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What is the regularity of appearance of /uː/ and /u/ (or /ʊ/ in RP)? How can I be most sure deducing from spelling alone, that, say, "ooze" is pronounced /uːz/ and "wool" as /wul/? I know that English vowels are peculiar, but I don't want to look up the pronunciation of words in the dictionary that often.

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You can never be sure from spelling alone. There are words, like wind, that have different pronunciations for different meanings. –  Mr Lister Dec 10 '12 at 10:23
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You could try to learn rules, but you'd probably find that there are so many exceptions, it's hardly worth it. I think the only way to truely learn pronunciation is to speak it among native speakers. –  Urbycoz Dec 10 '12 at 11:00
    
Um, wool is actually /wʊl/, although yes, ooze is /uːz/. –  tchrist Dec 10 '12 at 12:50
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There are also dialect differences. "Book" and "hook" are /ʊk/ in most of the English speaking world, but /uk/ for some in North-West England. –  Colin Fine Dec 10 '12 at 18:35
    
You need to study the history of these graphemes: <oo>, <ou>, <ow>, <u>. Study the great vowel shift, and check Edward Carney's work on spelling, as well as Christopher Upwards' book. –  RainDoctor Dec 11 '12 at 22:23
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up vote 3 down vote accepted

Unfortunately, the occurrence of /u/ vs /ʊ/ is a little arbitrary, in particular because the /u/ vowel occurs in words coming from a number of sources. There are even a few words where either vowel is possible (e.g. "room", "broom", "toothpick"), though /u/ is possibly becoming more predominant in these cases.

However, here are some rules of thumb:

  • /ʊ/ is generally only spelt 'u' or 'ou', or 'oo' especially in a few "basic" monosyllabic words ("book", "good", "wood", "wool" but also a few others e.g. "soot")
  • if you have some other letter combination ('ui', 'eu', 'ew' etc) you therefore know it can't be /ʊ/ (there are very very occasional exceptions to this, e.g. "Worcester" has /ʊ/ as the first vowel);
  • similarly, if you have 'oo' in a "non basic" word, it's probably /u/;
  • /ʊ/ isn't ordinarily the final vowel of a word, so e.g. in "who", "do", "woo", "moo" etc the vowel cannot be /ʊ/;
  • this extends to declined forms of such words, so e.g. -ed and -ing endings directly after the vowel will generally be an indication that the vowel is /u/ (cf. "wood" vs "wooed");
  • though this doesn't affect many words, /ʊ/ doesn't readily occur at the beginning of a word, so in "ooze", "oodle(s)", "ooh!", "oops!" you will generally have /u/, though it's true there is some variation with the 'onomatopoeic exclamations';
  • words similar to (because they are derived from) French words tend to have /u/, e.g. "soup", "route" [for UK speakers], "group" etc;
  • word-final "-oon" that derives from French "-on" will also generally have /u/ (cf "balloon").

There is also a little idiolectal variation as I mentioned, and in Scotland, the two vowels are often neutralised by some speakers, so e.g. "full"/"fool", "pull"/"pool" are pronounced with the same vowel.

P.S. You can generally assume that /u/ and /u:/ are basically the "same vowel". Like vowels in general, /u/ will be lengthened before a syllable-final voiced consonant, so e.g. in "use" the noun [jus] it will be shorter than in "use" the verb [ju:z]. But this is essentially the same phenomenon as in e.g. "piece" [pis] vs "peas" [pi:z], or "sent" [sɛnt] vs "send" [sɛ:nd] etc.

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Never thought of send as being [sɛːnd], but I see what you mean. BTW, in my native accent, route rhymes with shout not boot so is [raʊt] not [ruːt], and root rhymes with foot not with boot, so is [rʊt] not [ruːt]. This is from the Inland North area, basically upper Great Lakes region. But you will of course be understood if you say it the other way. It’s much easier than Scotland. :) –  tchrist Dec 13 '12 at 5:38
    
Sorry yes, I'm a British speaker-- I think most US speakers have /aʊ/ in "route". I've added a note to the answer. –  Neil Coffey Dec 13 '12 at 14:55
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