Vowels

February 5, 2010 at 9:47 am | Posted in Uncategorized | Leave a comment

In phonetics, a vowel is a sound in spoken language, such as English ah! [ɑː] or oh! [oʊ], pronounced with an open vocal tract so that there is no build-up of air pressure at any point above the glottis. This contrasts with consonants, such as English sh! [ʃː], where there is a constriction or closure at some point along the vocal tract. A vowel is also understood to be syllabic: an equivalent open but non-syllabic sound is called a semivowel.

English has twelve vowel sounds. In the table above they are divided into seven short and five long vowels. An alternative way of organizing them is according to where (in the mouth) they are produced. This method allows us to describe them as front, central and back. We can qualify them further by how high the tongue and lower jaw are when we make these vowel sounds, and by whether our lips are rounded or spread, and finally by whether they are short or long. This scheme shows the following arrangement:

Front vowels
/i:/ – cream, seen (long high front spread vowel)
/ɪ/ – bit, silly (short high front spread vowel)
/ɛ/ – bet, head (short mid front spread vowel); this may also be shown by the symbol /e/
/æ/ – cat, dad (short low front spread vowel); this may also be shown by /a/

Central vowels
/ɜ:/- burn, firm (long mid central spread vowel); this may also be shown by the symbol /ə:/.
/ə/ – about, clever (short mid central spread vowel); this is sometimes known as schwa, or the neutral vowel sound – it never occurs in a stressed position.
/ʌ/ – cut, nut (short low front spread vowel); this vowel is quite uncommon among speakers in the Midlands and further north in Britain.

Back vowels
/u:/ – boob, glue (long high back rounded vowel)
/ʊ/ – put, soot (short high back rounded vowel); also shown by /u/
/ɔ:/ – corn, faun (long mid back rounded vowel) also shown by /o:/
/ɒ/- dog, rotten (short low back rounded vowel) also shown by /o/
/ɑ:/ – hard, far (long low back spread vowel)

We can also arrange the vowels in a table or even depict them against a cross-section of the human mouth. Here is an example of a simple table:

Front Central Back
High ɪ i: ʊ u:
Mid ɛ ə ɜ: ɔ:
Low æ ʌ ɒ ɑ:

/i:/ high close front unrounded /i:t/ eat
/i/ high open front unrounded /in/ in
/ei/ mid close front unrounded /dei / day
/e/ mid open front unrounded /end/ end
/æ/ low close front unrounded /æd/ add
/ə/ mid close central unrounded /əbaut/ about
/ɜ/ mid close central unrounded /bɜrd/ bird
/ʌ/ mid open central unrounded /ʌp/ up
/a/ low open central unrounded /art/ art
/u:/ high close back rounded /zu:/ zoo
/u/ high open back rounded /wud/ wood
/əu/ mid close back rounded /əun/ own
/ɒ/ mid open back rounded /bɒnd/ bond
/ɔ/ low close back rounded /lɔ/ law

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