8 American English Diphthongs You Should Know (with Examples and Audio)
Do you like to play on the slide?
This question contains three words with English diphthongs that make it feel like your mouth is sliding from one vowel sound to another: like, play and slide.
Below is a quick reference chart with the eight American English diphthongs, their common letter combinations and some example words.
If you keep reading after that, we’ll slide easily into a full explanation of diphthongs, more examples, plus audio and tips for mastering diphthongs.
- What Are Diphthongs?
- 1. /aʊ/ as in Town
- 2. /aɪ/ as in Light
- 3. /eɪ/ as in Play
- 4. /eə/ as in Pair
- 5. /ɪə/ as in Deer
- 6. /oʊ/ as in Slow
- 7. /ɔɪ/ as in Toy
- 8. /ʊə/ as in Sure
- Tips for Learning English Diphthongs
- And One More Thing...
|Common Letter Combinations
|igh, i, y
|ay, ai, ei, ey, ea, a
|ai, e, a (before r)
|ea, ee, e (before r or l)
|ow, oa, o
What Are Diphthongs?
To understand what a diphthong is, we first have to return to the basics: vowels.
According to Cambridge’s English Dictionary, a vowel is a sound produced by the human mouth without being obstructed (blocked) by the teeth, tongue or lips. For example, American English vowels are often categorized (organized by type) as long and short vowel sounds.
The word diphthong comes from the Greek word meaning “two sounds.” Based on that definition, we can understand that a diphthong is a sound that combines two vowel sounds.
In fact, these two vowel sounds are pronounced so closely together that they almost sound like one sound instead of two!
While a diphthong could be any two vowel sounds pronounced together, American English only has eight major diphthongs. We’ll take a look at each one now.
Note: The letters in sideways brackets are from the International Phonetic Alphabet (IPA), a writing system that allows for accurate descriptions of sounds in all languages.
1. /aʊ/ as in Town
This diphthong can have many spellings and is commonly written as ow or ou within English words. Examples with the /aʊ/ diphthong include:
It’s also in the interjection “Ow!” used to express pain or discomfort when someone gets hurt.
Keep in mind that this diphthong is pronounced differently in other forms of English, most notably Canadian English.
2. /aɪ/ as in Light
This diphthong is commonly written as igh, but can also be represented by a single i or y in English words.
When it’s written as a single i, it’s normally followed by a consonant and an e, like in the first two (and a few other) examples:
This diphthong is also pronounced slightly differently in certain dialects of English.
3. /eɪ/ as in Play
The diphthong /eɪ/ has quite a few different spellings in English. It can be written as ay, ai, ei, ey, ea or a single a.
Like our previous diphthong, when /eɪ/ is written as a single a, it’s normally followed by a consonant and then an e. You can see this in the first two examples, as well as the final example:
4. /eə/ as in Pair
This diphthong’s pronunciation is very similar to the /eɪ/ diphthong, but this one occurs most commonly before the letter r. It’s commonly written as an ai, a single e or a single a that comes before an r.
For example, this diphthong can be heard in the words:
5. /ɪə/ as in Deer
Like our previous diphthong, /ɪə/ occurs commonly before certain consonants.
Firstly, it can occur before the letter r, but it can also come before the letter l. It’s commonly written as ee, ea or a single e that comes before an r or l.
6. /oʊ/ as in Slow
The diphthong /oʊ/ is quite versatile (able to be used in different situations).
It’s commonly written in a variety of ways, such as ow, oa or a single o that’s followed by a consonant and an e.
7. /ɔɪ/ as in Toy
After our previous diphthong, you’ll be happy to know that this one is easier to identify based on the spelling.
Quite simply, it’s commonly written as oy or oi, such as in the words:
8. /ʊə/ as in Sure
The /ʊə/ diphthong may be hard to spot. It’s a little bit like a spider hiding under that slide we’ve been talking about—sometimes, it’s hard to tell if it’s even there!
That’s because this diphthong is sometimes pronounced as a single vowel sound, even in the American English dialect. That means that the sound at the end of “sure” may sound more like the English word “purr,” which has only one vowel sound.
This diphthong is most commonly written as a single u, typically followed by a consonant and then another vowel sound. Examples of this diphthong are:
Tips for Learning English Diphthongs
What’s the best way to learn English diphthongs?
Why, it’s to actually hear them in isolation and as parts of words, of course! You can:
- Watch a YouTube video. In this video from Rachel’s English, you can listen to five of the eight American English diphthongs. She breaks down the pronunciation of each one in easy-to-understand terms and then gives some examples of common words that contain the diphthongs.
- Watch videos of native speakers using diphthongs. Listen to how native speakers actually use diphthongs in their own speech. On the FluentU program, native English videos come with interactive subtitles that you can pause to see definitions and other helpful notes.
FluentU takes authentic videos—like music videos, movie trailers, news and inspiring talks—and turns them into personalized language learning lessons.
- Take a quiz to measure your progress. You can check out this video and short quiz on diphthongs, which are companions to the “Essential of Linguistics” textbook. You can also practice the common spellings of American English diphthongs with SpellingCity.
- Try resources designed for children. If you’re looking for English diphthong practice for kids, or you just want something super easy to make sure you really understand diphthongs, The Joyful Learner has you covered with this practice package.
Well, that list wasn’t too frightening, was it? Armed with your new knowledge of the eight American English diphthongs, you’ll be the talk of the town!
And One More Thing...
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