I was taught in primary school about "short vowels" vs "long vowels". Although it is a simplistic way to teach children, it is also inaccurate, because the sounds are different, not just longer and shorter. According to Wikipedia these names are a hangover from before the Great Vowel Shift.

Long vowels pre and post the Great Vowel Shift:

Spelling   < 1350   > 1600
a..e       /aː/     /eɪ/
e..e       /eː/     /iː/
ea         /ɛː/     /iː/
i..e       /iː/     /aɪ/
o..e       /ɔː/     /oʊ/
oo         /oː/     /uː/
u..e       /uː/     /aʊ/ (like the "ow" in "how", or the "ou" in "loud")


Letter     "Short"  "Long"
a          /æ/      /eɪ/
e          /ɛ/      /iː/
i          /ɪ/      /aɪ/
o          /ɒ/      /oʊ/
u          /ʌ/      /juː/

As you can see from the table the "long" and "short" forms of the vowel bear almost no relation to each other anymore. I was also taught as a child that each vowel has a single sound value, when there are actually multiple sound values for each letter. I once tried teaching an ESL student about long and short vowels and they immediately became so confused because the long sounds are not predictable from the short ones that I stopped calling them "long" and "short" at once.

I can somewhat understand teaching children this way; getting them used to the sounds each combination of letters frequently makes is more important to their reading skills than getting the terminology spot on. When they're older, it's not worth going back and correcting the terminology. In fact, it could even be confusing.

Since the current description is over 400 years old and doesn't apply to English as it's spoken today (except that diphthongs are usually sounded for longer than monophthongs), what is an accurate way of describing these two groups of vowels that could be taught equally well to young native speakers as well as adult ESL learners?

  • It depends on the purpose of the discussion. There are ways to describe them in terms of modern English phonology, like "lax" and "tense" vowels respectively. I didn't use this terminology in my answer to your previous question because it loses the historical link between the "long" and "short" forms. This link, as you say, is no longer obvious phonetically, but it's actually still applicable morphologically (in alternations like insane~insanity, serene~serenity, divine~divinity, verbose~verbosity) and in discussions of etymology, so I think it's valuable to have terms to describe it.
    – herisson
    Jan 17, 2016 at 6:05
  • @sumelic I'd always wondered why I say private~privacy as /pɹvət/~/pɹɪvəsiː/ when most people say /pɹvət/~/pɹvəsiː/!
    – CJ Dennis
    Jan 17, 2016 at 6:24
  • I don't know from tables, but I do know that the vowels in "book" and "boot" are different, and I don't see how this simple and fairly obvious fact is reflected in those tables of yours.
    – Ricky
    Jan 17, 2016 at 6:24
  • @Ricky That's kind of my point, that things are overly simplified for the sake of teaching. However, "oo" isn't considered a "long vowel" nowadays. The pairs are "o"/"o..e". The tables are showing that before the GVS there were 7 pairs of long/short vowels, but now we go by spelling and we only have 5 letters we consider vowels, even though we have many more vowel phonemes.
    – CJ Dennis
    Jan 17, 2016 at 6:32
  • 2
    This is not an SE English Language & Usage question; this is an SE Linguistics question. It is describing linguistic elements and asking for an analysis in order to determine advanced terminology used in the field of linguistics. I recommend migrating this question to the Stack Exchange Linguistics website: linguistics.stackexchange.com . Jan 17, 2016 at 8:55

2 Answers 2


Well, you're right that it isn't a good description of English, and it isn't really helpful.

What kids have to learn in school is how to read standard English orthography, however.
That's far from a simple task, and everybody approaches it their own way, teacher and student.
I can't really offer you much advice about teaching reading in general.

From my experience of teaching phonetics and phonetic transcription, however, I suspect there are some students who may benefit from learning how the sounds of their language really work before attempting regular spelling, or at the same time. That way nobody will expect spelling to make any sense.

The American English phonemic system isn't hard to read, and there's a free standard Merriam-Webster pronouncing dictionary of it online. Any kid that speaks American English already can learn the symbol correspondences easily, as soon as they learn to listen for what's really there, instead of what's officially supposed be there, but actually isn't.

It's also useful for explaining how spelling mistakes happen, and for understanding (usually later) the etymologies and word relations behind the scenes. Most importantly, it distinguishes between letters on paper and screens -- visual symbols -- from sounds in the air in the language.

Addendum: the Long/Short distinction is still there in the spelling, of course, since it's still Middle English spelling.

But the vowels that changed in the Great Vowel Shift, which was the long vowels in Middle English that are still called "long" in schools, are all now the Modern English tense and diphthongized vowels, and they're symbolized phonemically by ordinary alphabetic letters with their usual international value (English letter names went through the GVS, too):

  • /i, e, o, u/ as in beet, bait, boat, boot.

The vowels that didn't change were the Middle English short vowels. They stayed where they were, more or less, and developed a systematic contrast with the formerly long vowels that has moved into their neighborhood. These are now the Modern English lax and undiphthongized vowels, which are symbolized phonemically by "open" letter symbols that are related to their closest tense vowel symbol:

  • /ɪ, ɛ, ɔ, ʊ/ as in /pin, bet, lawn, put/.

This is an alternative to the standard mythology that might be put to use occasionally.

  • What are you suggesting as alternate names?
    – CJ Dennis
    Aug 30, 2018 at 4:33
  • Use whatever names you want, but be aware that the technical names are always understandable, whereas local terms with local categorizations are unlikely to be understood elsewhere, nor recalled clearly in later life. What sticks is what's useful and easily checkable, and for that I'd usually use the technical terms -- "long" vowels are tense, with diphthong offglides, while "short" ones are lax and pure. Vowel length shouldn't be mentioned at all, unless you're talking about German or Finnish. Aug 30, 2018 at 19:10

There are some names that would work for Dutch,French,Italian etc but not quite so well for English example ''tense(focused)/lax(looser)'',''acute(at an angle)/grave(being pulled down from gravity)'' and ''checked/free''.If you want a quick Linguistic answer then go to the very bottom marked with an *.

The matter is (and you might know already) in many languages long and short vowels are not the same exact sound but longer,even though not as extreme as English they still differ for each other example in Standard-Netherland-Dutch(even though in some other accents they are the same) long e is[e] short e is[ɛ]
long a is[a] short a is[ɑ]
long i is[i] short i is[ɪ] long o is[o] short o is[ɔ] long u is[y] short u is[ʏ]/[ə] long oe is[u] short oe is [ʊ]

In English almost though out its history the long and short vowels where nearly always different from each other resembling modern dutch's at their closest(there might have been some accents that had short vowels and long vowels being the same phoneme but longer and shorter versions however they seem to have been less common since more precision is needed and people are generally sloppy)

The problem with ''tense/acute vs lax/grave''is that with e,a,u and o the names work fine tense e is[i] lax e is [ɛ]
tense a is[e] lax a is [æ]/[a]
tense o is[u] lax o is [ʊ] tense o is[o] lax o is [a]/[ɑ]
tense u is[ʏ̯ʉ] lax u is [ʏ]/[ə]

but not with ''i'' where it breaks the rule by having the long now renamed tense[aɪ] laxer than the lax [ɪ]

so you bothered with a new method to clarify but still have unclear zones.

Then there is ''checked'' and ''free'' vowels this one might be a better name,checked vowels are all the vowels that have to have a full consonant behind(w and y are semi-vowels) to be said in this way,as:


while free vowels can be anywhere including the end,as:

[e],[i],[aɪ̯],[aʊ̯],[o],[u],[ʏ̯ʉ],[y] (hay,glee,bye cow,no,roux,you,ew)

this system however also has a tiny problem and that is short u now renamed checked u [ə] is really a free vowel eg:cup[kəpʰ] vs america[ə'mɚ'ɪkə] also this method would not work with dialects where r is silent and r is not replaced with [ə] after the previous vowel for example ''beer'' becomes [bɪː] rather than [biɚ]/[biə] along with a long list eg: [bɛː]bear and [hɜː]her or even [lɛː]layer and [lɔːɪː]lawyer further more there is the exception in spa [spɑː]/[spaː], bra[brɑː]/[braː],even though minor kinds you are still not creating a system that is less complicated than the one there is.

Long story short (pun kinda intended) ''Long'' and ''short'' work better even though not literally meaning the vowel is the longer or shorter version of the same/similar sound, it's a way of saying/and idiom/alternate meaning in context ,the same way that a slim-chance and fat-chance mean the same thing and wise-man and wise-guy are opposites or in dutch I love you is ''Ik hou van u'' literally ''i hold from you'' and in french ''clair de lune'' literally ''clear of moon'' is moonlight.

*Given length or not in linguistics: ''i,y,e,ø,o,ʉ,ɨ,u,a,ɘ,ɵ,ɤ,a,ɶ''(some disagree on ''a''and ''ɶ'') are ''tense'' while

''ɪ,ʏ,ɛ,œ,ɒ,ʊ̈,ɪ̈,ʊ,æ,ɑ,ɔ,ɛ,ɐ,ʌ'' are ''lax''


''ə'' is ''neutral position''

ɑʊ̯/aɪ̯/oʊ̯/eɪ̯/øʏ̯/oʏ̯/oɪ̯ə/aʊ̯ə/ɪ̯ɛə̯ːoʊ̯ etc. ,any two(or more) vowels sound put next to each other are diphthongs/triphthongs and so on,when a vowel sound rises to a higher vowel sound it's a rising diphthong eg:[eɪ̯]''a'' while when a v.sound falls into an other lower vowel.s it's a falling diphthongs eg: [ɪ̯ɛ]''yeah'', combination diphthongs [aʊ̯ə]''Flour/flower''and same stress diphthongs [eo]''neo''

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