A vowel is any vocal sound that can be made continuously with no blockage of the oral cavity. So the lips are open, and the tongue is not touching the interior of the mouth.

The "oral cavity" excludes the larynx. The different ways the vibrations and tensions in the larynx affect the quality of a vowel are called the phonation. This can be more complicated than I understand1, but the simplest phonation is called voicing. A sound is voiced when the vocal chords (= vocal cords), which are cartilages inside the larynx, vibrate. In all languages, without exception, most vowels are voiced. Most languages have only voiced vowels.

One essential quality of a vowel is tongue position. The tongue must be held somewhere in the mouth: if it is high up and towards the front, it makes the "ee" sound of machine; if it is high up and towards the back it makes the "oo" sound of rule; and if it is low in the mouth it makes the "ah" sound of father. The phonetic symbols for these sounds are [i], [u], and [a]2. All languages, without exception, use a variety of vowel sounds made by varying the tongue position3.

The simplest vowel system encountered in languages is a three-vowel one, with just these three [i u a]. Examples are Classical Arabic, most Australian Aboriginal languages, and Inuktitut. Actually the most extreme positions the centre of the tongue is capable of form not a triangle but an irregular quadrilateral, called the vowel quadrilateral. [i] is higher than [u] and much further forward than [a]. At the lowest possible extent, you can have a further-forward A-sound and a further-back one, forming a narrow base to the quadrilateral.

Midway in height between [i] and [a] is the [e] sound in bet, or Spanish E. Midway between [a] and [u] is [o] -- Spanish O is closer to midway than any English O sound is. This five-vowel system [i e a o u] is also fairly common in the world's languages. For example, ancient Etruscan and Latin had it (as does Spanish): which is why our alphabet has only those five letters with which to represent the twenty or so vowels of English, and comparable large numbers in French and German. But many languages have quite a lot more gradations between these positions. A vowel made in the middle of the quadrilateral is called a neutral vowel (or schwa).

Normally the tongue position is correlated with lip-spreading or lip-rounding. The lips are spread for [i], go down to neutral for [a], and become rounded going up the back to [u]. All languages have this correlation; but quite a few languages have additional sounds, front vowels like [i] and [e] but with rounded lips: the ü and ö sounds of German, written u and eu in French. A smaller number have back vowels with spread lips: there are no familiar European examples, but they occur in some Asian languages (Japanese U).

The mouth is more open for the low vowel [a] and more closed for the high vowels [i u]. In theory I suppose you could reverse this correlation but I don't know of any language that does so. High and low vowels are therefore often called close and open vowels. This is convenient, because of course "high" and "low" can also refer to the unrelated aspect of pitch. (Pitch is a form of phonation.)

Normally the velum or soft palate, which separates the oral cavity from the nasal cavity, is shut, blocking off the nose from the air stream. These are called oral vowels. All languages, without exception, have oral vowels. Most languages have nothing but oral vowels. But quite a few also have nasal vowels, where the air stream additionally vibrates through the nose: familiar examples are French an on in un. See my node nasalization for full details.

Other mechanisms that change vowel sounds are rare. American English curls the tip of the tongue back towards the palate in vowels such as ar er or.

In certain East African languages such as Maasai, whether the tongue root is extended or retracted makes a difference. In the West African language Twi this is correlated with a difference in quality (similar to bit vs beet). In English this bit ~ beet distinction is traditionally described as short vs long, but they may be of equal duration physically, and other features then mark the difference, including this advanced tongue root (ATR) feature. "Long" vowels are +ATR. This distinction was formerly analysed as "tense" vs "lax", but these terms don't describe it very well.

The pharynx, the throat space above the larynx, can be tightened. German is often pharyngalized. This is often accompanied by tongue root retraction but in theory the two are separate.

Acoustically, vowels are transmitted through the air in two bands of energy called formants. The lower band, called F1, increases in frequency as you go from close to open; the upper band, called F2, increases in frequency as you go from back to front. A vowel is called compact when F1 and F2 are close together (such as [a]) and diffuse when they are far apart.

1. In fact it is beyond the scope of this write-up to discuss any phonation but the default voicing.

2. Phonetic symbols for shades of sound are enclosed in square brackets. These symbols are why I said "ee" as in machine, not "ee" as in feet.

3. The Caucasian language Kabardian is sometimes described as having "only one vowel". The description of vowels in Kabardian is a problem, but in terms of my explanation above, Kabardian has multiple vowels like any other language: see North-West Caucasian for more detail.

Afterthought. I don't pay much attention to this "is Y a vowel?" business. Vowels are sounds, not letters. Some letters are used to represent vowels, but these incldde H, Y, G (paradigm), GH, W, R, L (talk), and probably a few others. It's not a question that has a definite answer, nor is it important.

Describing vowels is a bit more difficult than describing consonants. This is becuase within the bounds of the 'vowel-space'(generally around the palatal region) there are literally infinite numbers of possible vowels, and any one person's vowels are different from any other person. This of course means that a general description of a vowel is much more an approximation than an exact description. Of course, there are parameters for describing vowels, just as there are for consonants. For instance, (in my dialect), the English word 'pin' has a high front lax unrounded voiced vowel, and the vowel in 'go' is a close-mid back tense rounded voiced vowel. Thse are the parameters, for the most part:

Height:

'Frontness:'

Other stuff:

Modifications:

to vowel

A gamester who does not immediately pay his losings, is said to vowel the winner, by repeating the vowels I. O. U. or perhaps from giving his note for the money according to the Irish form, where the acknowledgment of the debt is expressed by the letters I. O. U. which, the sum and name of the debtor being added, is deemed a sufficient security among gentlemen.

The 1811 Dictionary of the Vulgar Tongue.

When I decided I wanted to learn Norwegian, one of the first (and most important) words I came across was 'øl' (beer). I had a problem though, which was that I was learning from a book, and had absolutely no idea how to pronounce the letter 'ø'.

Looking at the pronunciation, I found that the International Phonetic Alphabet symbol for 'ø' is – /ø/! Not much help. So, after typing “IPA, /ø/” into Google, I clicked on the first result and was informed that “/ø/ is a monophthongal close-mid front rounded vowel.” Well, if you're reading this and nodding your head, there’s really not much point in reading further.

If like me however, your brain has just told you that those words make absolutely no sense when put together in that order, read on!

Vowels, Consonants and Biology

So, let’s start with the basics. In English, the vowels are A, E, I, O and U (and sometimes Y). The rest are consonants. Easy, right? But what’s the difference between a vowel and a consonant? Not so easy.

Actually, it is. The most important thing that distinguishes between the two is that a vowel sound is made with an open air tract. This means that the airflow goes from the lungs and out into the big, wide world without being blocked by the lips, tongue or throat. So “A” (as in 'carpet') is a vowel, because the mouth is wide open, but “P” (as in 'post') is a consonant, because the lips are together at the start, blocking the air. It's a very basic description, but it's the best way of explaining.

Monophthongal close-mid front rounded vowels

Just like when you ask for a large coffee in Starbucks, but the person behind the counter tells his colleague you want a grandé, “Monophthongal close-mid front rounded vowel” is just a linguist’s way of sounding cleverer than you. After all, “a single sound made with the tongue just behind the teeth, almost in the middle of the mouth and with the lips making an 'O' shape” doesn’t sound very technical – but it means the same thing!

Height, Frontness and Roundness

These are the three most important parts of a vowel. Height describes how high the roof of your mouth is, and the scale goes from close (the roof is as low as it can be, like 'beat') to open (the roof is as high as it can be, like 'can'). The full scale is:

    Close
    Near close
    Close-mid
    Mid
    Open-mid
    Near open
    Open

Frontness describes how close the tongue is to the teeth. Vowels can be front (again, like in 'beat'), central (like in 'bat') or back (like in 'boot'). If we want to be more specific, we can use two more descriptions: near front and near back. Roundness simply means whether the mouth makes an 'O' shape or not.

It’s a lot to take in, but the mathematicians amongst you will be pleased to know that using this scale; we can make a pretty little chart to show all the vowel positions, which looks something like this:

(The ASCII table didn't work out too well...)

Along the top, you can see the frontness and on the left side you can see height. The vowels come in pairs – the one on the left is always unrounded (lips are smiling), whilst the one on the right is rounded (lips are making an 'O').

So that's basically it. And what have we learned from all of this? Well, if nothing else, that 'ø' is pronounced like the 'e' in 'herd'. Now you know how to say 'beer' in Norwegian - Skål!

Using your new-found skills in vowel phonetics, can you work out how to pronounce 'å' if I tell you that it's an open-mid back rounded vowel?

Vow"el (?), n. [F. voyelle, or an OF. form without y, L. vocalis (sc. littera), from vocalis sounding, from vox, vocis, a voice, sound. See Vocal.] Phon.

A vocal, or sometimes a whispered, sound modified by resonance in the oral passage, the peculiar resonance in each case giving to each several vowel its distinctive character or quality as a sound of speech; -- distinguished from a consonant in that the latter, whether made with or without vocality, derives its character in every case from some kind of obstructive action by the mouth organs. Also, a letter or character which represents such a sound. See Guide to Pronunciation, §§ 5, 146-149.

⇒ In the English language, the written vowels are a, e, i, o, u, and sometimes w and y. The spoken vowels are much more numerous.

Close vowel. See under Close, a. -- Vowel point. See under Point, n.

 

© Webster 1913.


Vow"el, a.

Of or pertaining to a vowel; vocal.

 

© Webster 1913.

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