PHONOLOGY: VOWELS

Vowels may be classified as either rounded or unrounded, as either lax or tense, and as either long or short.

In articulating a rounded vowel, the lips are rounded. The rounded vowels of Present-Day English are

1. /u/ (the phoneme spelled oo in food);
2. /U/ (the phoneme spelled u in put);
3. /o/ (the phoneme spelled oa in boat);
4. /ô/ (the phoneme spelled au in caught).

Note that there are different degrees of rounding in these different vowels. The other vowels of Present-Day English are unrounded.

In articulating a tense vowel, the tongue and other parts of the vocal apparatus are relatively tense. With a lax vowel, on the other hand, the muscles of the vocal apparatus are relatively loose. The lax vowels in Present-Day English are

1. /I/ (the phoneme spelled i in bit);
2. /
e/ (the phoneme spelled e in bet);
3. /U/ (the phoneme spelled u in put);
4. /ô/ (the phoneme spelled au in caught).

Note that the degree of tenseness varies considerably in these different vowels. The other vowels of Present-Day English are relatively tense (also in different degrees).

The distinction between long and short vowels cannot be illustrated in Present-Day English, because vowel-length is no longer "phonemic" for speakers of English. That is, there are no "minimal pairs" of words that differ only with respect to the length of a vowel, and so speakers of PDE typically do not "hear" differences in vowel length. The distinction between long and short vowels was presumably phonemic in Old English and Middle English. Vowel length is presumably a matter of duration: that is, how long the vowel-sound is sustained in its articulation.

Apart from the above distinctions, vowels may be classified according to the how far the tongue is from the roof of the mouth during articulation, and how far back in the oral cavity the vowel is articulated.

If the lower jaw is relatively low (that is, if the mouth is relatively widely open), the tongue will be relatively far from the roof of the mouth. Vowels for which the jaw is relatively low during articulation are called, unsurprisingly, low vowels; and vowels for which the jaw is relatively high (the mouth is more nearly closed) are called high vowels. This distinction can be appreciated, for example, by gripping the chin and successively articulating "ha-ha, hee-hee, ha-ha, hee-hee." The phoneme spelled a in ha is a low vowel, and the phoneme spelled ee in hee is a high vowel. The jaw can be felt to move up and down correspondingly.

A vibration is felt in the oral cavity when a vowel is articulated. If this vibration is felt toward the front of the cavity, say in the area of the alveolar ridge, the vowel is described as a front vowel. If the vibration is felt toward the back of the cavity, say in the area of the velum, the vowel is described as a back vowel. This distinction can be appreciated by successively articulating "ho-ho, hee-hee, ho-ho, hee-hee," and paying attention to where the vibration is felt most strongly in the oral cavity. The phoneme spelled o in ho is a back vowel, and the phoneme spelled ee in hee is a front vowel.

Thus, we get the following system of classification for vowels. Click on the terms for further information.

POSITION OF JAW
High
Mid
Low

 

POINT OF ARTICULATION
Front
Central
Back

Diphthongs are vowel-phonemes articulated with a glide from one vowel to another. There are three diphthongs in Present-Day English.

1. /aI/ (the phoneme spelled i in bite). In articulating this phoneme, a speaker begins by articulating /a/ (the phoneme spelled a in father), and glides to /I/ (the phoneme spelled i in bit).

2. /aU/ (the phoneme spelled ou in house). In articulating this phoneme, a speaker begins by articulating /a/ (the phoneme spelled a in father), and glides to /U/ (the phoneme spelled u in put).

3. I/ (the phoneme spelled oy in boy). In articulating this phoneme, a speaker begins by articulating /ô/ (the phoneme spelled au in caught), and glides to /I/ (the phoneme spelled i in bit).

 

CLICK ON THE GREEN BUTTON FOR A TABLE SHOWING ALL OF THE VOWELS AND DIPHTHONGS OF PRESENT-DAY ENGLISH.

 

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