The case of u is similar to that of i in English. There are two main types of [u] sound: /uː/, 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:
I could do it soon. /kʊd/ /du/ /suːn/
Look at your wounds and bruises. /lʊk/ /wuːndz/ /bruːzɪz/
Wolves howl at the full moon. /wʊlvz/ /fʊl/ /muːn/
Now, let’s have a look at them one by one.
uː 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 /uː/ and /ə/ in quality. The lips are rounded but in a loosely way. There is more relaxation in the tongue and lips than in /uː/.
- 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).
u It has the quality of /uː/ 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 /uː/ but short. Just as you do an u 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 /uː/, /ʊ/ and /u/ and the group /iː/, /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 /uː/ 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.
This is the type of analysis I do with my students in my one-to-one classes. I make them practise these processes with exercises until they improve their comprehension of native speakers and are capable of speaking like that themselves. If you are interested in my classes, you can contact me here.
Now, let’s listen to some speakers:
You say, that is a wolfish man (A.S. Byatt, BBC4). /ˈwʊlfɪʃ/
These are dark, doomy, gloomy places where bad things happen in the corners (Briony Hanson, BBC4). /ˈduːmi/ /ˈɡluːmi/
It was a complete fluke that I said that I wanted to be involved with the film at all (Keira Knightley, BBC4). /fluːk/
Our warning is what could. And this is what could happen (Michael Caine, BBC4). /kʊd/
He greets ticket collectors and stationmasters and they return his salute (Julian Barnes, KUSP). /səˈluːt/
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:
We all wanted to do something very authentic to her book and to be very respectful of the book (Julia Roberts, BBC4). /bʊk/