4:54
@NeilCoffey I told her I studied phonetics, and she said, "phonics, phonetics, same thing. What's the difference?" I guess you just can't ever be right with some people. – Buttle Butkus Oct 3 '12 at 23:26

4 Answers 4

up vote 13 down vote accepted

Certainly the i in words like bite and fright represents an /aɪ/ diphthong.

Phonemically, I come up with these:

  1. /aɪ/ as in price, my, high, flight, mice
  2. /aʊ/ as in mouth, now, trout
  3. /eɪ/ as in face, date, day, they, grey, pain, reign
  4. /ɔɪ/ as in choice, boy, hoist
  5. /oʊ/ as in goat, toe, tow, soul, rope, cold
  6. /juː/ as in cute, few, dew, ewe
  7. /jə/ as in onion, union, million, scallion, scullion

Most examples are taken from here. What those all actually work out to phonetically varies a great deal across dialects and speakers. For example, many and perhaps even most North American speakers raise the /aɪ/ in tight to [ʌɪ], but not the one in died. You may wish to check out SoundComparisons.COM, where you can both see and hear the phonetic transcriptions for speakers of many, many different dialects, including words like four, hear, eight, cold, cow, fight.

You could also analyse words like way, yay, wow, yow as triphthongs if you really wanted to, although we don’t tend to do so in English. Instead they tend to have an initial /w/ or /j/ followed by a diphthong in normal notation. (In Spanish though they’d be considered triphthongs, as in cambiáis, which has just two syllables, cam- and -biáis.)

Non-rhotic speakers claim to have others, but I have trouble thinking of those as diphthongs myself. I always analyse diphthongs as having a principal vowel to act as the syllabic nucleus and then a glide either before or after it. If the glide comes before the main vowel, as in /jə/, /juː/, it is a rising diphthong, and if the glide comes after the main vowel, as in /aɪ/, /eɪ/, /aʊ/, /oʊ/, /ɔɪ/, it is a falling diphthong. (Some people consider only the falling ones “real” diphthongs. I’m not sure why, since million has only two syllables for me, not three.)

I know of no diphthongs in English that have no glide in them, although whether you write your glides with /j/ and /w/ or as semivowels makes no great difference. This leads to alternate transcriptions, as in /eɪ/ for /ej/, and /aʊ/ for /aw/.

If there is no glide, I don’t count it as a diphthong. That means that I don’t read /ʊə/ as a single syllable. Rather, it has two syllables, as in the programming language named Lua /ˈlʊːə/. I guess I might write that /ˈlʊː.ə/ if I thought people might misunderstand me. And no, it is not homophonic with monosyllabic lure /ˈl(j)ʊːɹ/.

Non-rhotic speakers sometimes analyse words with words with ‹r› in them as diphthongs, where they substitute /ə/ for /ɹ/, but since that’s not a glide, it’s not going to make a new diphthong in my book; it might make a new syllable, though. Even though I say fire /faɪɹ/, I realize that they say /faɪ.ə/. For me that would then rhyme with the disyllabic maya /ˈmɑjɑ/, /ˈmaɪ.ə/, although it becomes challenging to assign the /j/ to one syllable or the other. I don’t see people writing fire /ˈfajəɹ/, but at least then it would seem like two syllables. But you end up reassigning the glide and changing the word from having an /aɪ/ diphthong in the first syllable to having a /jə/ syllable in the second.

For the record, here’s how I see the following r-bearing words:

  • bearer /ˈbe(ɪ)ɹəɹ/
  • tourer /ˈtʰʊɹəɹ/
  • nearer /ˈniːɹəɹ/
  • curer /ˈkʰjʊɹəɹ/
  • layer /ˈleɪ.əɹ/, /ˈle.jəɹ/
  • lair /leɪɹ/
  • fiery /ˈfaɪɹi/ (two syllables), /ˈfa.jəɹi/ (three syllables)
  • fairy /ˈfeɪɹi/
  • Faëry /ˈfe.jəɹi/ (for trisyllabic rhymes in poetry)
  • more /mo(ʊ)ɹ/, /mɔɹ/
  • mower /ˈmoʊ.əɹ/, /ˈmowəɹ/

In that analysis, ‹r› is never part of a diphthong because /ɹ/ is not a glide, and if you write it as a schwa, you’ve likely introduced another second syllable. Non-rhotic AmE speakers (such as those from the South) always sound like they have have more syllables in their words to those of us from the North. The joke is there is no such thing as a one-syllable word in “Suthun”. For example, more is one syllable in the North’s /mo(ʊ)ɹ/, but two in the South’s /ˈmowə/.

Lastly, I realize that you can write ‹-er› as /ɚ/ or /ɹ̩/, as in murder written as either /ˈmərdər/ or /ˈmɝdɚ/. The problem is that we have only two rhotacized IPA symbols, stressed /ɝ/ and unstressed /ɚ/; for anything else that you want rhotacized, you have to use U+02DE MODIFIER LETTER RHOTIC HOOK, which doesn’t look so hot in most fonts, and doesn’t count as a combining character.

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I believe the exact number varies by region. Certainly, speakers in my region pronounce "goat" and "soul" differently; so I know I have at least seven. – user16269 May 23 '12 at 6:30
and speaking of my region, The New Zealand Oxford Dictionary lists ten; and this doesn't include either of the two in union (which I pronounce /ju:njən/). Its list is day, my, boy, no, how, near, hair, tour, fire, sour. – user16269 May 23 '12 at 6:36
Out of interest, how would you analyse "bearer", "tourer" and "nearer" for your speech? – Neil Coffey May 23 '12 at 8:25
@NeilCoffey I'm not sure whether you're asking me or tchrist. But I'm fairly sure I have a diphthong in "nearer", but not in "bearer" or "tourer". FWIW, I characterise my own accent as "Urban North Island New Zealand". – user16269 May 23 '12 at 8:50
@Daniel δ I'm surprised you don't pronounce a diphthong in "same". Your profile says your from Pennsylvania. I would have guessed you might be from Scotland or Ireland. I have a friend from Lancaster and his pronunciation doesn't differ significantly from mine. I have to wonder if you're just not hearing the diphthong, as a lot of Americans have a hard time with perceiving diphthongs at all (including the person I describe in my question, actually, who didn't hear the letter "i" as a diphthong). – Buttle Butkus May 24 '12 at 22:55

Here you can find a chart of the 44 English phonemes.

Here you can find a chart of the eight diphthongs. Clicking on each one will get you a huge list of examples.

  • /eɪ/ as in day, pay, say, lay. (Examples)
  • /aɪ/ as in sky, buy, cry, tie. (Examples)
  • /ɔɪ/ as in boy, toy, coy or the first syllable of soya. (Examples)
  • /ɪə/ in beer (the drink), pier, hear. (Examples)
  • /eə/ as in bear (the animal), pair and hair. (Examples)
  • /ʊə/ as in tour, poor (talking posh!) or the first syllable of tourist. (Examples)
  • /əʊ/ as in oh, no, so or phone. (Examples)
  • /aʊ/ as in all the words of "How now brown cow!" (Examples)

Help on how to pronounce the different sounds.

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Any comment from those who has voted negative ? – speedyGonzales May 23 '12 at 12:37
Lots of problems with your set. /iə/ is no diphthong; it’s disyllabic, so Albania has four syllables, not three. Similarly /eə/ is also no diphthong but instead disyllabic: the first word in mea culpa has two syllables. And the goat, phone, no, soap set has /oʊ/ not /əʊ/. I suppose [əʊ] might be the realization in some speakers for now and others for know, but it’s surely not phonemic; otherwise those would be the same words. – tchrist May 23 '12 at 15:08
@speedyGonzales, there is nothing wrong with your answer. You gave a list of diphthongs commonly recognized by phoneticians for RP dialects. – Alex B. May 23 '12 at 18:26
I would suggest you note in your answer that these are the diphthongs of standard British English. – nohat May 23 '12 at 20:49

In its current form, this question cannot be answered. The number of diphthongs varies from dialect to dialect.

For example, the word "four" in RP used to be pronounced as "foah", with a diphthong. Now the current RP form is "fo:" (long o). Or I say "sure" as "shuah", but there are many English speakers (in the UK) who say "sho:" (long o).

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When a Southerner says four or sure, I hear two syllables, not a diphthong. Similarly, since Suthun some more is homophonic with Samoa, it necessarily has three syllables, not two with a diphthong. And I do not think the phonemic set varies the way the phonetic set does. – tchrist May 23 '12 at 14:57
Once again, it depends on your dialect and your definition of a diphthong, whether you recognize triphthongs etc. As for the words "boa" and "Samoa", three major pronunciation dictionaries (EPD17, LPD3, and ODP) say that there is "oh-ah" (and thus, LPD3 marks "boa" as disyllabic and "Samoa" trisyllabic), just like the way I pronounce them. I understand that you pronounce them differently, that's fine (see my answer above about the number of phonemes in different dialects). As for "foah", it's a well known fact - see (Merger of /ɔə/ and /ɔː/) – Alex B. May 23 '12 at 16:07
@tchrist, I don't expect you to apply rules of your dialect to someone else's dialect. That'll be absurd. In your dialect, there is no "uah" (unlike in some RP dialects) => no "uah" diphthong in your "sure" and "poor". However, it doesn't mean that no one should have the uah diphthong in their dialect. – Alex B. May 23 '12 at 18:09
@tchrist, "I do not recognize a schwa as a valid off-glide in a falling diphthong." Now your position is clear to me. – Alex B. May 23 '12 at 18:55
Sure, you can think that if you want. My point is that your analysis is one out of many. – Alex B. May 23 '12 at 19:35

There are ten diphthongs in Hollywood (NA) English where two sounds (a vowel followed so closely by a consonant they in effect make one vowel sound). The English Phonetic Alphabet (EPA) notation describes this clearly:

  • long a /Ay/ – great, made, day, hey, rain, eight, chaos, suede, gauge …
  • long e /Ey/ – meat, we, tree, peace, piece, quay, ski, naive, suite …
  • long i /Iy/ – my, eye, aisle, knife, pie, find, I, choir …
  • long o /Ow/ – go, know, boat, toe, goal, brooch, sew, bologna …
  • long u /Uw/ – two, you, who, due, suit, new, cool, ewe, queue, lose …

You can probably see the pattern here – long vowels are long because there are two sounds in them.

Two more that could also be considered long for the same reason are:

  • /Oy/ as in boy, noise, royal and buoy
  • /Aw/ as in owl, house, drought

The three r vowels were a vowel plus r make a distinct new sound:

  • /Ar/ – charcoal, park, heart, R
  • /Er/ – purple, first, word, were, heard
  • /Or/ – orange, four, more, war, door
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I don’t know where you are getting those fake pronunciations: it isn’t even Kirschenbaum ASCII IPA. For example, eye does not have “a long i” in it, it has an /aɪ/ diphthong. Rather, beet has a long i in it. Etc. This is all wrong. – tchrist Aug 25 '12 at 13:56
Here is a link to the English Phonetic Alphabet (EPA) (PDF) which seems to be what the poster is referring to. Apparently it is a teaching device for ESL. – MετάEd Aug 28 '12 at 17:13
The poster seems to have created the English Phonetic Alphabet. It might be a fairly accurate representation of her Southern California accent; it certainly has a number of traits consistent with English spoken in that area. – Peter Shor Aug 30 '12 at 3:05

protected by tchrist Sep 26 '12 at 19:01

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