Lies your English teacher told you: “Long” and “short” vowels

I remember, long ago in elementary school, learning how to spell. “There are five vowels,” our teachers told us, “A, E, I, O, U. And sometimes Y.” (“That’s six!” we saucily retorted. (We were seven.))

“When a vowel is by itself,” our teachers continued,”it’s short, like in pat. When there’s a silent e at the end, the vowel is long, like in pate1.” Then there were a dozen exceptions and addenda (including the fact that A could be five different sounds), but the long and the short of it was, there are long vowels and there are short vowels.

And you know something? There are long and short vowels in English. We actually briefly discussed this before, many moons ago during our introduction to vowels, but I wanted to add a little more detail today.

The first important thing to remember is that writing is not equivalent to the language itself.2 Our spellings are generally standardized now, but they are only representations of words, and they do not dictate how a word actually sounds. Furthermore, English orthography uses five or six symbols to represent more than a dozen different vowel sounds (not exactly an efficient system). In our example above of pat and pate, these words actually contain two distinct vowels pronounced in two different places in the mouth. The same is true of the other “long” and “short” vowel pairings. It’s almost like these sounds ([æ] and [eɪ], in IPA) aren’t really related, they just timeshare a spelling.

In another sense, though, it’s not so incorrect to say that pat has a short A and pate has a long A. To illuminate this claim, we’ll need two ingredients: an understanding of vowel tenseness in English, and an important sound change from the language’s past.

For scholars of English, a more important distinction than vowel length is vowel tenseness. Like the long/short vowel spelling distinction, linguists have identified pairs of vowels that are separated by no more than a little difference in quality. The difference, though, is not a matter of length, but whether the vowel is tense or lax, i.e. whether the muscles in the mouth are more tensed or relaxed in the production of the sound. These pairings are based on the sounds’ locations in the mouth and are therefore a little different than those traditionally associated with the letters. Pate and pet demonstrate a tense-lax pairing, as do peek and pick. The sounds in these pairs are very close together in the mouth, pulled apart by the tenseness, or lack thereof, of their pronunciation.

In some dialects of English, like RP or General American, tense vowels (and diphthongs) naturally acquire a longer duration of pronunciation than lax vowels. In short, the tense vowels are long. Therefore, it wouldn’t actually be false to say that pate has a long A and pat has a short A, but the length of the vowels is an incidental feature of English’s phonology and isn’t really the important distinction between the sounds (not for linguists, anyway).

It isn’t always that way in a language, and in fact, it wasn’t always that way in English. We’ve mentioned this before, but it’s pertinent, so I’ll cover it again: in some languages, you can take a single vowel (pronounced exactly the same way, in the same place in the mouth), and whether you hold the vowel for a little length of time or for a longer length of time will give you two completely different words. This is when it become important and appropriate to talk about long and short vowels. Indeed, farther back in English, this was important. In Old English, the difference between god (God) and gōd (good) was that the second had a long vowel ([o:] as opposed to [o], for the IPA fluent). In all other respects, the vowel was the same, what many English speakers today would think of as the long O sound.

In a way, these Old English long/short vowel pairings are really what we’re referring to when we talk about long and short vowels in English today (even if we don’t realize it). The historic long vowels were the ones affected by the Great English Vowel Shift, and the results are today’s colloquially “long” vowels. The short vowels have largely remained the same over the years. Maybe in this sense, as well, it’s not so bad to keep on thinking of our modern vowels as long and short. So many other quirky aspects of English are historic relics; why not this, too?

In the end, maybe the modern elementary school myth of long and short vowels isn’t entirely untrue, but there’s certainly a lot more to the story.


1 This is a delightful, if somewhat archaic, word for the crown of the head. I love language.
2 I imagine some of our longtime readers are fondly shaking their heads at our stubborn insistence on getting this message across. Maybe it’s time we made tee shirts.

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