Describing vowels

1. VOWELS VERSUS CONSONANTS
Several examples in the last chapter involved vowels: for instance, we found that there is free variation for some speakers between [i] and [ε] in economic, but that these two vowels nonetheless contrast, as shown by minimal pairs like pet peat, or hell heal. We also saw that the usual contrast of /eI /, /ε/ and /æ/ is neutralized before /r/ for many General American speakers, who pronounce Mary, merry and marry homophonously. It follows that the central ideas of phonemic contrast, with minimal pairs determining the members of the phoneme system, and rules showing allophonic variation in different contexts, apply equally to vowels and to consonants; free variation, phonetic similarity and neutralization affect both classes of sounds too.
2. THE ANATOMY OF A VOWEL
In classifying vowels, we need not indicate airstream mechanism, since it will always be pulmonic egressive, and we can generally assume that vowels are all voiced and oral. To describe vowels adequately and accurately, we then need to consider three different parameters, all of which can be seen as modifications of the place or manner of articulation continua for consonants: as we shall see, these are height, frontness and rounding. Additionally, vowels may be long or short (long ones are marked with a following below), and monophthongs or diphthongs. The examples in the sections below will be from Standard Southern British English (sometimes called RP, or Received Pronunciation), and General American, the most widely spoken variety of English in the United States, excluding the southern states, and the eastern seaboard, especially Boston, New England and New York City. SSBE and GA are generally thought of by English and American speakers respectively as not having any strong regional marking, and both are varieties highly likely to be heard in broadcasting, for instance in reading the television or radio news.
2.1 The front–back dimension
Front vowels are produced with the front of the tongue raised towards the hard palate (although not raised enough, remember, to obstruct the airflow and cause local friction; vowels are approximants). The vowels in (1) are front. These could, in principle, equally be described as palatal, and this might be helpful in making phonological rules transparent, the rule palatalizing velar /k/ before front vowels in kitchen, key, give, geese looked rather perplexing as the relationship between palatal and front was not obvious. However, calling front vowels palatal would be misleading, since frontness covers a larger area than [palatal], as we shall see below; and it contrasts with completely different alternatives, namely central and back, rather than labial, alveolar, dental, velar and so on.
(1) Front vowels
SSBE               GA
kit                    I                      I
dress                e                      e
trap                  æ                    æ
fleece               iː                      i:
face                  eI                  &
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eI
Conversely, back vowels have the back of the tongue raised, towards the soft palate or velum. The vowels in (2) are back.
(2) Back vowels
SSBE               GA
lot                    ɒ                      ɑ:
foot                  ʊ                     ʊ
palm                ɑ:                    ɑ:
thought            ɔ:                     ɔ:
goat                 oʊ                    ɔː
goose               u:                     u:
There is also a class of vowels between front and back: these are known as central vowels, and involve a raising of the body of the tongue towards the area where the hard and soft palate join. Central vowels are exemplified in (3). The most common of these in English, [ə], is known as schwa, and only appears in unstressed syllables.
(3) Central vowels
SSBE               GA
about               ə                     ə
nurse                ɜː                     ɜː r
strut                 ʌ                      ʌ
2.2 The high–low dimension
High vowels have the tongue raised most towards the roof of the mouth; if the raising was significantly greater, then friction would be produced, making a fricative consonant, not a vowel. The high vowels from the last section are in (4).
(4) High vowels
SSBE               GA
kit                    I                      I
fleece               iː                     iː
foot                  ʊ                      ʊ
goose               u:                     u:
Low vowels are those where the tongue is not raised at all, but rather lowered from its resting position: when you produce a low vowel, you will be able to feel your mouth opening and your jaw dropping, even if it is not very easy to figure out quite what your tongue is doing. Low
vowels are given in (5).
(5) Low vowels
SSBE               GA
trap                  æ                    æ
lot                                            ɑ:
palm                ɑ:                     ɑ:
Again, there is a further class intermediate between high and low, namely the mid vowels, shown in (6). These can if necessary be further sub-classified as high mid (like the face and goat vowels) or low mid (like the dress, thought, strut vowels) depending on whether they are nearer the high end of the scale, or nearer the low end.
(6) Mid vowels
SSBE               GA
face                  eI                    e< /span>I
goat                 oυ                    ɔ:
dress                e                      e
lot                    ɒ                     
thought            ɔ:                     ɔ:
about               ə                     ə
nurse                ɜː                     ɜː r
strut                 ʌ                      ʌ
2.3 Lip position
In the high back [u:] vowel of goose, there is tongue raising in the region of the soft palate; but in addition, the lips are rounded. Vowels in any of the previous categories may be either rounded, where the lips are protruded forwards, or unrounded, where the lips may be either in a neutral position, or sometimes slightly spread (as for a high front vowel, like [i:] fleece). However, it is overwhelmingly more common cross linguistically for back vowels to be rounded than for front ones, and for high vowels to be rounded than low ones; this is borne out in English, as you can see in (7).
(7) Rounded vowels
SSBE               GA
lot                    ɒ                     
foot                  ʊ                      ʊ
thought            ɔ:                     ɔ:
goat                 oʊ                    ɔː
goose               u:< /b>                     u:
2.4 Length
Using these three dimensions of frontness, height and rounding, we can now define the vowel in fleece as high, front and unrounded; that in gooseas high, back and rounded; and the unstressed vowel of about, schwa, as mid, central and unrounded. However, our elementary descriptions would class the kit vowel as high, front and unrounded, and the foot vowel as high, back and rounded; these labels make them indistinguishable from the clearly different vowels of fleece and goose respectively. SSBE and GA speakers very readily perceive the fleece and kit vowels, and the goose and foot vowels, as different; and there are plenty of minimal pairs to support a phoneme distinction, as in peat pit, leap lip, Luke look, fool – full. This distinction is usually made in terms of vowel length: in SSBE and GA, the vowels in (8) are consistently produced as longer than those in (9).
(8) Long vowels
SSBE               GA
fleece               iː                     iː
goose               u:                     u:
goat                                         ɔː
thought            ɔ:                     ɔ:
lot                                            ɑ:
palm                ɑ:          &nbs
p;         
ɑ:
nurse                ɜː                     ɜː r
(9) Short vowels
SSBE               GA
kit                    I                      I
dress                e                      e
trap                  æ                    æ
lot                    ɒ                     
foot                  ʊ                      ʊ
about               ə                     ə
strut                 ʌ                      ʌ
This is not to say, however, that the only difference between [iː] and [I], or [u:] and [υ:], is one of length: the quantity difference goes along with a difference in quality. [iː] is higher and fronter than [I]; [u:] is higher and backer than [ʊ]; and similarly, [ɑ:] in palm is lower and backer than the corresponding short [a] in trap. In general, long vowels in English are more peripheral, or articulated in a more extreme and definite way, than their short counterparts. Some phonologists use a feature [}tense] rather than length to express this difference, with the long, more peripheral vowels being [+tense], and the short, more centralized ones being [– tense], or lax.
2.5 Monophthongs and diphthongs
Most of the vowels we have considered so far have been monophthongs, in which the quality of the vowel stays fairly consist
ent from the beginning of its production to the end. However, there are also several diphthongs in English. Diphthongs change in quality during their production, and are typically transcribed with one starting point, and a quite different end point; as might be expected from this description, diphthongs are typically long vowels. In English, all diphthongs have the first element as longer and more prominent than the second, and are known as falling diphthongs. Three diphthongs are found very generally in accents of English, and are shown in (10).
(10) Diphthongs (i)
SSBE               GA
price                aI                   aI
mouth              aʊ                   aʊ
choice              ɔI                    ɔI
The long high-mid front and back vowels in face and goat are also characteristically diphthongal in SSBE and GA, as shown in (11).
(11) Diphthongs (ii)
SSBE               GA
face                  eI                    eI
goat                 oʊ                    ɔː
Finally, SSBE has a third set of diphthongs, which are known as the centering diphthongs as they all have the mid central vowel schwa as the second element. These centering diphthongs developed historically before /r/, which was then lost following vowels in the ancestor of SSBE; they consequently appear mainly where there is an <r> in the spelling, although they have now been generalized to some other words, like idea.
GA speakers have a diphthong in idea, but still pronounce the historical [r] in near, square, force, cure and therefore lack centring diphthongs in these words (see (12)).
(12) Centring diphthongs
SSBE               GA
Near                Iə                     ir
square              eə                   er
force                ɔə/ɔ:                o:r
cure                 υə                     υr

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