Thursday, 3 September 2009

Valuable Vowels

So far, we have only concentrated on consonant phonemes featured in the English language. Without vowels, however, it would be very dificult to communicate (although current 'text-speak' tries to achieve it!). So let's have a look at what these vowels are all about.
We all know (hopefully!) that there are 5 vowels in the alphabet: a, e, i, o and u. In the phonemic system of English, however, there are 20 vowels, which can be divided into monothongs and dipthongs. Let's focus on the monothongs for the moment.

There are a twelve monothongs in English. To hear the monothongs and see the symbols which represent them, click here to watch a video produced by

Just as we learnt that the production of consonant sounds can be explained by what we do with our mouth, we can also analyse vowels according to the position of the tongue and the lips. It's worth pointing out at this point that it is, in fact, what we do with our organs of speech which distinguishes vowel and consonant phonemes. Whilst consonant phonemes involve some form of blockage within the vocal tract, vowels are sounds produced when the air is free to flow without obstructions.

With vowels, we do not talk about place and manner of articulation, nor of voiced and voiceless sounds. Instead, we focus on the horizontal and vertical position of the tongue, and the shape of the lips.

Let's think about the lip shapes first of all. Take a minute to go and stand in front of a mirror, and repeat these words: tea, two. What happens to your lips?

You should notice that when you say the word tea, your lips are spread, almost as if you are smiling.

When you say two your lips should make a small 'o', almost like a kiss! In this case, we say the lips are rounded.


We also need to consider the position of the tongue if we want to know how vowel sounds are produced. In terms of the horizontal position we can say the tongue is in the front, central or back position. Let's return to the examples of tea and two. When you say tea, you should notice that your tongue touches the back of your lower teeth. When you say two, you should feel that the tongue is much further back in your mouth.

Regarding the vertical position, we can note changes both in the proximity of the tongue to the palate and the openness of the jaw. Let's take a different example this time - and I recommend you stand in front of the mirror for this one. We'll use the words beat, bet, bat. When you say beat, you should notice that the tongue is very close to the palate, and the jaw is almost closed. When you say bet, you should notice that your tongue is much closer to the bottom of your mouth, and the jaw is slightly more open. When you say bat, the tongue is right in the bottom of your mouth, and the jaw is very open. We describe vowels produced with a low tongue and open jaw as open. Vowels produced with a raised tongue and a closed jaw are called close.

The International Phonetic Association has developed a chart which represents the vowel phonemes according to their position, as can be seen in the diagram on the left. It's worth noting that not all of the phonemes shown are recognised as Standard English.

It is also necessary to point out that the positions shown are what could be considered as 'perfect' pronunciation of the phonemes. In reality, however, the positioning differs from person to person, and according to their accent.

To learn a little more about how the vowel sounds of English are produced, take a look at, and click on the vowel pairs in the column on the left.

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