In this article you’ll learn how to pronounce the word ‘owe’. This will give you the key to pronouncing 1000s of other English words.
Owe / Oh
The word ‘owe’, meaning ‘be in debt to’, is pronounced exactly the same way as the word ‘oh’, the exclamation used to express surprise. In the International Phonetic Alphabet both of these words are written əʊ.
owe / oh = əʊ
əʊ is an example of a ‘diphthong’. A diphthong is a double vowel: two vowel sounds stuck together in one syllable, without any consonant sound dividing them. Other diphthongs are:
- ʌɪ (as in ‘I’, ‘guy’, ‘tie’ etc.),
- aʊ (as in ’cow’, ‘round’ etc.),
- ɪə (as in ‘ear’, ‘here’, 'beer' etc.),
- ɔɪ (as in ‘boy’, ‘toy’ etc.)
In my experience, əʊ is the diphthong that foreigners find most difficult. Most foreigners pronounce it incorrectly, and always for the same reason.
As I said, əʊ is a diphthong, which consists of two vowel sounds stuck together. If you look at the symbol for this diphthong you can see that the first sound is written like this: ə.
The symbol ə represents one of the short vowels in English, called the ‘schwa’. The same symbol is used for this vowel: əː. As you can see, this symbol includes two dots (actually little triangles). This simply means that it is a long vowel sound. So, ə and əː are the same sound, but one is short and the other is long. əː is used in words like ‘earth’, ‘work’, ‘her’, ‘stir’, and ‘curve’. I explain the sound əː in this video.
As I explain in the video, to pronounce the ə/əː sound correctly your chin should go straight down (don’t smile), so that you can fit three fingers into your mouth.
The diphthong əʊ begins with the sound ə (or əː). This means the word ‘owe’ begins the same way as the word ‘earth’. (I explain the connection between əː & əʊ in this video.)
Unfortunately most foreigners get this wrong. Foreigners usually try to begin the əʊ diphthong with a sound similar to ɔː, which is used for words such as 'or', 'caught', 'law' and 'bought'.
The diphthong əʊ begins with the sound ə (or əː). This means the word ‘owe’ begins the same way as the word ‘earth’.
ə + w
After making the ə/əː sound you need to bring your lips together as if you are about to make a w sound (i.e. like a kiss). This means that the word ‘owing’ (əʊ + ɪŋ) is pronounced like the phrase ‘a wing’ (ə + wɪŋ).
the word ‘owing’ (əʊ + ɪŋ) is pronounced like the phrase ‘a wing’ (ə + wɪŋ)
Getting this sound right will require a little practice. It will also require mental discipline. You need to break your old habit of pronouncing it incorrectly, and get into the new habit of pronouncing it as I have explained. But once you get the hang of it your accent will be a lot better.