Memorizing IPA consonants is trivially easy; each symbol represents one sound, and that sound can be described with a variety of parameters about manner of articulation, etc.

The IPA vowels, however, are a whole other beast. How can they be memorized if describing them is not so easy? Of course, some symbols are just English vowels, which makes them pretty self-explanatory, but other ones like the back medium vowels are a bit trickier. Is there any method to the madness?

  • 1
    learn about acoustic phonetics. vowels tend to be better described by their acoustics than by their articulation. the physical parameters differentiating vowels are continuous, so they do not lend themselves to a grid-like classification like consonants do.
    – user483
    Commented Aug 7, 2012 at 0:15
  • 6
    Strictly speaking, no spoken language ever uses cardinal vowels. Vowels used in languages are generally not as extreme as the cardinals. The cardinals are prototypes that spoken vowels more or less resemble. If a cardinal vowel is a planet then a spoken vowel is a moon of that planet: nearby, not always in the same spot relative to the cardinal, but seen from the next solar system over they blend into one.
    – kaleissin
    Commented Aug 7, 2012 at 7:47
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    @kaleissin the choice of the cardinal vowels was to a certain extent influenced by French vowels. the non-point cardinal vowels e, E, o, O are very close to vowels transcribed with the same symbol in standard French.
    – user483
    Commented Aug 7, 2012 at 18:32

3 Answers 3


If you memorize them while learning to pronounce them you're aided by muscle-memory. They are defined after how they are pronounced after all. The vowels are hard to explain but a tutor can show how to do them. That's how they've traditionally been taught, from mentor to student.

Take [ɑ]: relax the lips, open the mouth just about as far as it goes, try to press the tongue down, do not let the jaw move forwards, vocalize. A mentor can tell you when your mouth is in the right position. Once you've hit the right spot enough times, you've reprogrammed your hardware, and might be moving the mouth into position even when reading or thinking about IPA, which is fine :)


First off, one should keep in mind IPA symbols have no connection to one's native language. For example, i in transcription has nothing to do with i in with. Fortunately, their appearance often suggests the closest sound. For example, ɘ and ɜ resemble a certain similarity to e, but it's not a rule.

So the best suggestion is to think they are pictograms that should be studied individually.

If one prefers more scientific approach, there are three basic characteristics of a vowel:

  1. Height (openness): how far the tongue is from the roof of the mouth
  2. Front/back: "horizontal" tongue position in the mouth
  3. Roundness: amount of rounding the lips

They form a well-known trapezoid, and it may be a good exercise to try reproducing them with gradual transitions along each axis.

There are more characteristics like length, nasalization, pitch, etc. They are represented with special symbols.


These mnemonic devices can help to memorize the inventory of English vowel sounds. From top to bottom the front vowels can be remembered with the phrase: m(ea)n w(o)men m(a)ke m(e)n m(a)d. And the back vowels with: L(u)ke t(oo)k n(o) (awe) in m(o)ps. Plus there is the lax central vowel.

  • How does that help you memorize the IPA symbols?
    – curiousdannii
    Commented Sep 10, 2018 at 21:57

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