Spanish u / English uː ʊ u

The case of u is similar to that of i in English. There are two main types of [u] sound: //, which is long and high, and /ʊ/, which is short and a bit more open. And then there is a third one, /u/, which is a mixture of the previous two.

 

Let’s listen to the following examples:

 

sound_loud_speaker Blue book. /bl/ /bʊk/

sound_loud_speaker It took root. /tʊk/ /rt/

sound_loud_speaker I could do it soon. /kʊd/ /du/ /sn/

sound_loud_speaker Look at your wounds and bruises. /lʊk/ /wndz/ /brzɪz/

sound_loud_speaker Wolves howl at the full moon. /wʊlvz/ /fʊl/ /mn/

 

Now, let’s have a look at them one by one.

 

 This is like a Spanish [u] in quality. The tongue is raised high at the back of the mouth and the lips are closely rounded. It is a very long sound.

  • How to do it? Say an u as you do in Spanish, but keep it much longer. Check that your lips are forward and rounded and your tongue at the back of your mouth.
  • Spelling. The main realizations are u (flute, rule) and oo (tool, spoon). Also it frequently occurs as o (do, who), ou (wound, through), ew (flew), ue (blue), ui (suit) and oe (shoe).

 

ʊ This is a short sound, which stands in between // and /ə/ in quality. The lips are rounded but in a loosely way. There is more relaxation in the tongue and lips than in //.

  • How to do it? Say an /ə/ -that is, the schwa- with your lips rounded and it will come out as /ʊ/.
  • Spelling. It is mainly found as u (put, full, butcher) and oo (took, book, look). Also as o (woman) and ou (could).

 

It has the quality of // and the length of /ʊ/ (short). It only occurs in unstressed syllables. It is exactly like the Spanish u. This sound is usually left out of the vowel chart. If you want to know why, click here.

  • How to do it? Like // but short. Just as you do an in Spanish.
  • Spelling. It is found as u in the middle of words (situation). In unstressed words is mainly found as o or ou (Do I have…, to us, looking at you).

 

To remember: There is a clear parallel between the group //, /ʊ/ and /u/ and the group //, /ɪ/ and /i/. The three sounds included in each group hold the same kinds of relationships among themselves.

  • Both /ʊ/ and /ɪ/ are short and stand midway in quality between the long vowels // and /i:/ and the schwa, /ə/.
  • In both groups there is a third, mixed sound, /u/ and /i/, respectively, which is not a phoneme and only appears in unstressed position.

This similarity can help you remember its characteristics and produce them correctly.

 

Now, let’s listen to some speakers:

sound_loud_speaker You say, that is a wolfish man (A.S. Byatt, BBC4). /ˈwʊlfɪʃ/

sound_loud_speaker These are dark, doomy, gloomy places where bad things happen in the corners (Briony Hanson, BBC4). /ˈdmi/ /ˈɡlmi/

sound_loud_speaker It was a complete fluke that I said that I wanted to be involved with the film at all (Keira Knightley, BBC4). /flk/

sound_loud_speaker Our warning is what could. And this is what could happen (Michael Caine, BBC4). /kʊd/

sound_loud_speaker He greets ticket collectors and stationmasters and they return his salute (Julian Barnes, KUSP). /səˈlt/

sound_loud_speaker Very fulfilled as a woman (Ben Kingsley, BBC4) /fʊlˈfɪld/ /ˈwʊmən/

 

And also see how close to a schwa the phoneme /ʊ/ can be in American English:

sound_loud_speaker We all wanted to do something very authentic to her book and to be very respectful of the book (Julia Roberts, BBC4). /

 

One final warning about length. As said in the introduction to vowel sounds, there is another element to be taken into account in order to determine the correct length of a vowel: the voicing of the consonant that follows it. The fact is that voiceless consonants cut the length of the preceding vowel. Consequently the // in school  /skl/ is longer than the // in scoop  /skp/ because /l/ is voiced whereas /p/ is voiceless. To have a full description of this phenomenon, plenty of examples, go to the pre-fortis clipping section.

 

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