For each of the vowel letters of American English, what is the most commonly used sound of each of them. That is, what is the most commonly used sound that represents the letter "a", the most commonly used sound that represents the letter "e", etc.?

  • 3
    Sounds do not represent letters: letters represent sounds--in English, often very badly, although not quite as randomly as it may appear. Mar 15 '17 at 22:22
  • 1
    While this is a pretty clear question, there might be disagreement about possible ways to interpret "most commonly used." Should we give more weight to commonly occuring words like "the," or should we ignore frequency and treat all words (that are not extremely rare) equally?
    – herisson
    Mar 16 '17 at 0:04

The mighty schwa is the most common vowel sound. Spelled in IPA like ə, transliterated as "uh", and generally sounds like a grunt-turned-vowel. Basically the easiest sound to make.

In English, schwa is the most common vowel sound. It is a reduced vowel in many unstressed syllables especially if syllabic consonants are not used. Depending on dialect, it may be written using any of the following letters:

  • 'a', as in about [əˈbaʊt]
  • 'e', as in taken [ˈtʰeɪkən]
  • 'i', as in pencil [ˈpʰɛnsəl]
  • 'o', as in memory [ˈmɛməri]
  • 'u', as in supply [səˈplaɪ]
  • 'y', as in sibyl [ˈsɪbəl]
  • various combinations of letters, such as 'ai' in mountain [ˈmaʊntən]
  • unwritten, as in rhythm [ˈɹɪðəm]

It's the "center" vowel on the IPA vowel diagram.

  • 1
    Read the question carefully. This is not an answer. 'The most common vowel sound in English' is not synonymous with 'the most common pronunciation of the vowel a', for instance. Mar 15 '17 at 23:00
  • @EdwinAshworth yeah, I'm probably being a bit indirect, though as stony suggests in a comment there's not really a good mapping from letters to sounds: the schwa sometimes works for all of them. Probably could draw some freehand circles on the diagram though and say "english a in this region"...
    – Nick T
    Mar 16 '17 at 4:04
  • In casual speech this is surely the correct answer! Mar 16 '17 at 7:36
  • @curiousdannii As tchrist has written, we are looking for more substantial answers with documented references, not merely [statements that may possibly be no more than] personal opinion. Those are just comments, not answers. // Here, the reference claims that the schwa 'is the most common vowel sound', not that it is 'the way u [etc] is most commonly pronounced'. Mar 16 '17 at 13:09

English spelling does not always nicely correspond to sounds, so pretty much any rule about it is going to be a rule of thumb. However, in elementary school, we were taught that every vowel has two sounds: a short sound and a long sound. The short sounds are found in words like "can", "bet", "fin", "con", and "cut". The long sounds are found in words like "cane", "beet", "fine", "cone", and "cute", and are also the names of the letters.

This also leads to the long-short pronunciation rule: a vowel is pronounced long if the consonant following it is followed by a vowel and short if it's followed by a consonant (or nothing). This is the reason behind the silent "e"s in the aforementioned words and the doubling of letters with certain suffixes ("pinning a ribbon" vs "pining for the fjords").

English vowel letters can be pronounced in all manner of ways depending on the word, but these long and short sounds are the most common.

  • not sure how this relates to AmE...
    – JMP
    Mar 16 '17 at 2:05
  • 2
    not sure how it doesn't. Mar 16 '17 at 3:19
  • All the comments above are interesting. However, I'm interested in a statistic created if one took 100 lbs of newspapers and extracted out the various vowel sounds that were triggered by vowel letters, counting their frequency of occurrence. Then, excluding schwa, which vowel sound would predominate (most instances of) triggered by each of the 5 common vowel letters of English? That is, which sound would predominate that was triggered by /a/, which by /e/, etc.
    – F. Carman
    Mar 17 '17 at 6:07

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