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I am a native English speaker. My country's English is similar to British English. I noticed that when I pronounce words like "show" or "fellow", I seem to drop the 'w' and just say "sho" or "fello". I wonder if that is normal or if maybe I just can't pronounce the 'w' at the end of a sentence.

"show" "fellow"
British /ʃəʊ/ /feləʊ/
American /ʃoʊ/ /feloʊ/

What does ʊ mean?

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  • 1
    Think of it as the semiconsonant glide /w/ instead of as a vocalic /ʊ/ might help. You already say this; you just don’t realized you are saying it.
    – tchrist
    Apr 8, 2015 at 3:48
  • In fellow, did you mean /fɛl/ (SELL vowel, "short e" ) or /fel/ ("long a", SAY vowel? Is the e open or closed?
    – livresque
    Feb 17, 2023 at 12:34
  • Helpful: itinerarium.github.io/phoneme-synthesis
    – Hot Licks
    Feb 17, 2023 at 13:37
  • It's a fairly common practice to use a character that's easier to type in place of one that's harder to type, when transcribing a language which doesn't have a phonemic difference between the two. Such is the case here. English has no native [e], so perhaps the OP felt that using [e] for [ɛ] was OK. The FACE vowel could be transcribed as [ei] with or without a "non-syllabic" marker, or [ej] (though that might entail putting [j] word-finally or before a consonant, which English doesn't do). Transcribing FACE as [e], unless for speech in an accent which flattens it, might confuse.
    – Rosie F
    Feb 17, 2023 at 18:02
  • 1
    @RosieF You would be surprised by how many Americans have monophthongal [e] when it isn't at the end of word. And not just in Duluth, either.
    – tchrist
    Feb 17, 2023 at 22:38

3 Answers 3

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On that symbol. It's here:

http://dictionary.cambridge.org/help/phonetics.html

that symbol is the short vowel "u" of "foot" and "book."

See also:

http://my-english-blackboard.blogspot.ca/2014/12/british-english-vowels.html

http://my-english-blackboard.blogspot.com.es/p/pronunciation-tips-u-and.html

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    I don’t think explaining it as what is essentially the PUT vowel is very useful here.
    – tchrist
    Apr 8, 2015 at 3:49
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What does ʊ mean?

In those examples, like /ʃəʊ/ and /ʃoʊ/, the correct answer is nothing.

If you look at the pronunciation guides from your favorite dictionary, say Cambridge or OxfordLD or Dictionary.com, they only describe /əʊ/ and /oʊ/ as single units, representing the vowel in words like "goat." They also use /ʊ/ on its own to represent the vowel in words like "put." But the "ʊ" in /oʊ/ has no independent meaning of its own.

So why do they use two letters to represent a single vowel? The answer is that most speakers, in most contexts, pronounce /oʊ/ as a diphthong. The use of the symbol "ʊ" to represent the second half of that diphthong is arguably misleading; I'll leave it to Geoff Lindsey to explain why it might be preferable for dictionaries to use /ow/ to represent that diphthong instead (with /ow/ again, though, interpreted as a single unit).


But one question remains: why do some dictionaries use different symbols, /əʊ/ and /oʊ/, when describing pronunciations in British and American English, respectively? This is going to take some work to explain, because you'll need to understand the difference between phonemes (word parts) and phones (mouth noises).

I'm going to give an extremely oversimplified explanation of how this distinction leads to confusion. IPA symbols like "ə" and "ʊ" are typically used in one of two ways. First, they can be used to objectively describe the sounds of which a person's speech consists at various levels of detail. Used this way, to represent phones, the IPA symbols correspond to the sounds described on the IPA chart; you can see versions of this chart with corresponding audio recordings online, e.g. here. IPA symbols used to represent phones (in phonetic transcriptions) are generally placed between square brackets. But dictionaries do not use IPA symbols this way. After all, the exact pronunciation of the vowel in "goat" differs between speakers, and this same vowel can be pronounced in different ways in different environments, so objective descriptions of mouth noises would be very complex and of little value. Instead, dictionaries use IPA symbols to represent phonemes, more abstract units of sound used to convey meaning (see Wiki). When IPA symbols are used to represent phonemes (in phonemic transcriptions, which are usually placed between slashes rather than square brackets), they do not correspond in any direct way to sounds on the IPA chart. That said, the IPA symbols chosen (by e.g. dictionaries) to represent phonemes aren't entirely arbitrary either. They're supposed to correspond (very, very loosely) to the phones typically used when pronouncing them. But again: this correspondence is not at all precise, so recordings of the phones [o] and [ʊ] on the IPA chart are not directly relevant to the interpretation of the phoneme /oʊ/ in a dictionary's transcription.

Now, in American English and British English, the vowel phoneme in "goat" is pronounced differently. In particular, the start of that diphthong in American English is often close-ish to the phone [o], whereas in British English it's often closer to [ə]. Since the phonemic transcriptions used by dictionaries are supposed to correspond at least loosely to the phones used in actual speech, some dictionaries use different symbols, /əʊ/ and /oʊ/, when representing that phoneme in British and American English, respectively, though this is often more a matter of convention than phonetic accuracy. Note that other dictionaries don't do this; OxfordLD, for instance, uses /əʊ/ in phonemic transcriptions for both dialects: again this is because dictionary transcriptions need not correspond precisely to actual sounds. (As stated above, in phonemic transcriptions it might be wiser for them to use /əw/ or /ow/ instead.)

But again: this is only a loose correspondence. If you read the very precise phonetic transcriptions of the word toe on SoundComparisons, you can see how the phones used by actual speakers to pronounce the start of that diphthong vary widely. In their recording of British Received Pronunciation, it's [ə]; in "Standard Canadian" it's [o]; in "Standard US" it's [ʌ̈], in the traditional Boston accent it's [ɔ̈], et cetera. These phones actually do correspond to the values on the IPA chart you can find online.

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  • By [ʌ̈] and [ɔ̈], do you mean [ɜ] and [ɞ] respectively? If so, why do you use those old symbols?
    – Arfrever
    Oct 29, 2023 at 4:19
  • @Arfrever No. That diacritic indicates some degree of centralization, but not necessarily as much as [ɜ] and [ɞ].
    – alphabet
    Oct 29, 2023 at 4:30
  • Normally ◌̈ should mean central vowel. It seems that for what you intend (see here), you should use ◌̟ (COMBINING PLUS SIGN BELOW): [ʌ̟], [ɔ̟]
    – Arfrever
    Oct 29, 2023 at 4:38
  • @Arfrever No. As Wiki explains: "Before the letters [ɘ, ɵ, ɜ, ɞ] were added to the IPA in 1993, the symbols [ë, ö, ɛ̈, ɔ̈] were used for these near-schwa values. [ë, ö, ɛ̈, ɔ̈] would now be assumed to represent articulations intermediate between [e, o, ɛ, ɔ] and [ɘ, ɵ, ɜ, ɞ]."
    – alphabet
    Oct 29, 2023 at 4:44
  • 1) Let's start here: there's no /w/ or [w] in everyday pronunciations of showing for most speakers. What you get in RP/SSBE/BG/*Call it whatever you want*, is [ʃəɪŋ] with not a hint of a w in sight! 2) Putting your novel ideas on Youtube instead of publishing them in a peer reviewed space is fine, but it isn't the same thing, so these ideas are not tested in any way. Geoff has demurred from trying to get them published in a peer reviewed journal, and hasn't, so far as I know, done any experimental work to test them. ... Oct 29, 2023 at 16:19
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In English there are two sets of very similar sounds:

  1. The "long" /u/ and the semivowel /w/.
  2. The "short" /ʊ/ and the semivowel /ω/

Unlike the other three sounds, the semivowel /ω/ does not have a symbol of its own. It is represented by /ʊ/ when posioned afterva vowel. Odd and inaccurate.This is why I gave him the symbol 'ω'

All of them are variations of the /u/ vowel. Or so I think.

The first set of sounds is made in the front of the mouth. These sounds are produced by actively using the lips and tongue, /u/ being long and /w/ being very short. To simplify, we can say that both are the same sound, one being the longer version and the other, being the shorter one. Also, we can use the notion that /u/and /w/ have a "pure" /u/ sound.

The second set of sounds is made in the back of the mouth (almost in the throat). These other sounds are produced by not using or only barely the lips and tongue, /ʊ/ being long and /ω/ being short. Whereas we know all there is to know about /u/ and /w/, the other two unusually shaped vowels need some elaboration.

a. So, regarding the quality of /ω/ and /ʊ/. /ʊ/ represents the outcome of trying to pronounce /u/ in the back of the mouth. On the other hand /ω/ represents the result of trying to pronounce /w/ in the back of the mouth.

b. Regarding their length. While /u/ and /ʊ/ are long (vowels), /w/ and /ω/ are short (semivowels).

c. Being semivowels /w/ and /ω/ are present only in diphtongs and triphtongs. They always accompany a tense vowel: when /wen/ and know /noω/. I suppose /w/ precedes (or follows) a tense vowel, whereas /ω/ is connected to lax vowels.

d. When /ω/ is graphically represented it is written with the letter W.

My suggestion would be that in reality /ω/ is much more used than W. I suppose that many /ω/s are mistakenly written as Ws in dictionaries.

For instance in "woman" I don't hear a W but a /ω/ followed by a /ʊ/: /ωʊmən/. Yet in the dictionaries it is /wʊmən/.

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  • I think it makes more sense to view word-final "w" as a convention for representing several diphthongs or long vowels in open syllables e.g. depending on dialect in threw /u:/, dew /ju:/ (UK), blow/show /oʊ/, cow/now /aʊ/, caw/maw /ɔ:/. Many of these end somewhere similar to the "put" vowel in RP or Standard American English, but not all do. Trying to pretend English orthography is phonetic is a fool's errand.
    – Stuart F
    Dec 29, 2022 at 12:51
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    Then what is the point to introduce the new sign /ʊ/- for the short /ʊ/? It could have been /w/ as before. Dec 30, 2022 at 22:10
  • 1
    /w/ represents a consonant (a bilabial approximant); /ʊ/ is a vowel. They may be similar in realisation but they're different sounds and phonologically different (e.g. /ʊ/ can occur between consonant clusters and form a syllable as in "pulled"). But arguing why the IPA uses one symbol rather than another is pointless; it was largely invented by French-speakers so it has no requirement to match English orthography.
    – Stuart F
    Oct 11, 2023 at 16:49

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