Introduction

The content of this article can be found in the form of a Prezi presentation at https://prezi.com/jyetuybfy-wh/english-vowels-main-presentation/

This is a brief examination of the pronunciation of American English vowels. The predominant tenet in language teaching -at least in Spain and in the case of English- is to teach pronunciation through repetition. It should be clear by now that given the great diversity of phonological phenomena, pronunciation should be taught systematically, through precise description of the organs involved in the articulation along with their positions, and of course through thorough and carefully planned practice. If it were true that mere repetition would suffice to acquire a good pronunciation, continuous exposure to the language would make us all speak like natives without discernible trace of our original accent. Alas, reality is quite stubborn and we all know examples of non-native speakers who hold a strong accent in spite of their living in the country for many years. Unquestionably, a systematic, comprehensive method of learning pronunciation is needed, if certain standards of intelligibility have to be achieved. Moreover, not only should be mutual understanding a legitimate goal, but also a faithful and well-enunciated accent. Native speakers of any language rightly infer that behind a dreadful pronunciation there cannot be a good grammar.

The first step in the study of English pronunciation is that of vowel sounds, the building blocks of spoken words. Compared to Spanish, where there are only 5 rather simple vowel sounds, English exhibits a greater variety of vowel sounds, ranging between 12 and 16 depending on the particular variety of English (most languages have around 5-8 vowels). In this article we will review American English mostly, with occasional references to British English.

To illustrate our explanations we will borrow some of the excellent videos from the website Rachel's English [RE]. Her videos contain detailed, informative descriptions of how to pronounce vowels, including good graphics. Symbols from the international phonetics alphabet (IPA) will be used to described sounds (see [W-IPA]). However, on the website Rachel's English they also employ other symbols easier to code on a web page. For the sake of clarity, below we give a table with the equivalence.

IPA
SYMBOLS
RACHELSENGLISH
SYMBOLS
IPA
SYMBOLS
RACHELSENGLISH
SYMBOLS
i:
ee
ɜ:
ur
ɪ
ih
ə
uh (as in supply)
u:
oo
ʊ
uh (as in pull)
ow
ɑ:
ah
ay
ɔ:
aw
-
ʌ
uh (as in butter)
ɪə
-
æ
aa
oh (as in no)
e
eh
ɔɪ
oy
 
 
ʊə
-

Table 1: Phonetic symbols.

General description of American English vowels

A vowel is a sound produced by making the vocal chords vibrate and letting the air pass through the oral cavity without obstruction. Vowels are always part of syllables. What organs can then modify the air flow as it passes through the oral cavity? Esentially, three: the tongue, the most active and flexible one, and the lips and the jaw, with less freedom of movement.

The position of the tongue determines the production of the different vowels. The position of the tongue is governed by two factors: first, vocal height, its position with respect to the roof of the mouth; second, the vocal backness its position with respect of the mouth as measured from front to back. The height of the tongue may range from open, as in [ɑ], to close, as in [i]. In general, there are three distinctive positions, namely, open, mid and close positions, and also other in-between, more subtle positions, near-open, open-mid, close-mid, and near-close positions. Notice that vocal height is somewhat associated to jaw-opening or jaw-dropping. The tongue is a very flexible and quick muscle that may be positioned at several places in the mouth. Its position within the mouth defines the vocal backness. The tongue may be at the back, almost touching the soft palate or velum, as in the sounds [ʌ] and [u]; it may be at a central position, as in [ə]; or it may be at the front, almost reaching the teeth, as in [i].

A third feature that affects the quality of a vowel is whether the lips are rounded or not. This is called the roundness of the vowel. For example, [u] is pronounced by rounding the lips, but [ɑ] is not (it is an unrounded vowel). As we will see later on, in English lip position is not just reduced to rounded and unrounded (neutral) , but lips can take up other positions such as spread (stretched back) .

Figure 1 below depicts all the American English vowels (plus a British sound [ɒ]) as a function of vocal height and vocal backness. In places where vowels are paired, the right represents a rounded vowel (in which the lips are rounded), while the left is its unrounded counterpart.

Although not related directly with sound production, in English sound duration is contrastive, i.e. vowels can be distinguished according to their length. There are two types of vowels: short vowels and long vowels. A colon (:) in front a vowel means that the sound is long, as in [i:]. In Rachel's English web page [RE], vowel length is not shown by adding a colon in front of the IPA symbol. Since each sound has a unique symbol, either long or short, strictly speaking it is not necessary to add the colon. We will not follow that convention and we will mark vowel length with a colon.

Jaw-dropping, although it is seems a secondary feature, plays a role in the pronunciation of English vowels, particularly if accent reduction is pursued.

Another contrastive quality of English vowels is tenseness. There is no clear, agreed definition of what this vowel quality consists of. Some authors refer to the degree of tension in the tongue during articulation [Pay07], while others claims that tense vowels are articulated with a more advanced tongue root than lax vowels [LM96]. According to tenseness, vowels are classified as tense, which are produced with a greater stiffness of the tongue, and lax, where the tongue is not that stiff. All tense vowels are long, except for [æ]. In Figure 1 tense vowels are enclosed in squares.

In English, no word ends with a lax vowel. For example, the word very is pronounced as ['veri], and not as ['verɪ].

 

Figure 1: English vowels.

In the following American English vowel sounds will be described in terms of backness (front, central, back), height (open, mid, close), lip position (spread, unrounded, rounded), length (short, long), jaw-dropping, and tenseness (tense, lax).

Pronunciation of [i:]

Sound [i:] is a long close front unrounded tense vowel. It appears in words such as see[si:], or heat[hi:t].

 

Common spellings for sound [i:] are: ee and ea, as in bee[bi:], or, as in easy['i:zi]; less common spellings are e, as in these[ði:z]; ey, as in key[ki:]; i, as in kilo['ki:loʊ]; eo, as in people['pi:pl].

Pronunciation of [ɪ]

Sound [ɪ] is a short near-close near-front unrounded lax vowel, as in it[ɪt], hit[hɪt].

The commonest spellings for sound [ɪ] is i, as in six[sɪks], cinema['sɪnəmə], or dinner['dɪnər]; a less common spelling is u, as in busy['bɪzi].

The tense/relax distinction for [i:] and [ɪ]

In the next video the difference between [i:] and [ɪ] in terms of the distinction tense/lax is explained.

Pronunciation of [u:]

Sound [u:] is a close back rounded long tense vowel, as in moon[mu:n], or use[ju:z].

 

Common spellings for [u:] are oo, as in boo[bu:]; oe, as in shoe[ʃu:]; ou, as in route[ru:t]; ue, as in clue[klu:]. This sound often appears in the pair [ju:] associated with spellings ew and u, as in few[fju:] and music['mju:zik].

Pronunciation of [ʊ]

Sound [ʊ] is a near-close near-back rounded short lax vowel, as in put[pʊt], or book[bʊk].

Common spellings for [ʊ] are oo, as in book[bʊk]. Notice that in general oo is pronounced as [u:], but the spelling ook is an exception and it is always pronounced as [ʊk]. Other common spellings are u and ou, as in full[fʊl] and would[wʊd].

Pronunciation of [ɑ:]

Sound [ɑ:] is an open back unrounded long tense vowel, as in heart[hɑ:t], or palm[pɑ:m].

Common spellings for [ɑ:] are ar and a, as in father['fɑ:ðər], or farther[ˈfɑ:rðər]

Pronunciation of [ɔ:]

Sound [ɔ:] is an open-mid back rounded long tense vowel, as in thought[θɔ:t], or caught[kɔ:t].

Common spellings for [ɔ:] are the following: a, as in all[ɔ:]; al, as in walk[wɔ:k]; au, as in autonomy[ɔ:'tɑ:nəmi]; aw, as in saw[sɔ:]; augh, as in caught[kɔ:t]; ough, as in cought[kɔ:t]; ar, as in warm[wɔ:rm]; or, as in born[bɔ:rn]; oor, as in door[dɔ:r]; ore, as in before[bɪ'fɔ:r]; or our, as in four[fɔ:r].

Pronunciation of [ʌ]

Sound [ʌ] is an open-mid back unrounded short lax vowel, as in hut[hʌt], or nothing['nʌθɪŋ].

Sometimes vowels [ɑ:] and [ʌ] are confused. Apart from length and tenseness, jaw-dropping stresses some differences. Because of the jaw-dropping in vowel [ɑ:], the volume createdin the mouth for the air to go through is greater than in the case of vowel [ʌ]. That gives a different timbral quality to each vowel. Check the tongue positions out on the videos.

The commonest spelling is u, as in bus[bʌs], mother['mʌðər], or under['ʌndər]. Less frequent spellings are ou, as in month[mʌŋθ], and ou, as in country['kʌntri].

Pronunciation of [e]

Sound [e] is an open-mid front unrounded short lax vowel, as in bed[bed], red[red]. Strictly speaking, the IPA symbol for this sound [ɛ]. Following authoritative dictionaries, such as the Oxford Dictionary and others, we will use the easier symbol [e] for this sound.

The commonest spelling is e, as in leg[leg], credit['kredɪt]. Other spellings are ea, as in dead[ded]; ie, as in friend[frend]; a, as in any[eni]; or ai, as in again[ə'gen].

Pronunciation of [æ]

Sound [æ] is a near-open front unrounded short tense vowel [æ], as in man[mæn], or hat[hæt].

 

The usual spelling for this sound is a, as in bat[bæt], or carry['kæri]. Many monosyllabic words with a are pronounced with [æ], such as bat, cat, fat, gap, hat, rat, or sat.

Pronunciation of [ɜ:]

[ɜ:] is an open-mid central unrounded long tense vowel, as in fur[fɜ:], or bird[bɜ:d]. In American English is always followed by a retroflex approximant, the so-called rhotic accent (see [Go12] for further information on rhotic accent).

Common spellings are: ir, as in first[fɜ:st]; or, as in word[wɜ:rd]; ur, as in fur[fɜ:r]; our, as in journey[dʒɜ:rni]; ear, as in early[ɜ:li]; or er, as in were[wɜ:r].

Pronunciation of the schwa sound [ə]

[ə] is a mid central unrounded short lax vowel, as in about[ə'baʊt], interesting['ɪntrəstɪŋ]. The schwa always goes on an unstressed syllable. Partly due to vowel reduction, this is the commonest sound in American English.

The schwa appears in many spellings; for example, in a, as in abide[ə'baid]; in e, as in fether['feðər]; in o, as in continue[kən'tɪnju:], or in u, as in supply[sə'paɪ],

References