Look, Luke! A Sheep Ship!

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Look, Luke! A sheep ship!

Readers of my previous blogs might guess from my title that we are about to do some further work on two English vowels that present difficulty to many. The difficulty is best expressed in the following minimal pairs (words whose difference in meaning is determined by only one sound): look/Luke, soot/suit, pull/pool, should/shooed; and ship/sheep, kill/keel, did/deed, live/leave.

As you can tell, the first of each pair uses a vowel that is relaxed and short, and slightly different in tongue placement and lip shape from its partner, which is more tense and longer in duration.

The difficulty some people have in distinguishing these vowels can often have significant effects on communicating clearly, sometimes with hilarious results. One Russian subject I interviewed for IDEA (see Russia 4) tells the story (beginning at 3 minutes and 49 seconds, about two thirds of the way through) of how, when she asked her American colleague, “Can you give me keys?” he misunderstood her with amusing results.

Why do some people have difficulty with these vowels? Most probably because their language does not contain them in their inventory of sounds, and so there are no equivalent minimal pairs.

Let’s practice. Here are some challenging phrases. I will speak them, leaving a pause for you to echo them.

Look, Luke!

A sheep ship!

The fool is full.

A meal at the mill.

You have soot on your suit.

The chick’s cheek.

I would have wooed.

The chip is cheap.


And now some longer sentences:

Sid saw the seed, and Kitty did the deed at the sheep dip.

“Look before you leap,” wheezed Sid.

Look at Luke’s good shoes. Fit for his feet!

Two cool cooks couldn’t brew good stew.

The two fools put blue wool in the full pool.


Be on the lookout for these English vowels in your daily speech.

Good luck!