The large number of vowel phonemes in English makes learning pronunciation difficult. I am looking for a string of simple words that highlights the differences between the vowels.

For example, bad, bed, bid, and bead differ only in their vowels. Arranged with a decreasing openness of the vowels, the subtle differences are more noticeable. Are there similar strings of words for the rest of the vowels?

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    Search under "minimal pairs lists". – Cascabel Jun 13 '16 at 18:15
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    Related: The Chaos. – A E Jun 14 '16 at 14:00
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    @AE that's great, not seen that before. – Max Williams Jun 14 '16 at 14:46

For a Southern Standard British English accent, the following words would work:

Short vowels

  • bid
  • bed
  • bad
  • bod
  • pud *
  • bud

Long vowels

  • bead
  • booed
  • bard
  • board
  • bird


  • bayed
  • bide
  • Boyd
  • bowed (ribbon)
  • bowed (genuflected)
  • beard
  • bared

*as in short for pudding

These cover the RP/SSBE vowels minus the schwa. Unfortunately there's no word with /b/ and /d/ like this containing the FOOT vowel. However /p/, being a bilabial plosive is quite close to /b/ and probably the best substitute, yielding the word pud. If we needed a monosyllabic word which normally has a schwa, we could use the weak form of but, /bət/. This doesn't end in a /d/, but similarly to the above, /t/ is the unvoiced partner of /d/, so is probably the best substitute.

This list is mostly cannibalised from Gimson's Pronunciation of English, 7th Edition, 2002.

  • Does nobody but me pronounce bade and bad as homophones? See dictionary. Bayed would be less ambiguous. – Peter Shor Jun 14 '16 at 14:27
  • @PeterShor Not in RP they don't. But, I believe, bayed and bad would also be homophones in some varieties! – Araucaria Jun 14 '16 at 14:30
  • @PeterShor Oh, you mean that way round! I see. Have amended. – Araucaria Jun 14 '16 at 14:35

If one looks only at the first two formants of the vowels, then there are only two dimensions to wander through; but if one looks at the muscles then there are three dimensions (jaw: open..close, tongue: front..back, lips: stretched..rounded) so there is more of a 'stagger' to the lists.

For example, your list could be two lists: (bad, bed, bid) and (bad, bade, bead). {Note that 'bad' can be pronounced with or without stretching [smiling] of the lips}

More lists: (Bach, buck, book) (bought, boat, boot)


Robertson Davies, in The Lyre of Orpheus, gives the following sentence with what he claims are the twelve English vowels:

Who knows ought of art must learn,
And then take his ease.

Of course, this may be Canadian English, given Robertson Davies' nationality. Also, the vowel of book seems conspicuously absent.

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    +1 It rather assumes a STRAP vowel for and and a LOT vowel for of. – Araucaria Jun 14 '16 at 13:05
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    @Araucaria: now that you mention it, that has to be right. So this is RP. And the singer who gives this advice in the novel seems to be British. – Peter Shor Jun 14 '16 at 14:24
  • I'm not sure if it can be, or if it's a mistake. If it's RP, they've included the eleven monopthongs apart from schwa, but included the FACE diphthong, for some unknown reason. I thought is was probably Canadian ..., but who knows? – Araucaria Jun 14 '16 at 14:33
  • @Araucaria: In the novel, these are sung vowels, not spoken vowels. I have no idea whether opera singers were supposed to use a monophthong for the FACE vowel in the mid-20th century, but my impression is that in singing, monophthongs are believed to sound better. – Peter Shor Jun 14 '16 at 23:35
  • But which monophthong would it be? – Araucaria Jun 15 '16 at 0:48

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