English vowels can have two (or more, many more) different pronunciations:

  • A : /eɪ/, mate or /ɑː/, mat
  • E : /i:/, mete or /ɛ/, met
  • I : /aɪ/, mite or /I/, mitt
  • O : /oʊ/, mote or /ɒ/, moth
  • U : /juː/, mute or /ʌ/, mutt

I know that this is far from an exhaustive list of all the phonemes those five letters can represent, but I am interested in the relative frequencies between each of those pairs. I think that for most laypersons, and certainly for me before I started hanging out here, those are the sounds that come to mind when asked to list the sounds represented by the vowel letters.

So, of those phonemes, is the short (monophthong) form or the long (diphthong) form more common? By more common, I mean whether the letter I is more often used to represent /aɪ/ or /I/, not which of the two phonemes is more common but which of the two is I most often used for. Is there a general trend for all vowels or is it specific to certain ones?

I realize that this might not be answerable due to the vast variety of sounds these letters can represent in different dialects or even the same one, but I am hoping a conclusion can be drawn with respect to the specific phonemes listed.

  • 3
    Is this table what you're looking for? The most frequent vowel is the schwa. After that, you get bid, bed, bite, bud, bait, bead, boat, bad in that order. Oct 24, 2014 at 21:27
  • My take, just reading a few sentences and paying attention to the sounds, is that short vowel sounds are 2-3 times more common than long vowel sounds, in general. Of course, that's not enough difference in frequency to construct any sort of a "rule". The "open"/"closed" syllable rule gets you much closer.
    – Hot Licks
    Oct 24, 2014 at 21:27
  • @PeterShor very nearly, thanks. However, I am primarily interested in how often a particular letter is used to represent a particular phoneme. For example, is E more often used to represent an /e/ or an /ɪə/? I am realizing that this is much more complex than I thought what with things like /i/ spelled ae but, if possible, I would like to stick to one sound per letter.
    – terdon
    Oct 25, 2014 at 11:33
  • There are two questions. One: which vowel sound is more common? That's answered in the chart and the first comment. Two: What changes will appear in this phoneme distribution if the source list was filtered to just one letter per phoneme?
    – SrJoven
    Oct 31, 2014 at 12:04
  • @SrJoven not quite. My question is not how common each phoneme is but how often a given letter is used to represent a given phoneme. For example, /ɪə/ can be written with an e as in me but also with an i as in ski so the relative frequencies given in the comment are not enough. I want to know whether letter X is used most often fro sound Y or for sounds Z.
    – terdon
    Oct 31, 2014 at 13:32

1 Answer 1


There are several problems with your question. the first is that you have not correctly identified the short and long vowels. I have tried to do this for you below. As you have mentioned non linguists, I have not used phonetic symbols. Please note that the vowels and diphthongs I have listed are those of standard southern British English.


bad - short; bard - long;

bed - short

bid - short; bead - long;

bod - short; bawd - long

bud - short; booed - long

put - short

about - shot; bird - long


bayed; bide; buoyed; crowd; abode; beard; bared; boor.

  • 2
    Whoa, that doesn't come close to resembling the short/long list I learned in school (in US), dipthongs aside. Since when does a long "I" take on the 'eeee' sound? Maybe in Spanish but what about English - shouldn't that be "I" as in "hide"? Oct 24, 2014 at 20:58
  • 4
    The 'I' in 'I am' is a diphthong, a glide from one vowel (close to the first vowel of 'father') to another (close to the vowel of 'bid'). The vowel of 'in' is a short vowel. I think you are confusing the letters A E I O U, sometimes unhelpfully called vowels, with the vowel sounds of English, of which there are about twelve generally recognised as phonemes in most varieties of English.
    – tunny
    Oct 24, 2014 at 21:02
  • 1
    @tunny Ah, yes, indeed it is. OK, so I am talking about dipthongs. Fine, which of those two is more common in English? The i of I or the one of in? Of all the words spelled with an i, which of these two is most common? Your answer, is just a list of mono and dipthong vowel sounds. That's great but it does not seem to be relevant here.
    – terdon
    Oct 24, 2014 at 21:06
  • 3
    @terdon The alphabet-song letters are all diphthongs: ej, ij, aj, ow, ju — or juw.
    – tchrist
    Oct 24, 2014 at 21:25
  • 2
    @tunny: some phoneticians argue that it's currently becoming one. Oct 24, 2014 at 21:39

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