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I'm a native Spanish speaker and I've been learning English for many years. They always taught us that there are two sets of vowels and we learned how to use them mostly by reading and practicing, no sort of rules or anything of that sort. I moved to the US a couple of years ago with my family, and my mom is trying to improve her understanding of English. Only after she started asking me about pronunciation did I notice how unnatural it feels to try to pronounce something for a foreigner. I've been taking classes since I was 4 probably, so it feels almost natural to me. So why isn't it only the vowels that sound like diphthongs, or the ones that sound like Spanish vowels?

closed as unclear what you're asking by Janus Bahs Jacquet, anongoodnurse, Centaurus, Ellie Kesselman, Nicole Apr 20 '15 at 15:06

Please clarify your specific problem or add additional details to highlight exactly what you need. As it's currently written, it’s hard to tell exactly what you're asking. See the How to Ask page for help clarifying this question. If this question can be reworded to fit the rules in the help center, please edit the question.

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    What do you mean by "two sets of vowels"? I've never heard of that. Do you mean different pronunciations for the same vowels? Like "father" vs "apple"? – Kevin Apr 16 '15 at 2:47
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    Recalling my one year of Spanish in 7th grade, one of the nice things about Spanish is that the sounds of most of the letters do not change from one word to the next -- "A" is pronounced the same everywhere, etc. I guess my question would be "How did Spanish get so lucky?", since I suspect that most other languages are more like English. – Hot Licks Apr 16 '15 at 2:57
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    Depend on your accent, English could have 20 or more vowels! Please edit this to explain exactly what you're asking because it's really not very clear. – curiousdannii Apr 16 '15 at 2:59
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    This might be better served on the English Language Learners site: ell.stackexchange.com – Nicole Apr 16 '15 at 3:03
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    As others have said, this question seriously needs some clearing up. Like John, my assumption was that the “two sets” mentioned were probably tense and lax vowels—but the question itself is so vague there is no way to tell what’s being asked at all. If you’re going to ask why English has “two sets of vowels”, please let us know what “two sets of vowels” you’re talking about. – Janus Bahs Jacquet Apr 16 '15 at 9:34
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In potentially ephemeral comments, Professor Lawler wrote:

For non-low vowels, English is arranged in pairs of tense - lax in high and mid front and back. That's /i/ tense ~ /ɪ/ lax for high front (peach vs pitch); /e/ tense ~ /ɛ/ lax for mid front (rake vs wreck); and in the back, /u/ tense ~ /ʊ/ lax (suit vs soot) for high back; and /o/ tense ~ /ɔ/ lax (boat vs bought) for mid back.

Spanish, for instance, has only 5 vowels and does not distinguish tense from lax vowels, so those pairs are hard for many speakers of other languages to distinguish, let alone pronounce correctly.

Oh, and the reason is that the Great Vowel Shift moved long vowels to different places (long /i/ went to /ay/, for instance), but didn't move short vowels. The tense vowels are the formerly long vowels that moved up, and the lax vowels are the formerly short vowels that didn't move.

This answer has been made Community Wiki because it is John’s answer, not mine.

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