The letter U is pronounced differently in different words such as Umbrella and Utensils, as well as when it is Used inside of words such as stUdent and stUdy. Can I please have a grammatical explanation?

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    Grammar is immaterial. – tchrist Jan 9 '14 at 0:20
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    Yes, it's not grammar. It's English spelling. Don't think of a "letter being pronounced" one way or another. Letters in English are not pronounced -- that is, there is no regular way people pronounce words that contain them. Especially vowels. English spelling has 5 vowel letters, while the English language has around 14 vowels. That's about like writing Japanese with only 17 kana; it would get very very difficult to figure out what is meant. – John Lawler Jan 9 '14 at 0:38
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    Try "gh" like rough; "o" like women and "ti" like nation. Therefore, "ghoti" is pronounced "fish". – Elliott Frisch Jan 9 '14 at 1:52
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    Reminds me of: "Dearest Creature in Creation, study English pronunciation. I will teach you in my verse sounds like corpse, corps, horse and worse." Goes on for several pages, too. – teylyn Jan 9 '14 at 2:49
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    Dearest Creature is pretty amazing (thanks, @teylyn). – Hannele Jan 9 '14 at 3:03

It isn't so much a grammatical issue, as an historical one.

To make a very long story short, between the 1300s and 1700s, English underwent a change in pronunciation called the Great Vowel Shift. It was messy, and inconsistent. There are a few theories about why this happened, but there is as of yet no great consensus.

Unfortunately for you and every other English language student, the standardization of spelling happened right in the middle, between the 1500s and 1600s. So, many of the spellings were created to reflect older pronunciations, which are no longer used today.

In other cases, the different pronunciations of the letter reflect the language of origin. English is a basically a mishmash of Anglo-Saxon, Norman French, and Latin, with bits of Dutch and Old Norse and others thrown in for fun, based on a long history of conquerors taking over the British Isles.

As it happens, none of the examples you've given in your question are of actual English origin: umbrella is Latin via Italian, and use, utensil, study and student are Latin via French. Other words like up and under are from Old English, while ugly comes from Old Norse. Here, you can already see some patterns, that the words of Latin origin tend to have one sound (use, utensil, student), while the words of Old English / Germanic origin tend to another (up, under, ugly), but even that isn't consistent (study, umbrella). Roughly speaking, these correspond to IPA /u/ and /ʌ/ respectively.

Other examples: great big clusters of vowels tend to point towards a French origin, like oeuvre and bouquet. Clusters of mostly silent consonants tend to point towards very old words of a Germanic origin (brought, knight), where one or more consonants have been elided over centuries of usage.

tl;dr: There are no hard and fast rules for determining the pronunciation of English words directly from spelling. In fact, even native English speakers will occasionally trip over the pronunciation of a particular word, particularly when it is seen written many times before hearing it spoken (this last from personal experience).

There have been attempts to resolve this issue, which can be fascinating to read about, but as of yet, none have stuck.

In cases of doubt, Wiktionary does a wonderful job of showing pronunciations in IPA format for British and American English, and there is usually at least one audio sample to listen to.

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    Why did it happen? In any language with more than five or six vowels, vowel shifts are happening all the time. For example, French meuble comes from Latin mobile, and nouvelle comes from Latin novellus, both definitely different vowels. The Great Vowel Shift was an extremely large vowel shift, and nobody knows if there was a reason for this or if it was just chance. – Peter Shor Feb 26 '17 at 12:57
  • Oh sure, vowel shifts happen all the time, but if I understand correctly the Great Vowel Shift in English was bigger and more sudden than usual, and that's why it gets a Grand Capitalized Name (there could also be some anglo-centrism involved though). – Hannele May 6 at 19:17

As a commenter notes, the issue is that English has more vowel sounds than it does letters for vowels. A similar issue was noted by an anonymous scholar of the twelfth century trying to devise an alphabet for Icelandic (which also has many vowel sounds). The scholar discusses in a relevant part why he decided to add some new vowel letters to the five from the Latin alphabet:

Now it may well happen that some one will speak up in this way: 'I can read the Danish language perfectly well, even though it be written with the proper Latin letters. I can make out what it says, even when some of the letters in what I read can not be pronounced correctly ... To that I say: it is not the virtue of the letters that enables you to read and to make out the meaning where the letters are unclear. That is rather YOUR virtue, and it is not to be expected that I also, or any one else like me, if such there be, shall be able to read well and to make out which path to take where more than one course is possible because it is written one way, but not clearly, and we then have to guess, as you claim you can do so well.

Haugen (1950) "First Grammatical Treatise"

English readers effectively become good at "guessing" how to pronounce a word, since we don't have enough vowels to write with.

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The main form of English is speech, not writing. We speak much more than we write, and occasionally we want to write something down that someone said or we imagine saying.

So the letter u is not pronounced at all. Sounds are written down using the letter u. As other answers explain multiple different sounds are written with the same letter.

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The letter "u" (by itself, not in a digraph like "au" or "ou") is actually one of the more reliably-pronounced vowel letters. There are a substantial number of exceptions to the rules for U, but they're easy to enumerate compared to the rules for pronouncing a letter like E or O.

The general rule is that it's regular for U to be pronounced "short" in "closed" syllables, and "long" in "open" syllables. This is somewhat based on historical sound changes.

These concepts are not too complicated, but I'll explain them here since they are also useful for understanding other parts of English spelling.

Long u

The "long" pronunciation of U is usually the same as its name, /juː/ ("yoo"). Fairly regularly, /uː/ ("oo") is used instead in certain contexts:

  • U is "oo" for nearly all speakers after one of the following consonants: /r/ /ʃ/ ("sh") /dʒ/ ("j") /tʃ/ ("ch"), or a consonant cluster ending in /l/
  • U is "oo" for nearly all American, and a substantial number of British English speakers in most words when it falls in a stressed syllable after one of the following consonants: /l/ /s/ /z/

  • U is "oo" for most American speakers, but "yoo" for most British speakers when it falls in a stressed syllable after one of the following consonants: /t/ /d/ /n/

In an unstressed syllable, "long u" can be pronounced several ways due to vowel reduction: /juː/, /jʊ/ or /jə/ (or after one of the special consonants mentioned above, /uː/, /ʊ/ or /ə/).

When "long u" comes before an /r/, it becomes an r-colored vowel, as in "sure". This may rhyme with "tour", or for some speakers, it may rhyme with "shore", and for yet other speakers (mainly Americans) it may rhyme with "sir" (the source of the Airplane! "don't call me Shirley" joke).

Short u

The "short" pronunciation of U is /ʌ/. In a small number of words /ʊ/ is used instead (for more information on that, see "Why are "put" and "but" different in their pronunciation?" and "Do "hull" and "full" rhyme?— rules for "short U" sounds before L"). In unstressed syllables, "short" U is almost always reduced to /ə/.

When "short u" comes before r and then another consonant, it is pronounced as in "fur". When "short u" comes before double "rr" followed by another vowel letter, it is usually pronounced as in "hurry", but in words with the adjective suffix -y it is pronounced as in "fur" (an example: "furry"). This is just like how "carry" and "starry" are pronounced differently. Many American speakers merge the vowels in "hurry" and "furry".

Open and closed syllables

In English spelling, there is a concept of "open" and "closed" syllables. A syllable is closed if it ends in a consonant (for example, "run" or "duck"). It is also usually closed when it comes before more than one consonant letter (either a double consonant as in "butter", or before a consonant cluster like "st" in "mustard").

On the other hand, a syllable is open when it ends in a vowel letter followed by another vowel letter (for example "glue" or "fluid"), or when it comes before a single consonant followed by another vowel letter (such as "silent e"); for example "rude" or "stupid").

Certain consonant clusters don't usually close the preceding syllable (at least, not when they occur in non-compound words). These are: pl cl gl pr tr cr br and usually dr gr (example words with long u: duplicate nucleus bugle supreme nutrient lucrative rubric).

Open and closed syllables and U

As I said, U is fairly reliably pronounced short in closed syllables, and long in open syllables. The main exceptions are:

Irregularly long U:

  • words ending in "uth": ruth and truth (and derived words)

Irregularly short U:

  • stŭdy, pŭnish, sŭburb, bŭnion, dŭcat

  • (for many speakers) pumice

  • (for some speakers) cumin

  • ugly snugly smugly (compare bugle)

  • pŭblish, pŭblic, kind of (there are no words with long u before bl)

Extremely irregular pronunciation of u:

  • busy = "bizzy", bury = "berry"
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  • My cumin starts like my cute, so with a /kju/. That other way sounds weird. Also, you should recognize that tune and stupid have that same /ju/ phoneme in some speakers, and perhaps who those are. – tchrist Feb 26 '17 at 3:30
  • @tchrist: "cumin" can be pronounced various ways, including "coomin". "cummin" does seem to be less common than I thought though according to the following Phrontistery poll: only 6.4%. Maybe I'll drop it from the list as unimportant. I did differentiate between different consonant groups for yod-dropping. – herisson Feb 26 '17 at 3:37

The long u sounds "oo" as in toot, and "yu" as in you) After the Russian, I'll refer to these as the hard long u, and a softened long u.

As sumelic indicated, u takes the the "oo" sound after /r/ /ʃ/ ("sh") /dʒ/ ("j") /tʃ/ ("ch"), or a consonant cluster ending in /l/, /l/ /s/ /z/

These sounds have some peculiar properties relative to the sound [i] "ee" which is the initial component of the [j] 'y'

[r] is produced either in the back of the throat or with a flip of the tongue, and it is difficult to produce a front 'ee' sound with the tongue in those positions, with a subsequent closure to 'oo' [l] is a similar front liquid that makes tricky rapid shifting of anterior tongue shape. It is not impossible to make (e.g. the Chinese name Liu] but not an English thing

all of the sibilants engage a firm tongue somewhere in the front-back axis, and the shift to the soft tongue anterior [i] or [j] is lost in the noise.

the sound [w] also involves a rapid back front shift to [y]

for the voiced and unvoiced labial, dental, or gutteral, it is facile to soften the vowel or not, hence there are word pairs and situations such as

boot butte beaut [byoot] coot cute [kyoot] duty [dyootee] however dude [dood]!!!! FUBAR futile [fyootail] who hue [hyoo] mood mewed [myood] noodle nude, nuclear with n or ny poodle puke [pyook] toon tune [tyoon]

we are left with the sound of the initial open syllable for words beginning with [u]

in the original languages, e.g. latin, and others, e.g. Spanish, French, German, the [u] is pronounced UNsoftened, just [oo]

So why in English is it yoosually softened in the initial position in words like yooniversity, yootile, younique, We pronounce Youtrecht, when the native say OOtrecht.

This initial position has orthographic implications, since it avoids a hard glottal stop, and the semivowel [j] causes the indefinite article to change from "an" to "a"

What was the origin of the 'softening' of the initial "u"?

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