Vowel /ou/ phoneme (long vowel)

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The vowel /ou/ is a long vowel as in goat, and is more properly written as /ɔʊ/ or /oʊ/ in International Phonetic Alphabet (IPA) symbols. It is generally and informally called the "long o" sound. It is a diphthong, or double vowel, consisting of the vowel /ɔ/ or /o/ gliding off into the lax vowel /ʊ/. This is generally contrasted with the short vowel /ɔ/ as in thought in pronunciation teaching, but different varieties of English make this slightly more complicated. The pure long vowel /o/ by itself is not used in most varieties of English. In this article, the symbol /ou/ will be used to cover all forms of the diphthong. Here, slash marks like /ɔʊ/ indicate a phoneme, while angled brackets like <ou> indicate a letter or spelling, and square brackets like [ɔʊ] indicate a precise phonetic transcription, e.g. indicating a phonetic variant of a sound.


1 Linguistic description

The long vowel /ou/ is not just a longer version of the short vowel /ɔ/, but is qualitatively different – it is glided or diphthongized, i.e., it is actually a double vowel, or two vowel sounds blended together into one phoneme

  • This vowel is a diphthong, or double vowel consisting of two simple vowels blended together, but it functions as a single long vowel and a single phoneme or unique sound of English. Thus, it is a long vowel because it is a diphthong.
  • It consists of the vowel /ɔ/ or /o/ (depending on dialect) plus lax vowel /ʊ/, which are both pronounced in the back of the mouth. The /ɔ/ vowel is a mid-back vowel, being pronounced with the back of the tongue in mid-position between /u/ as in flute and /ɑ/ as in father; in some varieties of English, the slightly higher and tense vowel /o/ might be used. The first vowel component then off-glides into an /ʊ/ sound, like the /ʊ/ in look. For /ʊ/, the tongue muscle is laxed and moves slightly more toward the center of the mouth (centralized).
  • The locus of /ou/ is the back of the tongue, and the /ɔ/ or /o/ is phonetically the core of the diphthong, while /ʊ/ is the off-glide.
  • The sound /o/ by itself does not exist as a separate phoneme in North American or British English, but is found in some dialects of Scottish, Australian, and New Zealand.
  • Naturally, the lips are rounded for this diphthong.
  • This /ou/ diphthong varies across dialects. In American English it often /oʊ/, with the close-mid vowel /o/. In standard British it is actually /əʊ/, as well as in some Southeastern US dialects. Here, the first component is the schwa vowel /ə/ as in the or about, or similar to the /ʌ/ as in hut. In standard Australian, it more like /əʉ/ with the off-glide being a high central vowel (like /ə/ but with the middle of the tongue high in the center of the mouth).

This diphthong can be transcribed in different ways, since it varies across dialects, and because different linguists might use different symbols, including older IPA symbols, for it.

  • /ou/, /ɔʊ/, /oʊ/, /əʊ/, /əʉ/, /ɔɷ, /ɔᴜ/, /ow/, /ō/ (long "o" symbol), etc.

1.1 Cross-linguistic comparison

The simple vowel (monophthong) /ɔ/ occurs in most of the world's languages, and itself is not a problem. The long vowel /o/ by itself occurs in some languages such as German (e.g., rot) and French (e.g.,réseau). . The diphthong /ou/ is less common across the world's languages, as most languages have the monophthong /ɔ/, the monophthong /o/, or both. A few languages with /ou/ include Mandarin (transcribed as <ou>, e.g, kou) and Cantonese. The /ou/ sequence occurs in some languages like Korean, but it is not generally considered a diphthong phoneme, but two different phonemes that simply blend together in pronunciation, and it is more common in a few loan words from English, e.g., 타우린 taurine.

1.2 Teaching /ou/ production

Learners will probably confuse /ou/ with the monophthong /ɔ/ or /o/ of their first language (L1) in their listening and production. For teaching, one can begin with either /ɔ/ or /o/ - one of these will be familiar to them, and it will not matter. Then we teach them to blend it with a second vowel, and since they may not be proficient with the /ʊ/ as in look, it would be better to combine it with the long or tense /u/ as in ooh or flute; Since this will merely be an off-glide, this will suffice. Have them pronounce /o/ and /u/ together, and then blend them together. Then have them emphasize the first vowel more than the second for the proper core-offglide effect.

Teaching often involves contrasting it with the /ɔ/ as in thought or /a/ as in father, which is complicated by the fact that these sounds vary across English dialects. British has a low back vowel /ɒ/ as in lot that it also contrasts with. See below for minimal pair contrasts.

Dictionaries may use incorrect or misleading symbols for /ou/, which may cause confusion for learners. Dictionaries from Korea, for example, tend to use /ɔ/ for the lot vowel and /ɔ:/ for the diphthong /ou/ as in goat, which gives learners the wrong impression that /ou/ is simply a longer version of /ɔ/. The symbol /ɔ:/ is more appropriate for British English; it might be suitable for the monophthong as in thought but this is confusing. The symbol /ɔ:/ it is really more appropriate for a different vowel, the /ɔr/ sound, where the final /r/ is dropped in British, and the preceding vowel lengthens, as in the British pronunciation of door. This is a unique diphthong of British that is a legitimate long /ɔ:/, and is different from the diphthong /ou/.


2 /ou/ in spelling

The spelling of /ou/ is a bit more varied than other vowel phonemes of English. Common patterns include:

  • Final <-oCe>, where C stands for a single consonant, e.g., alone, bone, close, code, hole, home, hope, joke, lone, note, phone, role, stone, phone, pole, smoke, stole, those, vote, whole
  • <o> in words of Latin and Greek origin, e.g., associate, episode, focus, ghost, host, local, moment, notice, open, over, program, social, total
  • <o> in shorter and older English words, especially grammatical function words, e.g., both, don't, only, almost, those
  • final <-o> as in ago, go, no, so
  • <-ol-> as in control, fold, gold, hold, old, sold, soldier, told
  • <-oll> as in roll, poll
  • <ou / ough> as in although, dough, shoulder, soul, though
  • <oa> as in approach, boat, coach, coast, coat, goal, goat, load, loan, road, roast, throat, toast
  • <oe> as in goes, heroes, Joe, potatoes, toe
  • <ow> as in arrow, below, blow, borrow, bowl, crow, elbow, fellow, flow, follow, grow, grown, growth, know, low, narrow, owe, own, row (line), shadow, show, slow, snow, throw, tomorrow, tow, window, yellow
  • Spelling anomalies such as gross


3 Practice materials and activities

Minimal pairs, which contrast a target sound with a sound that is a separate phoneme, are typical starting points for production and practice activities, particularly comparing /æ/ and /ɛ/. These sounds can be contrasted with each other in minimal pair contrasts in syllable-initial or word-initial position, and in medial position, i.e., in the middle of a word. This sound does not generally occur in word-final position. For more on types of minimal pairs activities to train listeners to discern and produce sounds, see the following.

  1. Pronunciation: Listening exercises
  2. Pronunciation: Production exercises
  3. Pronunciation: Controlled activities
  4. Pronunciation: Interactive activities


3.1 Minimal pairs

Here are a few minimal pairs for practice; see below for more.

3.1.1 Contrasts between /a/ and /ou/

ah

baa
blah
calm
fa
ha
khan
la
ma            

oh

bow
blow
comb
foe
hoe
cone
lo
Moe            

3.1.2 Contrasts between short /ɔ/ and long /ou/

awk            

ball
bought
block
caught
cawed
chalk
clause
fawn
flaw
flawed
gnaw
jaw
law
malt
maw
naught
odd
pall
prawn
rod
saw
scald
slaw
talk
taught
Todd
tossed
trawl
walk

oak            

bowl
boat
bloke
coat
code
choke
close
phone
flow
flowed
now
Joe
low
molt
mow
note
ode
pole
prone
road
sew / sow            
scold
sloe
toke
tote
toad
toast
troll
woke

3.2 Practice items

3.2.1 Simple words

Some basic /ou/ words for practice.

load        

road
toad
posed
bowed
flowed
old
bold
cold

fold        

sold
told
cone
Joe
toe
nose
pose
quote

coal        

foal
roll
toll
soul
bowl
Joan
loan
groan

so        

host
most
bow
row
tow / toe

3.2.2 Practice sentences

  1. Do your outmoded diodes or electrodes explode? What do you do for exploding diodes or electrode explosions?
  2. Do your programming codes implode at multiple nodes? What if you overrode or recoded your code?
  3. Would imploding node or exploding codes forebode something bad for your abode?
  4. Do you use cathodes or diodes in your home?
  5. Do you have bad dream episodes about scary nematodes? Do you have geologically themed dreams about colorful geodes?
  6. Do your pipes corrode, or does your garden soil erode? What do you to forestall corrosion and erosion?
  7. If you notice this notice, you will notice that this notice is not worth noticing.

(Author: Kent Lee)


4 Tense-lax alternations

The /ou/ vowel is subject to tense-lax alternations in words of Latin origin. When /ou/ is in final or near-final syllable position as in mode (in ultimate or final position) or hypnosis (penultimate, or pre-final position), and a suffix is added, the /ou/ laxes to an /ɔ/ sound, especially if its syllable position is shifted leftward. See vowel tense-lax stress alternations for more. Some typical examples include:

/ou/ /ɔ/   /ou/ /ɔ/
code

compose

cone

cyclone

episode

evoke

expose

globe

holy

hypnosis

joke

know

locate

microbe

microscope

codify

composite

conic

cyclonic

episodic

evocative

expository

globular

holiday

hypnotic

jocular

knowledge

locative

microbic

microscopic

  mode

neurosis

omen

ozone

phone

provoke

psychosis

solo

symbiosis

telephone

telescope

tone

trope

verbose

vocal

modular

neurotic

ominous

ozonic

phonics

provocative

psychotic

solitude

symbiotic

telephonic

telescopic

tonic

tropical

verbosity

vocative


5 More minimal pairs

The following words contrast /ou/ (or /əʊ/) with either /a/ or /ɔ/, depending on the variety of English; in these words, American English tends to use /a/ while British tends to use /ɔ/. In some varieties of American English, the /ɔ/ has disappeared altogether and has been replaced with /a/, e.g., in Texas English.

aught oat

auk oak
awe O
awed ode
awing owing
awning owning
bald bold
baldly boldly
baldness boldness        
ball bole
bawd bode
calk coke
calks coax
call coal
caught coat
causes cosies
cawed code
chalk choke
chalky chokey
chaws chose
clause close
caw Co

daunt don't

daw doe
drawl droll
drawn drone
fall foal
faugh foe
faun phone
fawn phone
flaw flow
for foe
fore foe
galled gold
gaud goad
Gaul goal
gauze goes
ghat goat
gnaw know
hall hole
haul hole
hauled hold
haulier holier            
haulm home

haw ho

hawed hoed
hawks hoax
jaw Joe
laud load
law low
lawn loan
malt moult
Maud mode
maul mole
maw mow
nought note
pall pole
paltry poultry
pause pose
pawky poky
pawn pone
prawn prone
punchball punchbowl        
raw roe
saw sew

saw sow

scald scold
scrawl scroll
shawl shoal
slaw sloe
sorely solely
stalk stoke
stall stole
store stow
strawed strode        
talk toque
taught tote
taut tote
tawny Tony
trawl troll
vault volt
walk woke
walled wold
war woe
ward woad


The following words contrast /ou/ (UK /əʊ/) with /a/ fairly reliably for American or British English.

ah O

aha oho
alms ohms
baa beau
baa bow
behalves behoves
blah blow
cadre coda
calm comb
calmer comber
fa foe
ghastly ghostly            

grave (i.e., grave accent)        

grove
ha ho
khan cone
la lo
ma Mo
rah roe
rah row
shah shew
ta toe


In the following words, /ou/ (UK /əʊ/) contrasts with American /ae/ or British /a/.

cast coast

caste coast
caster coaster
class close
grass gross
halve Hove
lath loath
laugh loaf
mast most
passed post
pastor poster
past post
topmast topmost        


6 Notes


6.1 See also

Portal:Phonology