“cope, cop, cup”: A Vowel Tutorial

Open the voice memo app on your phone (if you don’t have a smart phone, grab a handheld recorder) and record yourself saying these three words: cope, cop, cup. Listen to the recording. Do all three words sound different or do a couple of them sound the same? The distinction between “oh” and “ah” and between “ah” and “uh” can be a huge challenge for many non-native speakers of American English. Actually, in most cases, people aren’t even aware that they have trouble producing these sounds correctly. My goal today is to shed some light on the differences among these sounds.


When you produce an “oh” sound, your tongue is relatively high in the back of your mouth and your lips are rounded. Because your lips are so rounded and tense (tight), you should hear what sounds like a “w” at the end of the “oh” sound. If your tongue is too low and/or you don’t round your lips enough, “cope” will begin to sound like “cop.”


The “ah” sound is completely different than “oh.” To make this sound, drop your tongue straight down in your mouth, keep it very relaxed, and DO NOT round your lips. Did I mention that you should not round your lips? DON’T ROUND YOUR LIPS! Get out a mirror and see if you are able to do this- it can be a big challenge! If you round your lips, “cop” will start to sound like “cope.”


The “uh” sound is the most difficult to describe. Think of this sound as a “lighter” sound than “ah.” Your tongue is a bit higher, in what you might think of as the middle of your mouth. The front, back, and middle of your tongue are all slightly raised. You will feel the sound more toward the front of your mouth, rather than in the back of your mouth as you do for the “ah” sound. Most people tend to drop their tongue too low, making “cup” sound like “cop.”

Clear as mud? Give it a shot and see what you think! It may also be helpful to you to look up each word in an online dictionary to compare your pronunciation with that of the dictionary recording.

If this blog post has you jazzed up and wanting to learn more about the sounds of American English, please get in touch to learn more about accent training classes at Voices of the World.