Episode 140: You Say ‘To-may-to’

Vowel sounds are a key feature of every language, but the actual vowel sounds vary from one language to another. The English language contains about twenty vowel sounds, some of which are pure vowels and some of which are a combination of vowel sounds called diphthongs. In this episode, we explore the pure vowel sounds used in Modern English, and we examine how slight changes in the vowel sounds contribute to accent differences within Modern English.


33 thoughts on “Episode 140: You Say ‘To-may-to’

  1. Hi Kevin,

    Let me just say that this is far and away my favorite podcast…I’ve been teaching English for over 20 years, and in nearly every episode, there is a moment where my jaw drops because I learn something new.

    This episode was of extra special interest for me, because one of my specialties is teaching pronunciation to non-native English speakers. Vowels are notoriously hard to teach, so I’m always in search of new ideas for teaching them. This brings me to the main point of my post.

    I really liked your idea of a mnemonic for the order of the vowels: “Eat aged eggs”. However, after I listened to that, I wondered “Where is the “short I” sound?

    I thought you might be focusing on only the most front vowels, but when you expanded your mnemonic to include the rest of the “pure” vowels, it was still missing the “short I” sound.

    I don’t know if this was intentional or unintentional, but I believe “short I” really should be included in any mnemonic of “pure” English vowels.

    I know re-recording and editing the episode is not a very realistic option, but for you (and anyone reading these comments), a simple way to fix the mnemonic is to add “icky” after “eat”, so “Eat icky aged eggs (…)”.

    I mean no disrespect, and am only trying to help the cause of better understanding English phonology (and history)!

    Keep up the great work, Kevin!

    • I have no idea if Darin’s suggestion is a good one. All my degrees are in physical sciences, so most everything discussed in the podcast (and by commentators) is new to me. I find it all endlessly fascinating.

      One request: do not use “icky” in the pneumonic device. When my kids were young the only words I did not want to hear were “icky” and “yuck.” I did not want to disparage other’s taste in food and I wanted to encourage my kids to use real words to express themselves.

      With that in mind, let me suggest another word to use instead of icky: ichthiosaurus. (I think this latter word starts with the same vowel sound as icky…but what do I know.)

      Let’s see: eat aged ichthiosaurus eggs at Ollies… Yes, that’s much better 🙂

    • Yeah, I wondered the same thing. After a brief mention of the ‘short i’ sound at the beginning, no mention was made of it again. I initially thought Kevin was duscussing only the long vowels until I realized that was not the case. I wondered why the ‘short i’ sound was left out of the mnemonic.
      This is such a superb podcast that I feel awful in saying anything that might seem like a criticism. This episode in particular is one of my favourites. I especially love the episodes that discuss phonology. I have listened to some of those episodes more than ten times.
      Thank you, Kevin, for a fantastic podcast.

    • Hi Darin. With respect to the ‘short I’ sound, you are correct that I left it out of the mnemonic. There was a reason why I did that. In this episode, I wanted to discuss the basic vowel sounds used in English to set the stage for the next couple of episodes. Of course, the Great Vowel Shift involves changes to the long vowel sounds, but not the short vowel sounds. So the mnemonic incorporates the vowel sounds that I will be discussing over the next couple of episodes. I will deal with certain aspects of the short vowels at a later date. Franky, I debated whether I should even mention the short vowels here, but they are really a key to understanding the relative positions of the vowels. That’s also why I didn’t bother with the various versions of the low ‘ah’ sound which actually have several different ‘short’ versions in English. You might say that I gave them ‘short’ shrift. 🙂

  2. I am delighted and excited that the podcast has reached the great vowel shift. Kevin, I hope you will specifically discuss the vowel changes in the words: come doom remove love(d) proved. In Shakespeare’s sonnet #116 (Let me not to the marriage of true minds, published 1609) Shakespeare rhymes the above pairs of words. I’m guessing that come doom was pronounced comb dome. The final couplet of the sonnet is,
    If this be error and upon me proved,
    I never writ, nor no man ever loved.

    • Episode 142 will focus on the changes that took place among the back vowels. I’ll definitely try to address the vowel change you mentioned as part of that episode.

  3. Kevin,

    I have subscribed and listened to your podcast since I discovered it over a year ago and went back to episode one to get the full richness of everything you are doing. I incorporate parts of PIE into some of my university instruction to create some variety and interdisciplinary context and engagement for my students. Quick question: when is the book or YouTube channel or both to be expected?! You are fabulous!

  4. Hi Kevin,

    I‘ve finally caught up with the podcast and have been really enjoying it.

    I stumbled upon this old english cover of „Pumped Up Kicks“ that I thought you and the other listeners might enjoy (didn‘t see it mentioned in the comments for the last couple of episodes)


  5. Just wanted to leave a note to say how excited I am that we’re at the great vowel shift! This is such a fantastic podcast, I listen to each episode multiple times and have learnt so much, so thank you Kevin 🙂

  6. Well this was REALLY interesting. First of all you explained a lot about the New Zealand accent to me. Then, when you got to saying how various words like “hot” and “pot” were pronounced with the low front vowel (just after introducing the word “Ollies” in the mnemonic)… I was thinking how that’s definitely NOT the sound used for those short “o” words here in Australia. And that actually explained a heck of a lot of how to create an American accent, moving the letter “o” to where you pronounce it.

    • I found the discussion of these sounds slightly confusing to follow, since in my dialect (from the English Midlands) “father”, “caught” and “cot” have three distinct vowel sounds, and I would not pronounce “Ollie” with the same vowel as “father”.

  7. While my father’s family hails from southern Indiana, my mother’s side of my family hails from both Carolinas. When we took family trips to visit her aunts and uncles who remained in South Carolina, my grandfather, who was raised in South Carolina, but moved to Indiana as a young adult, would chide his siblings saying that a pecan the way they pronounced it was actually a roadside emergency relief station!

  8. I just wanted to mention that while vowel length doesn’t play much of a role in English, in my dialect the only difference between ladder and latter is the length of the vowel, being short in the latter. The middle consonant is hardly articulated. A similar comment for rider and writer.

    For me, the vowel in can (the modal), ran, and began are pure and those in all other an words, such as can (the noun and ordinary verb), man, fan, ban, Dan, pan, tan,… are diphthongs. There is a similar split in words ending in ad.

  9. Kevin, would you consider Michael’s observation as a feature of the phonology of Modern English: short vowels are pronounced relatively longer before voiced stops (/b/, /d/, /g/) than before voiceless stops (/p/, /t/, /k/)?

    • Maybe in some dialects. In all of my research about Great Vowel Shift, I never came across any literature that suggested such a distinction exists as a general rule in English. Again, there may be a very fine distinction in some dialects.

  10. Thanks, Kevin, for your kind response to my question.
    I remembered reading something about Michael’s comment and that had prompted my question. I tried to look it up and found the following in Heidi Harley’s English Words: A Linguistic Introduction.

    “Allophones are different pronunciations of the same sound that arise in different phonological environments. Compare your pronunciation of the vowels in the following two lists of words:
    write ride
    trite tried
    height hide
    tripe tribe
    rice rise
    trice tries
    lice lies
    lout loud
    bout bowed
    sat sad
    bat bad
    cat cad

    You perhaps have noticed that the vowels in the column on the left sound different than the vowels in the column on the right. This is again allophony in action. There are two different pronunciations of each of these vowels, a shorter one, and a longer one. (In some dialects of English, the difference is just in the length of the vowels. For others there’s also a difference in the way some of the vowels are pronounced.)
    In modern English, certain vowels are longer when they appear before voiced consonants, and shorter when they appear before voiceless consonants. These different pronunciations are allophones of the same basic vowel sound, in the same way that aspirated and unaspirated /k/ are allophones of the same basic consonant.

    In the case of allophony, the difference in pronunciation usually helps the listener to distinguish an otherwise potentially difficult-to-hear contrast… The length of the vowel is a clue that helps the listener to tell the difference between voiced and voiceless stops …”

    • I teach English as a second language. For speakers of languages that don’t have one of the consonant sounds in their first language (e.g., Arabic has /b/ but no /p/), we teach them that one way to help you get across your message involving a word with a b/p potential confusion (Did you say “cob” or “cop”?) is VOWEL LENGTH. Arabic speakers can only say /b/, so we teach them to pronounce COB longer and then if they can’t do the /p/ sound and going to mispronounce it as COB, say the second one much more quickly (shorter vowel length before their attempt at /p/) and most native speakers will hear /p/, especially from the context, even though the Arabic speaker did not produce /p/. I hope this explanation makes sense, but my point is that for those of us who teach English as a second/foreign language, this idea of longer vowel sounds before a voiced consonant and then shorter vowel length before its voiceless counterpart is part of our teaching repertoire for sure. (Other examples of minimal pairs like this: maid/mate, bag/back, life/live, maze/mace).

  11. I’ve grown up all up and down the West Coast of the United States from Los Angeles to Seattle. I don’t know precisely where I picked up my accent but wherever it was I have the cot caught convergence in my accent. Until listening to your show, it never occurred to me that anyone said those sounds differently, nor that they were ever intended to be different phonemes. I have always just thought of a short O sound and the AU or AW sound as being the same sound.

  12. Regarding that Vowel sound before the or that you say is reduced to a schwa, to my ear, there’s no vowel sound there at all. I can’t discern a vowel in that space. There’s just an r. They should be spelled like this: centr, thrst, wrd, monitr, kilometr. Just like they would’ve been in Old Norse.

    • It might be R-colored vowel schwa sounds. R sound is so dominant in some of American accents that weak vowels before them completely morph into an r sound (which is semi-vowel itself so it can take the vowel function and make a syllable). A similar thing can be heard in words like stir, start, and/or store, depending on the accent.

    • https://www.ipachart.com/

      I referenced this chart quite a bit the three times I listened to the episodes on the Great Vowel Shift. Also, I printed and taped to the wall next to my computer (I still use a desktop) Eat Aged Eggs At Ollies Awesome Old Uber.
      I usually listen to history podcasts while walking or doing housework, but for the episodes on the GVS I tended to keep close to my computer to check the IPA chart.

  13. Kevin, you’ve solved a lifelong problem for me. I was intrigued by your statement that there is a tightening of the vocal cords to sound the r in “car”and “rain”. Not for me. In “car” it’s easily explained because in my accent (I have a generic Northern English accent) that r is not a consonant – it affects the vowel sound but has no other use. But in “rain” it’s a different matter. I use my teeth to make the r sound – I hold them close together.

    All my life I’ve puzzled over how speakers of other languages (and some other speakers with English accents) can roll their r’s. If I pronounce “rain” by tightening my vocal cords to make the r sound, it’s easy.

  14. Kevin, it’s interesting that you say that “sheikh” is sometimes pronounced “sheek”. Which accents use that pronunciation? I’m not aware of any in the UK, but it would be interesting to know about other regions of the world.

    • That’s the standard pronunciation in American English. I’m not sure about other English-speaking regions outside of the US and UK.

  15. Kevin, given the time that has passed since Roy made this episode, you may well know this but now, but for anyone else who doesn’t, Seamus is actually an Irish Gaelic name, which has been adopted by English speakers. I assume that means that it’s pronunciation is governed by rules other than the e > ae > ee shift during the English Great Vowel Shift? It’s the Irish Gaelic form of James.


      • Oops! On listening again to 142, it turns out that’s the page I meant to put these two comments on. I’m listening in an app and commenting on the browser. If there is some sort of technical wizardry which will allow you to delete them from this page, feel free.

  16. Following my other comment about the name Seamus, which isn’t yet showing (so I can’t answer it), the name Reagan has Irish roots: according Wikipedia, it’s an Anglicised version of the name O’Riagan, which means Little King / Ruler (and as a British person, I don’t intend to say whether that’s appropriate for an American President!)


  17. The schwa sound is highly prevalent in Australian accents. Sometimes it is called ‘The great Australian schwa’ due to its commonality. Australians will say ‘summa’ and ‘winta’ for summer and winter. We also say ‘Mel-bun’ for ‘Melbourne’ which is why you can tell a non native speaker very quickly. It’s prominent in our accent as we tend to stress the first syllable in words then hide all the other vowels. As a teacher of young children this is an absolute nightmare for teaching spelling. Australians also have regional and age-group variations in some words such as castle, graph and dance. I’m my Brisbane, Queensland accent I would say carstle and barth but pronounce dance with the flatter short ‘a’ sound. My mother would say all 3 with the short ‘a’ sound.

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