Phonology 101: Vowels

And so we come at last to vowels, the final stop on this journey we call Phonology 101. So far, we’ve talked about the vocal tract (here), phonemes (here), and consonants (here). There’s also a post on the International Phonetic Alphabet (here).

As far as human speech sounds go, I feel like consonants are pretty straightforward. Sure, some are harder to produce than others, but you can point to a relatively clear place of articulation that’s easy to feel when you produce the sound yourself. When you produce [m], your lips are together. When you produce [t], your tongue touches right behind your teeth. Vowels are…squishier.

Let’s start with the easy part: all vowels are, by nature, voiced.1 Like consonants, vowels can be either oral or nasal, depending on whether the velum is raised or lowered (see if you can tell the difference between the vowels in mat /mæt/ and man /mæn/). Vowels can also be rounded or unrounded; this describes the shape of the lips during production.

Now, we need one more thing, one more feature, something similar to the consonants’ place of articulation, to distinguish each vowel from all the others. That magic feature is the position of the tongue within the vowel space. Well, it’s actually two features: height (or closeness, as you’ll see on the IPA chart) and backness.

IPA Chart, http://www.internationalphoneticassociation.org/content/ipa-chart, available under a Creative Commons Attribution-Sharealike 3.0 Unported License. Copyright © 2015 International Phonetic Association.

Vowel height is kind of what it sounds like: how high (close) or low (open) in the mouth the tongue is. Backness refers to which part of the tongue is providing the pertinent interaction with the height variable—the back (closest to the throat), front, or center.

When talking about vowels, it’s good to keep in mind that as far as words meaning “middle” are concerned, “central” refers to the horizontal feature and “mid” refers to the vertical.

So, why do I say vowels are kind of squishy? In consonants, the tongue hits specific points along the roof of the mouth. In vowels, the tongue is interacting with empty air—a much less precise target to hit thousands and millions of times while speaking. In fact, phoneticians call our phonemes target vowels.

But what’s all this talk without some examples?

In cheese /t͡ʃiːz/, we find the high, front, unrounded vowel. The front of the tongue is high in the mouth, and the lips, rather than pursed, are pulled back into something resembling a smile (as many a subject of a painfully posed photograph can attest).

In choose /t͡ʃuːz/, the tongue is again high, but this vowel is back and rounded.

A few more:

The vowel in chess /t͡ʃɛs/ is low-mid front unrounded.
The vowel in Chaz /t͡ʃæz/ is low front unrounded.
The first vowel in Chaucer /t͡ʃɔːsəɹ/ is low-mid back unrounded.

You get the picture.

I’d like to point out a couple funny things you may have noticed in my phonemic transcriptions of these words.

First, I used /i/ to represent what native English speakers commonly think of as the E sound. The symbols used in IPA are a mix of letters and specialized characters. In the case of the vowels, the commonly familiar letters correspond to the so-called Continental vowels, i.e. they represent the sounds they spell in most European languages. English is the misfit here. The spellings we use for vowels are mismatched to the way they’re treated in other languages. There’s a very good reason for this, but that exciting story will have to keep for another day. As for /e/, this is used in IPA for what we English speakers think of as the A sound.

Next, the keen-eyed will have noticed that when I transcribed cheese, I didn’t just use /i/. There’s two funny dots after it that look like a colon. This symbol indicates that the vowel is long. American schoolchildren learn that the difference between Pete and pet is that the first has a long E and the second has a short E. This is not what I mean. For a phonologist, that sense of “long” and “short” is erroneous (and in fact, those two words have completely different vowels). Rather, this symbol means that the vowel is held for a longer length of time; it indicates duration. In some languages, vowel length is phonemic, i.e. it differentiates one word from another. Heck, it used to be phonemic in English way back in the day. You don’t have to worry about whether your vowels are long or short in Modern English. That’s one of those allophonic2 features that just kind of happens.

Last, there’s a second vowel in Chaucer that I haven’t mentioned yet, represented by a flipped-around lowercase E: /ə/. A lot of these symbols I’m using are probably new and unfamiliar, so you may not have noticed it hiding there, but this disoriented little letter is special. It’s name is schwa. It represents a mid central unrounded vowel, which is to say it represents a relaxed, mushy, indiscriminate vowel sound. It’s often found in unstressed syllables, and it can be an allophone of a lot of other vowels when you’re not going out of your way to enunciate every word. It never really satisfies the phonemic requirement of separating one word from another, but it’s an important little sound nonetheless, this lazy vowel. Plus, schwa is fun to say.

There are a few more things to bear in mind about vowels. First, very few of the vowels we produce in English are pure, single sounds. Much like the consonantal affricates, sometimes two vowels get produced in such close sequence they act like a single sound. For vowels, these are called diphthongs. You can hear diphthongs in words like chase /t͡ʃeɪs/ and chai /t͡ʃaɪ/ (or the names of the letters A and I).

Second, vowels tend to vary a lot more from dialect to dialect than consonants do. You can look at all the varieties of English across the world, from Canada to New Zealand, and draft almost identical lists of consonants for all of them. On the other hand, you don’t have to be a linguist to tell that they all use (sometimes drastically) different sets of vowels.

Several times throughout this series, I’ve encouraged you to stop and to try producing some of these sounds. This is especially useful if you’d like to get a handle on vowels. Say some. Just roll sound around in your mouth. Make random, vowel-ish noises. I can give you clinical definitions of consonants. Vowels you’ve got to feel.

This is the end of Phonology 101, but if you’ve fallen in love with the science of speech production and sounds the way I have, don’t you fret. Phonology has a starring role in some of the most exciting stories English has to offer, and you can bet we’ll be bringing them your way. For now, you Scots lovers better hold onto your hats. Lisa’s back next week to help us understand some of the differences between English and Scots.

Notes

1As a point of curiosity, some languages, like Japanese, occasionally have voiceless vowels in specific contexts. But, this is a rarity. Like how hand sanitizer claims to kill 99.9% of germs.
2I know this is a blog, and we’re kind of asking a lot by asking you to remember all this terminology. Your cheat sheet for phonemes and allophones is right this way.

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