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:
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?