english diphthong

Why Wait? The Top 8 Common English Diphthong Sounds with Examples

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: “like,” “play” and “slide.”

In this post, we’ll slide easily into the top eight English diphthongs, the best tips for mastering them and how to pronounce each one.

Contents

What’s the Definition of an English Diphthong?

To figure out 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 is said to have 14 vowel sounds, and these are often categorized as long and short vowel sounds.

The word “diphthong” comes from the Greek word meaning “two sounds.” Based on that definition, we know 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 instead of two!

Sometimes in phonics books or ESL learning material, diphthongs are called “long vowels” like we previously mentioned.

While technically a diphthong could be any two vowel sounds pronounced together, American English only has eight major diphthongs.

Take note, however, that this number could change from one English dialect to another. For example, the English spoken in Britain may have a different number and different pronunciation of these diphthongs.

Tips for Learning English Diphthongs: Practice and Listen Online

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!

  • Watch a YouTube video. In a video by Rachel’s English, you can listen to five of the eight American English diphthongs. She breaks down the pronunciation of each diphthong in easy-to-understand terms and then gives some examples of common words that have the diphthongs in them.

  • Watch videos of native speakers using diphthongs in action. While watching videos specifically designed to teach you English is helpful, the next step is to listen to how native speakers actually use diphthongs in their own speech.

    Listen to and repeat the various diphthongs you hear to learn how to say them correctly. You can find videos to practice with on a program like FluentU, for example, which has authentic English videos with interactive captions.

  • Record yourself using diphthongs. If you want to do more than just listen, you can hear and practice recording all eight diphthongs at SpeechActive. Do note, however, that the audio clips have a non-American accent.

8 Common English Diphthongs (with Examples)

Enough waiting! Let’s look at each of the eight most common diphthongs in American English.

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, including English.

/aʊ/ as in “Town”

This diphthong can have many spellings and is commonly written as ow or ou within English words. In addition to the word “town,” other words with the /aʊ/ diphthong include “brown,” “frown,” “mouth” and “pound.” 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.

/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 then an such as in the words “bite” or “crime.”

Other examples of this diphthong include “might,” “pride,” “bike,” “cry” or “why.” It was also the reason behind two diphthong words in the opening question, “like” and “slide.”

This diphthong is also pronounced slightly different in certain dialects of English.

/eɪ/ as in “Play”

The diphthong /eɪ/ has quite a few different spellings in English. It can be written as ayaieiey, 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 such as in the words “plate” or “blame.”

Other examples of this diphthong in words include “may,” “wait,” “freight,” “they,” “great” and “space.”

Did you notice that this diphthong was also in the third word of our opening question?

/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 that comes before an r.

For example, this diphthong appears in the words “fair,” “hair,” “mare” and “where.”

/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 eeea or a single e that comes before an r or l.

Some other examples include the words “peel,” “dear,” “meal” and “atmosphere.”

/oʊ/ as in “Slow”

The diphthong /oʊ/ is quite a versatile diphthong. 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.

Other words with this diphthong in it include “know,” “boat” and “poke.”

/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 “boy,” “void” and “employ.”

/ʊə/ as in “Sure”

The /ʊə/ diphthong is 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.

In fact, this diphthong is more commonly associated with the British dialects of English.

It’s commonly written as u and typically comes before an r. Other examples of this diphthong are “pure,” “jury” and “curious.”

 

Well, that list wasn’t too frightening, was it? Armed with your new knowledge of the eight English diphthongs, you’ll be the talk of the town!

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