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A vowel is a
syllabicSyllabic may refer to: *Syllable, a unit of speech sound, considered the building block of words **Syllabic consonant, a consonant that forms the nucleus of a syllable *Syllabary, writing system using symbols for syllables *Abugida, writing system us ...

syllabic
speech sound pronounced without any stricture in the
vocal tract The vocal tract is the cavity in human bodies and in animals where the sound produced at the sound source (larynx The larynx (), commonly called the voice box, is an organ Organ may refer to: Biology * Organ (anatomy) An organ is a group ...
. Vowels are one of the two principal classes of speech sounds, the other being the
consonant In articulatory phonetics The field of articulatory phonetics is a subfield of phonetics Phonetics is a branch of linguistics that studies how humans produce and perceive sounds, or in the case of sign languages, the equivalent aspects of sig ...
. Vowels vary in quality, in
loudness In , loudness is the perception of . More formally, it is defined as, "That attribute of auditory sensation in terms of which sounds can be ordered on a scale extending from quiet to loud". The relation of physical attributes of sound to percei ...
and also in quantity (length). They are usually
voiced Voice or voicing is a term used in phonetics Phonetics is a branch of linguistics that studies how humans produce and perceive sounds, or in the case of sign languages, the equivalent aspects of sign. Phoneticians—linguists who specialize i ...
and are closely involved in
prosodic In linguistics, prosody () is concerned with those elements of speech that are not individual phonetic segment (linguistics), segments (vowels and consonants) but are properties of syllables and larger units of speech, including linguistic functio ...
variation such as
tone Tone may refer to: Color-related * Tone, mix of tint and shade, in painting and color theory * Tone, the lightness In colorimetry and color theory, lightness, also known as value or tone, is a representation of a color's brightness. It is ...
, intonation and stress. The word ''vowel'' comes from the
Latin Latin (, or , ) is a classical language belonging to the Italic branch of the Indo-European languages. Latin was originally spoken in the area around Rome, known as Latium. Through the power of the Roman Republic, it became the dominant la ...

Latin
word , meaning "vocal" (i.e. relating to the voice). In English, the word ''vowel'' is commonly used to refer both to vowel sounds and to the written symbols that represent them (a, e, i, o, u, and sometimes y).


Definition

There are two complementary definitions of vowel, one
phonetic Phonetics is a branch of linguistics Linguistics is the science, scientific study of language. It encompasses the analysis of every aspect of language, as well as the methods for studying and modeling them. The traditional areas of lingu ...

phonetic
and the other
phonological Phonology is a branch of that studies how languages or dialects systematically organize their sounds (or constituent parts of signs, in sign languages). The term also refers to the sound or sign system of any particular language variety. At on ...

phonological
. *In the
phonetic Phonetics is a branch of linguistics Linguistics is the science, scientific study of language. It encompasses the analysis of every aspect of language, as well as the methods for studying and modeling them. The traditional areas of lingu ...
definition, a vowel is a sound, such as the
English English usually refers to: * English language English is a West Germanic languages, West Germanic language first spoken in History of Anglo-Saxon England, early medieval England, which has eventually become the World language, leading lan ...

English
"ah" or "oh" , produced with an open
vocal tract The vocal tract is the cavity in human bodies and in animals where the sound produced at the sound source (larynx The larynx (), commonly called the voice box, is an organ Organ may refer to: Biology * Organ (anatomy) An organ is a group ...
; it is median (the air escapes along the middle of the tongue), oral (at least some of the airflow must escape through the mouth), frictionless and
continuant In phonetics Phonetics is a branch of linguistics that studies how humans produce and perceive sounds, or in the case of sign languages, the equivalent aspects of sign. Phoneticians—linguists who specialize in phonetics—study the physical p ...
. There is no significant build-up of air pressure at any point above the
glottis The glottis is the opening between the vocal folds In humans, vocal cords, also known as vocal chords, vocal folds or voice reeds, are folds of tissue in the throat that are key in creating sounds through vocalization. The size of vocal cor ...
. This contrasts with
consonant In articulatory phonetics The field of articulatory phonetics is a subfield of phonetics Phonetics is a branch of linguistics that studies how humans produce and perceive sounds, or in the case of sign languages, the equivalent aspects of sig ...
s, such as the English "sh" , which have a constriction or closure at some point along the vocal tract. *In the phonological definition, a vowel is defined as
syllabicSyllabic may refer to: *Syllable, a unit of speech sound, considered the building block of words **Syllabic consonant, a consonant that forms the nucleus of a syllable *Syllabary, writing system using symbols for syllables *Abugida, writing system us ...

syllabic
, the sound that forms the peak of a syllable. A phonetically equivalent but non-syllabic sound is a
semivowel In phonetics Phonetics is a branch of that studies how humans produce and perceive sounds, or in the case of s, the equivalent aspects of sign. Phoneticians—linguists who specialize in phonetics—study the physical properties of speech. T ...
. In
oral language A spoken language is a language A language is a structured system of communication used by humans, including speech (spoken language), gestures (Signed language, sign language) and writing. Most languages have a writing system composed of glyp ...
s, phonetic vowels normally form the peak (nucleus) of many or all syllables, whereas
consonant In articulatory phonetics The field of articulatory phonetics is a subfield of phonetics Phonetics is a branch of linguistics that studies how humans produce and perceive sounds, or in the case of sign languages, the equivalent aspects of sig ...
s form the
onsetOnset may refer to: * Onset (audio), the beginning of a musical note or sound * Onset, Massachusetts, village in the United States **Onset Island (Massachusetts), a small island located at the western end of the Cape Cod Canal *Interonset interval, ...
and (in languages that have them)
coda Coda or CODA may refer to: Arts, entertainment, and media Films * ''Coda'' (1987 film), an Australian horror film about a serial killer, made for television * ''Coda'' (2019 film), a Canadian drama film starring Patrick Stewart, Katie Holmes, a ...
. Some languages allow other sounds to form the nucleus of a syllable, such as the
syllabicSyllabic may refer to: *Syllable, a unit of speech sound, considered the building block of words **Syllabic consonant, a consonant that forms the nucleus of a syllable *Syllabary, writing system using symbols for syllables *Abugida, writing system us ...
(i.e., vocalic) ''l'' in the English word ''table'' (when not considered to have a weak vowel sound: ) or the syllabic ''r'' in the
Serbo-Croatian Serbo-Croatian () – also called Serbo-Croat (), Serbo-Croat-Bosnian (SCB), Bosnian-Croatian-Serbian (BCS), and Bosnian-Croatian-Montenegrin-Serbian (BCMS) – is a South Slavic language The South Slavic languages are one of three branches ...
word ''vrt'' "garden". The phonetic definition of "vowel" (i.e. a sound produced with no constriction in the vocal tract) does not always match the phonological definition (i.e. a sound that forms the peak of a syllable). The
approximant Approximants are speech sounds that involve the articulators approaching each other but not narrowly enough nor with enough articulatory precision to create turbulent airflow. Therefore, approximants fall between fricatives Fricatives are conso ...
s and illustrate this: both are without much of a constriction in the vocal tract (so phonetically they seem to be vowel-like), but they occur at the onset of syllables (e.g. in "yet" and "wet") which suggests that phonologically they are consonants. A similar debate arises over whether a word like ''bird'' in a rhotic dialect has an
r-colored vowel In phonetics Phonetics is a branch of linguistics that studies how humans produce and perceive sounds, or in the case of sign languages, the equivalent aspects of sign. Phoneticians—linguists who specialize in phonetics—study the physica ...
or a syllabic consonant . The American linguist
Kenneth Pike Kenneth Lee Pike (June 9, 1912 – December 31, 2000) was an American Linguistics, linguist and Anthropology, anthropologist. He was the originator of the theory of tagmemics, the coiner of the terms Emic and etic, "emic" and "etic" and the d ...
(1943) suggested the terms "vocoid" for a phonetic vowel and "vowel" for a phonological vowel, so using this terminology, and are classified as vocoids but not vowels. However, Maddieson and Emmory (1985) demonstrated from a range of languages that semivowels are produced with a narrower constriction of the vocal tract than vowels, and so may be considered consonants on that basis. Nonetheless, the phonetic and phonemic definitions would still conflict for the syllabic /l/ in ''table'' or the syllabic nasals in ''button'' and ''rhythm''.


Articulation

The traditional view of vowel production, reflected for example in the terminology and presentation of the
International Phonetic Alphabet The International Phonetic Alphabet (IPA) is an alphabet An alphabet is a standardized set of basic written symbols A symbol is a mark, sign, or word In linguistics, a word of a spoken language can be defined as the smallest seq ...
, is one of articulatory features that determine a vowel's ''quality'' as distinguishing it from other vowels.
Daniel Jones
Daniel Jones
developed the
cardinal vowel Cardinal vowels are a set of reference vowels used by phoneticians in describing the sounds of languages. They are classified depending on the position of the tongue relative to the roof of the mouth, how far forward or back is the highest poi ...
system to describe vowels in terms of the features of tongue ''height'' (vertical dimension), tongue ''backness'' (horizontal dimension) and ''roundedness'' (lip articulation). These three parameters are indicated in the schematic quadrilateral IPA
vowel diagram A vowel diagram or vowel chart is a schematic arrangement of the vowel A vowel is a Syllable, syllabic speech sound pronounced without any stricture in the vocal tract. Vowels are one of the two principal classes of speech sounds, the other b ...
on the right. There are additional features of vowel quality, such as the velum position (nasality), type of
vocal fold In humans, vocal cords, also known as vocal chords, vocal folds or voice reeds, are folds of tissue in the throat that are key in creating sounds through vocalization. The size of vocal cords affects the pitch of voice. Open when breathing and ...
vibration (phonation), and tongue root position. This conception of vowel articulation has been known to be inaccurate since 1928. Peter Ladefoged has said that "early phoneticians... thought they were describing the highest point of the tongue, but they were not. They were actually describing formant frequencies." (See below.) The IPA ''Handbook'' concedes that "the vowel quadrilateral must be regarded as an abstraction and not a direct mapping of tongue position." Nonetheless, the concept that vowel qualities are determined primarily by tongue position and lip rounding continues to be used in pedagogy, as it provides an intuitive explanation of how vowels are distinguished.


Height

Theoretically, vowel height refers to the vertical position of either the tongue or the jaw (depending on the model) relative to either the roof of the mouth or the aperture of the
jaw The jaw is any opposable articulated structure at the entrance of the , typically used for grasping and manipulating food. The term ''jaws'' is also broadly applied to the whole of the structures constituting the vault of the mouth and serving t ...

jaw
. In practice, however, it refers to the first
formant 250px, Spectrogram of American English vowels showing the formants ''F''1 and ''F''2 In speech science Speech science refers to the study of production, transmission and perception of speech Speech is human vocal communication using language ...

formant
(lowest resonance of the voice), abbreviated F1, which is associated with the height of the tongue. In close vowels, also known as high vowels, such as and , the first formant is consistent with the tongue being positioned close to the palate, high in the mouth, whereas in open vowels, also known as low vowels, such as , F1 is consistent with the jaw being open and the tongue being positioned low in the mouth. Height is defined by the inverse of the F1 value: The higher the frequency of the first formant, the lower (more open) the vowel. In John Elsing's usage, where fronted vowels are distinguished in height by the position of the jaw rather than the tongue, only the terms 'open' and 'close' are used, as 'high' and 'low' refer to the position of the tongue. The
International Phonetic Alphabet The International Phonetic Alphabet (IPA) is an alphabet An alphabet is a standardized set of basic written symbols A symbol is a mark, sign, or word In linguistics, a word of a spoken language can be defined as the smallest seq ...
defines seven degrees of vowel height, but no language is known to distinguish all of them without distinguishing another attribute: * close (high) * near-close (near-high) *
close-mid A close-mid vowel (also mid-close vowel, high-mid vowel, mid-high vowel or half-close vowel) is any in a class of vowel sound used in some spoken languages. The defining characteristic of a close-mid vowel is that the tongue is positioned one thi ...
(high-mid) * mid (true-mid) *
open-mid An open-mid vowel (also mid-open vowel, low-mid vowel, mid-low vowel or half-open vowel) is any in a class of vowel sound used in some spoken languages. The defining characteristic of an open-mid vowel is that the tongue is positioned one third o ...
(low-mid) * near-open (near-low) *
open Open or OPEN may refer to: Music * Open (band) Open is a band. Background Drummer Pete Neville has been involved in the Sydney/Australian music scene for a number of years. He has recently completed a Masters in screen music at the Australian ...
(low) The letters are typically used for either close-mid or true-mid vowels. However, if more precision is required, true-mid vowels may be written with a lowering diacritic . The
Kensiu language Kensiu (Kensiw) is an Austro-Asiatic languages, Austro-Asiatic language of the Jahaic languages, Jahaic (Northern Aslian languages, Aslian) subbranch. It is spoken by a small community of 300 in Yala Province in southern Thailand and also reported ...
, spoken in Malaysia and Thailand, is highly unusual in that it contrasts true-mid with close-mid and open-mid vowels, without any difference in other parameters like backness or roundness. It appears that some varieties of
German German(s) may refer to: Common uses * of or related to Germany * Germans, Germanic ethnic group, citizens of Germany or people of German ancestry * For citizens of Germany, see also German nationality law * German language The German la ...

German
have five vowel heights that contrast independently of length or other parameters. The Bavarian dialect of Amstetten has thirteen long vowels, which can be analyzed as distinguishing five heights (close, close-mid, mid, open-mid and open) each among the front unrounded, front rounded, and back rounded vowels as well as an open central vowel, for a total of five vowel heights: . No other language is known to contrast more than four degrees of vowel height. The parameter of vowel height appears to be the primary cross-linguistic feature of vowels in that all
spoken language A spoken language is a language A language is a structured system of communication used by humans, including speech (spoken language), gestures (Signed language, sign language) and writing. Most languages have a writing system composed of glyp ...
s that have been researched till now use height as a contrastive feature. No other parameter, even backness or rounding (see below), is used in all languages. Some languages have
vertical vowel system A vertical vowel system is the system of vowels in a language that requires only vowel height to phonemically distinguish vowels. Theoretically, Roundedness, rounding, Front vowel, frontness and Back vowel, backness could also be used in one-dime ...
s in which at least at a phonemic level, only height is used to distinguish vowels.


Backness

Vowel backness is named for the position of the tongue during the articulation of a vowel relative to the back of the mouth. As with vowel height, however, it is ''defined'' by a formant of the voice, in this case the second, F2, not by the position of the tongue. In front vowels, such as , the frequency of F2 is relatively high, which generally corresponds to a position of the tongue forward in the mouth, whereas in back vowels, such as , F2 is low, consistent with the tongue being positioned towards the back of the mouth. The
International Phonetic Alphabet The International Phonetic Alphabet (IPA) is an alphabet An alphabet is a standardized set of basic written symbols A symbol is a mark, sign, or word In linguistics, a word of a spoken language can be defined as the smallest seq ...
defines five degrees of vowel backness: *
front Front may refer to: Arts, entertainment, and media Films * ''The Front'' (1943 film), a 1943 Soviet drama film * '' The Front'', 1976 film Music * The Front (band), an American rock band signed to Columbia Records and active in the 1980s and e ...
* near-front *
central Central is an adjective usually referring to being in the center (disambiguation), center of some place or (mathematical) object. Central may also refer to: Directions and generalised locations * Central Africa, a region in the centre of Africa ...
* near-back *
back The human back, also called the dorsum, is the large Posterior (anatomy), posterior area of the human body, rising from the top of the buttocks to the back of the neck. It is the surface anatomy, surface of the body opposite from the chest and th ...
To them may be added front-central and back-central, corresponding to the vertical lines separating central from front and back vowel spaces in several IPA diagrams. However, ''front-central'' and ''back-central'' may also be used as terms synonymous with ''near-front'' and ''near-back''. No language is known to contrast more than three degrees of backness nor is there a language that contrasts front with near-front vowels nor back with near-back ones. Although some English dialects have vowels at five degrees of backness, there is no known language that distinguishes five degrees of backness without additional differences in height or rounding.


Roundedness

Roundedness In phonetics, vowel roundedness refers to the amount of rounding in the lips during the articulation of a vowel. It is labialization of a vowel. When a ''rounded'' vowel is pronounced, the lips form a circular opening, and ''unrounded'' vowels a ...
is named after the rounding of the lips in some vowels. Because lip rounding is easily visible, vowels may be commonly identified as rounded based on the articulation of the lips. Acoustically, rounded vowels are identified chiefly by a decrease in F2, although F1 is also slightly decreased. In most languages, roundedness is a reinforcing feature of mid to high back vowels rather than a distinctive feature. Usually, the higher a back vowel, the more intense is the rounding. However, in some languages, roundedness is independent from backness, such as French and German (with front rounded vowels), most
Uralic languages The Uralic languages (; sometimes called Uralian languages ) form a language family A language is a structured system of communication used by humans, including speech ( spoken language), gestures (Signed language, sign language) and writin ...

Uralic languages
(
Estonian Estonian may refer to: *Something of, from, or related to Estonia, a country in the Baltic region in northern Europe *Estonians, people from Estonia, or of Estonian descent *Estonian language *Estonian cuisine *Estonian culture See also

* * La ...
has a rounding contrast for and front vowels),
Turkic languages The Turkic languages are a language family of at least 35 documented languages, spoken by the Turkic peoples of Eurasia from Eastern Europe and Southern Europe to Central Asia, East Asia, North Asia (Siberia), and Western Asia. The Turkic langu ...

Turkic languages
(with a rounding distinction for front vowels and ), and
Vietnamese Vietnamese may refer to: * Something of, from, or related to Vietnam, a country in Southeast Asia ** A citizen of Vietnam. See Demographics of Vietnam. * Vietnamese people, or Kinh people, a Southeast Asian ethnic group native to Vietnam ** Oversea ...
with back unrounded vowels. Nonetheless, even in those languages there is usually some phonetic correlation between rounding and backness: front rounded vowels tend to be more front-central than front, and back unrounded vowels tend to be more back-central than back. Thus, the placement of unrounded vowels to the left of rounded vowels on the IPA vowel chart is reflective of their position in formant space. Different kinds of
labialization Labialization is a secondary articulatory feature of sounds in some languages. Labialized sounds involve the lips while the remainder of the oral cavity produces another sound. The term is normally restricted to consonant In articulatory pho ...
are possible. In mid to high rounded back vowels the lips are generally protruded ("pursed") outward, a phenomenon known as ''endolabial rounding'' because the insides of the lips are visible, whereas in mid to high rounded front vowels the lips are generally "compressed" with the margins of the lips pulled in and drawn towards each other, a phenomenon known as ''exolabial rounding.'' However, not all languages follow that pattern.
Japanese Japanese may refer to: * Something from or related to Japan , image_flag = Flag of Japan.svg , alt_flag = Centered deep red circle on a white rectangle , image_coat = Imperial Seal of J ...

Japanese
, for example, is an exolabial (compressed) back vowel, and sounds quite different from an English endolabial .
Swedish Swedish or ' may refer to: * Anything from or related to Sweden, a country in Northern Europe * Swedish language, a North Germanic language spoken primarily in Sweden and Finland * Swedish alphabet, the official alphabet used by the Swedish langua ...
and
Norwegian Norwegian, Norwayan, or Norsk may refer to: *Something of, from, or related to Norway, a country in northwestern Europe *Norwegians, both a nation and an ethnic group native to Norway *Demographics of Norway *The Norwegian language, including the t ...
are the only two known languages in which the feature is contrastive; they have both exo- and endo-labial close front vowels and close central vowels, respectively. In many phonetic treatments, both are considered types of rounding, but some phoneticians do not believe that these are subsets of a single phenomenon and posit instead three independent features of ''rounded'' (endolabial) and ''compressed'' (exolabial) and unrounded. The lip position of unrounded vowels may also be classified separately as ''spread'' and ''neutral'' (neither rounded nor spread). Others distinguish compressed rounded vowels, in which the corners of the mouth are drawn together, from compressed unrounded vowels, in which the lips are compressed but the corners remain apart as in spread vowels.


Front, raised and retracted

The conception of the tongue moving in two directions, high–low and front–back, is not supported by articulatory evidence and does not clarify how articulation affects vowel quality. Vowels may instead be characterized by the three directions of movement of the tongue from its neutral position: front (forward), raised (upward and back), and retracted (downward and back). Front vowels ( and, to a lesser extent , etc.), can be secondarily qualified as close or open, as in the traditional conception, but this refers to jaw rather than tongue position. In addition, rather than there being a unitary category of back vowels, the regrouping posits
raised vowel A raised vowel is a vowel A vowel is a Syllable, syllabic speech sound pronounced without any stricture in the vocal tract. Vowels are one of the two principal classes of speech sounds, the other being the consonant. Vowels vary in quality, in ...
s, where the body of the tongue approaches the velum (], etc.), and
retracted vowel A retracted vowel is a vowel A vowel is a Syllable, syllabic speech sound pronounced without any stricture in the vocal tract. Vowels are one of the two principal classes of speech sounds, the other being the consonant. Vowels vary in quality, i ...
s, where the root of the tongue approaches the pharynx (, etc.): *
front Front may refer to: Arts, entertainment, and media Films * ''The Front'' (1943 film), a 1943 Soviet drama film * '' The Front'', 1976 film Music * The Front (band), an American rock band signed to Columbia Records and active in the 1980s and e ...
* raised * retracted Membership in these categories is scalar, with the mid-central vowels being marginal to any category.


Nasalization

Nasalization In phonetics Phonetics is a branch of linguistics Linguistics is the scientific study of language, meaning that it is a comprehensive, systematic, objective, and precise study of language. Linguistics encompasses the analysis of eve ...
occurs when air escapes through the nose. Vowels are often nasalised under the influence of neighbouring nasal consonants, as in
English English usually refers to: * English language English is a West Germanic languages, West Germanic language first spoken in History of Anglo-Saxon England, early medieval England, which has eventually become the World language, leading lan ...

English
''hand'' . ''Nasalised vowels'', however, should not be confused with ''nasal vowels''. The latter refers to vowels that are distinct from their oral counterparts, as in
French
French
vs. . In
nasal vowel A nasal vowel is a vowel A vowel is a syllabicSyllabic may refer to: *Syllable, a unit of speech sound, considered the building block of words **Syllabic consonant, a consonant that forms the nucleus of a syllable *Syllabary, writing syste ...
s, the velum is lowered, and some air travels through the nasal cavity as well as the mouth. An oral vowel is a vowel in which all air escapes through the mouth.
Polish Polish may refer to: * Anything from or related to Poland Poland ( pl, Polska ), officially the Republic of Poland ( pl, Rzeczpospolita Polska, links=no ), is a country located in Central Europe. It is divided into 16 Voivodeships of Pol ...
and
Portuguese Portuguese may refer to: * anything of, from, or related to the country and nation of Portugal ** Portuguese cuisine, traditional foods ** Portuguese language, a Romance language *** Portuguese dialects, variants of the Portuguese language ** Portug ...

Portuguese
also contrast nasal and oral vowels.


Phonation

Voicing Voicing may refer to: * Voicing (music), the distribution of a chord's notes, either in composition or orchestration *The regulation of tone and loudness of an instrument's notes: **Piano_maintenance#Voicing **Voicing (pipe organ) **Plectrum#Voicin ...
describes whether the
vocal cords In humans, vocal cords, also known as vocal chords, vocal folds or voice reeds, are folds of tissue in the throat that are key in creating sounds through vocalization. The size of vocal cords affects the pitch of voice. Open when breathing and ...
are vibrating during the articulation of a vowel. Most languages have only voiced vowels, but several
Native American languages Over a thousand are spoken by the . These languages cannot all be demonstrated to be related to each other and are classified into a hundred or so (including a large number of s), as well as a number of extinct languages that are due to a lac ...
, such as
Cheyenne The Cheyenne ( ) are an Indigenous people of the Great Plains Plains Indians or Indigenous peoples of the Great Plains and Canadian Prairies are the Native Americans in the United States, Native American tribe (Native American), tribes and ...
and
Totonac The Totonac are an indigenous people of Mexico who reside in the Mexican state, states of Veracruz, Puebla, and Hidalgo (state), Hidalgo. They are one of the possible builders of the pre-Columbian city of El Tajín, and further maintained quarte ...
, contrast voiced and devoiced vowels. Vowels are devoiced in whispered speech. In Japanese and in
Quebec French Quebec French (french: français québécois ; also known as Québécois French or Québécois) is the predominant variety Variety may refer to: Science and technology Mathematics * Algebraic variety, the set of solutions of a system of pol ...
, vowels that are between voiceless consonants are often devoiced.
Modal voice Modal voice is the vocal register A vocal register is a range of tones in the human voice produced by a particular vibratory pattern of the vocal folds. These registers include modal voice Modal voice is the vocal register used most frequent ...
,
creaky voice In linguistics Linguistics is the science, scientific study of language. It encompasses the analysis of every aspect of language, as well as the methods for studying and modeling them. The traditional areas of linguistic analysis include ph ...
, and
breathy voice Breathy voice (also called murmured voice, whispery voice, soughing and susurration) is a phonation The term phonation has slightly different meanings depending on the subfield of phonetics. Among some phoneticians, ''phonation'' is the p ...
(murmured vowels) are
phonation The term phonation has slightly different meanings depending on the subfield of phonetics Phonetics is a branch of that studies how humans produce and perceive sounds, or in the case of s, the equivalent aspects of sign. Phoneticians—lingu ...
types that are used contrastively in some languages. Often, they co-occur with
tone Tone may refer to: Color-related * Tone, mix of tint and shade, in painting and color theory * Tone, the lightness In colorimetry and color theory, lightness, also known as value or tone, is a representation of a color's brightness. It is ...
or stress distinctions; in the
Mon language The Mon language (, mnw, ဘာသာမန်; my, မွန်ဘာသာ, Thai language, Thai: ภาษามอญ, formerly known as Peguan and Talaing) is an Austroasiatic languages, Austroasiatic language spoken by the Mon people. Mon, ...
, vowels pronounced in the high tone are also produced with creaky voice. In such cases, it can be unclear whether it is the tone, the voicing type, or the pairing of the two that is being used for
phonemic contrast Phonemic contrast refers to a minimal phonetic Phonetics is a branch of linguistics Linguistics is the science, scientific study of language. It encompasses the analysis of every aspect of language, as well as the methods for studying ...
. The combination of phonetic cues (phonation, tone, stress) is known as ''register'' or ''register complex''.


Tenseness

Tenseness In phonology Phonology is a branch of linguistics that studies how languages or dialects systematically organize their sounds (or signs, in sign languages). The term also refers to the sound system of any particular language variety. At one t ...
is used to describe the opposition of ''tense vowels'' vs. ''lax vowels''. This opposition has traditionally been thought to be a result of greater muscular tension, though phonetic experiments have repeatedly failed to show this. Unlike the other features of vowel quality, tenseness is only applicable to the few languages that have this opposition (mainly
Germanic language The Germanic languages are a branch of the Indo-European The Indo-European languages are a language family native to western and southern Eurasia. It comprises most of the languages of Europe together with those of the northern Indian su ...
s, e.g.
English English usually refers to: * English language English is a West Germanic languages, West Germanic language first spoken in History of Anglo-Saxon England, early medieval England, which has eventually become the World language, leading lan ...

English
), whereas the vowels of the other languages (e.g.
Spanish Spanish may refer to: * Items from or related to Spain: **Spaniards, a nation and ethnic group indigenous to Spain **Spanish language **Spanish cuisine Other places * Spanish, Ontario, Canada * Spanish River (disambiguation), the name of several ...

Spanish
) cannot be described with respect to tenseness in any meaningful way. One may distinguish the English tense vs. lax vowels roughly, with its spelling. Tense vowels usually occur in words with the final
silent e In English orthography English orthography is the system of writing conventions used to represent spoken English Dialect The term dialect (from Latin , , from the Ancient Greek word , , "discourse", from , , "through" and , , "I speak") is ...
, as in ''mate''. Lax vowels occur in words without the silent e, such as ''mat''. In
American English American English (AmE, AE, AmEng, USEng, en-US), sometimes called United States English or U.S. English, is the set of variety (linguistics), varieties of the English language native to the United States. Currently, American English is the m ...
, lax vowels do not appear in stressed open syllables. In traditional grammar, ''long vowels'' vs. ''short vowels'' are more commonly used, compared to ''tense'' and ''lax''. The two sets of terms are used interchangeably by some because the features are concomitant in some varieties of English. In most
Germanic languages The Germanic languages are a branch of the Indo-European The Indo-European languages are a language family native to western and southern Eurasia. It comprises most of the languages of Europe together with those of the northern Indian su ...

Germanic languages
, lax vowels can only occur in
closed syllables A syllable is a unit of organization for a sequence of Phone (phonetics), speech sounds. It is typically made up of a syllable nucleus (most often a vowel) with optional initial and final margins (typically, consonants). Syllables are often consid ...
. Therefore, they are also known as ''checked vowels'', whereas the tense vowels are called ''free vowels'' since they can occur in any kind of syllable.


Tongue root position

Advanced tongue root (ATR) is a feature common across much of Africa, the
Pacific Northwest The Pacific Northwest (PNW) is a geographic region in western North America bounded by its coastal waters of the Pacific Ocean to the west and, loosely, by the Rocky Mountains to the east. Though no official boundary exists, the most common co ...
, and scattered other languages such as Modern
Mongolian Mongolian may refer to: * Something of, from, or related to Mongolia, a country in Asia * Mongolian people, or Mongols * Mongolia (1911–24), the government of Mongolia, 1911–1919 and 1921–1924 * Mongolian language * Mongolian alphabet * Mongo ...

Mongolian
. The contrast between advanced and retracted tongue root resembles the tense-lax contrast acoustically, but they are articulated differently. Those vowels involve noticeable tension in the vocal tract.


Secondary narrowings in the vocal tract

Pharyngealized vowels occur in some languages like Sedang and the
Tungusic languages The Tungusic languages (also known as Manchu-Tungus and Tungus) form a language family spoken in Eastern Siberia and Manchuria by Tungusic peoples. Many Tungusic languages are endangered, and the long-term future of the family is uncertain. Ther ...
. Pharyngealisation is similar in articulation to retracted tongue root but is acoustically distinct. A stronger degree of pharyngealisation occurs in the
Northeast Caucasian languages The Northeast Caucasian languages, also called East Caucasian or Nakh-Daghestanian languages, is a family of languages In human society, family (from la, familia) is a group of people related either by consanguinity (by recognized birth ...

Northeast Caucasian languages
and the
Khoisan languages The Khoisan languages (; also Khoesan or Khoesaan) are a group of Languages of Africa, African languages originally classified together by Joseph Greenberg. Khoisan languages share click languages, click consonants and do not belong to other Afri ...

Khoisan languages
. They might be called epiglottalized since the primary constriction is at the tip of the epiglottis. The greatest degree of pharyngealisation is found in the strident vowels of the Khoisan languages, where the
larynx The larynx (), commonly called the voice box, is an organ Organ may refer to: Biology * Organ (anatomy) An organ is a group of Tissue (biology), tissues with similar functions. Plant life and animal life rely on many organs that co-exist ...

larynx
is raised, and the pharynx constricted, so that either the epiglottis or the
arytenoid cartilage The arytenoid () cartilage Cartilage (cartilaginous tissue) is a resilient and smooth elastic tissue Elastic fibers (or yellow fibers) are an essential component of the extracellular matrix In biology Biology is the natural science tha ...

arytenoid cartilage
s vibrate instead of the vocal cords. Note that the terms ''pharyngealized'', ''epiglottalized'', ''strident'', and ''sphincteric'' are sometimes used interchangeably.


Rhotic vowels

Rhotic vowels are the "R-colored vowels" of American English and a few other languages.


Reduced vowels

Some languages, such as English and Russian, have what are called 'reduced', 'weak' or 'obscure' vowels in some unstressed positions. These do not correspond one-to-one with the vowel sounds that occur in stressed position (so-called 'full' vowels), and they tend to be mid-centralized in comparison, as well as having reduced rounding or spreading. The IPA has long provided two letters for obscure vowels, mid and lower , neither of which are defined for rounding. Dialects of English may have up to four phonemic reduced vowels: , , and higher unrounded and rounded . (The non-IPA letters and may be used for the latter to avoid confusion with the clearly defined values of IPA letters like and , which are also seen, since the IPA only provides for two reduced vowels.)


Acoustics

The acoustics of vowels are fairly well understood. The different vowel qualities are realized in acoustic analyses of vowels by the relative values of the
formant 250px, Spectrogram of American English vowels showing the formants ''F''1 and ''F''2 In speech science Speech science refers to the study of production, transmission and perception of speech Speech is human vocal communication using language ...

formant
s, acoustic
resonance Resonance describes the phenomenon of increased amplitude The amplitude of a Periodic function, periodic Variable (mathematics), variable is a measure of its change in a single Period (mathematics), period (such as frequency, time or Wavelen ...

resonance
s of the vocal tract which show up as dark bands on a
spectrogram A spectrogram is a visual representation of the spectral density, spectrum of frequencies of a signal as it varies with time. When applied to an audio signal, spectrograms are sometimes called sonographs, voiceprints, or voicegrams. When the d ...

spectrogram
. The vocal tract acts as a
resonant cavity A resonator is a device or system that exhibits resonance or resonant behavior. That is, it naturally Oscillation, oscillates with greater amplitude at some frequency, frequencies, called Resonance frequency, resonant frequencies, than at other f ...
, and the position of the jaw, lips, and tongue affect the parameters of the resonant cavity, resulting in different formant values. The acoustics of vowels can be visualized using spectrograms, which display the acoustic energy at each frequency, and how this changes with time. The first formant, abbreviated "F1", corresponds to vowel openness (vowel height).
Open vowel An open vowel is a vowel A vowel is a syllabicSyllabic may refer to: *Syllable, a unit of speech sound, considered the building block of words **Syllabic consonant, a consonant that forms the nucleus of a syllable *Syllabary, writing system ...
s have high F1 frequencies, while
close vowel A close vowel, also known as a high vowel (in U.S. terminology), is any in a class of vowel A vowel is a Syllable, syllabic speech sound pronounced without any stricture in the vocal tract. Vowels are one of the two principal classes of speech ...
s have low F1 frequencies, as can be seen in the accompanying spectrogram: The and have similar low first formants, whereas has a higher formant. The second formant, F2, corresponds to vowel frontness.
Back vowel A back vowel is any in a class of vowel A vowel is a syllabicSyllabic may refer to: *Syllable, a unit of speech sound, considered the building block of words **Syllabic consonant, a consonant that forms the nucleus of a syllable *Syllabary, ...
s have low F2 frequencies, while
front vowel A front vowel is a class of vowel A vowel is a syllabicSyllabic may refer to: *Syllable, a unit of speech sound, considered the building block of words **Syllabic consonant, a consonant that forms the nucleus of a syllable *Syllabary, writin ...
s have high F2 frequencies. This is very clear in the spectrogram, where the front vowel has a much higher F2 frequency than the other two vowels. However, in open vowels, the high F1 frequency forces a rise in the F2 frequency as well, so an alternative measure of frontness is the ''difference'' between the first and second formants. For this reason, some people prefer to plot as F1 vs. F2 – F1. (This dimension is usually called 'backness' rather than 'frontness', but the term 'backness' can be counterintuitive when discussing formants.) In the third edition of his textbook,
Peter Ladefoged Peter Nielsen Ladefoged ( , ; 17 September 1925 – 24 January 2006) was a British linguist Linguistics is the scientific study of language A language is a structured system of communication used by humans, including speech (spoken ...
recommended using plots of F1 against F2 – F1 to represent vowel quality. However, in the fourth edition, he changed to adopt a simple plot of F1 against F2, and this simple plot of F1 against F2 was maintained for the fifth (and final) edition of the book. Katrina Hayward compares the two types of plots and concludes that plotting of F1 against F2 – F1 "is not very satisfactory because of its effect on the placing of the central vowels", so she also recommends use of a simple plot of F1 against F2. In fact, this kind of plot of F1 against F2 has been used by analysts to show the quality of the vowels in a wide range of languages, including RP, the Queen's English, American English, Singapore English, Brunei English, North Frisian, Turkish Kabardian, and various indigenous Australian languages.
R-colored vowel In phonetics Phonetics is a branch of that studies how humans produce and perceive sounds, or in the case of s, the equivalent aspects of sign. Phoneticians—linguists who specialize in phonetics—study the physical properties of speech ...
s are characterized by lowered F3 values. Rounding is generally realized by a decrease of F2 that tends to reinforce vowel backness. One effect of this is that back vowels are most commonly rounded while front vowels are most commonly unrounded; another is that rounded vowels tend to plot to the right of unrounded vowels in vowel charts. That is, there is a reason for plotting vowel pairs the way they are.


Prosody and intonation

In addition to variation in vowel quality as described above, vowels vary as a result of differences in
prosody Prosody may refer to: * Sanskrit prosody, Prosody (Sanskrit), the study of poetic meters and verse in Sanskrit and one of the six Vedangas, or limbs of Vedic studies * Prosody (Greek), the theory and practice of Greek versification * Prosody (Lati ...
. The most important prosodic variables are
pitch Pitch may refer to: Acoustic frequency * Pitch (music), the perceived frequency of sound including "definite pitch" and "indefinite pitch" ** Absolute pitch or "perfect pitch" ** Pitch class, a set of all pitches that are a whole number of octaves ...
(
fundamental frequency The fundamental frequency, often referred to simply as the fundamental, is defined as the lowest frequency Frequency is the number of occurrences of a repeating event per unit of time A unit of time is any particular time Time is th ...
),
loudness In , loudness is the perception of . More formally, it is defined as, "That attribute of auditory sensation in terms of which sounds can be ordered on a scale extending from quiet to loud". The relation of physical attributes of sound to percei ...
( intensity) and
length Length is a measure of distance Distance is a numerical measurement ' Measurement is the number, numerical quantification (science), quantification of the variable and attribute (research), attributes of an object or event, which can be us ...
(
duration Duration may refer to: * The amount of Time#Terminology, time elapsed between two events * Duration (music) – an amount of time or a particular time interval, often cited as one of the fundamental aspects of music * Duration (philosophy) – a th ...
). However, the features of prosody are usually considered to apply not to the vowel itself, but to the
syllable A syllable is a unit of organization for a sequence of speech sounds. It is typically made up of a syllable nucleus (most often a vowel A vowel is a Syllable, syllabic speech sound pronounced without any stricture in the vocal tract. Vowels a ...

syllable
in which the vowel occurs. In other words, the ''domain'' of prosody is the syllable, not the segment (vowel or consonant). We can list briefly the effect of prosody on the vowel component of a syllable. * Pitch: in the case of a syllable such as 'cat', the only
voiced Voice or voicing is a term used in phonetics Phonetics is a branch of that studies how humans produce and perceive sounds, or in the case of s, the equivalent aspects of sign. Phoneticians—linguists who specialize in phonetics—study th ...
portion of the syllable is the vowel, so the vowel carries the pitch information. This may relate to the syllable in which it occurs, or to a larger stretch of speech to which an intonation contour belongs. In a word such as 'man', all the segments in the syllable are
sonorant In phonetics Phonetics is a branch of linguistics that studies how humans produce and perceive sounds, or in the case of sign languages, the equivalent aspects of sign. Phoneticians—linguists who specialize in phonetics—study the physical pro ...
and all will participate in any pitch variation. * Loudness: this variable has been traditionally associated with linguistic stress, though other factors are usually involved in this. Lehiste (ibid) argues that stress, or loudness, could not be associated with a single segment in a syllable independently of the rest of the syllable (p. 147). This means that vowel loudness is a concomitant of the loudness of the syllable in which it occurs. * Length: it is important to distinguish two aspects of
vowel length In linguistics Linguistics is the science, scientific study of language. It encompasses the analysis of every aspect of language, as well as the methods for studying and modeling them. The traditional areas of linguistic analysis include ...
. One is the
phonological Phonology is a branch of that studies how languages or dialects systematically organize their sounds (or constituent parts of signs, in sign languages). The term also refers to the sound or sign system of any particular language variety. At on ...

phonological
difference in length exhibited by some languages.
Japanese Japanese may refer to: * Something from or related to Japan , image_flag = Flag of Japan.svg , alt_flag = Centered deep red circle on a white rectangle , image_coat = Imperial Seal of J ...

Japanese
,
Finnish Finnish may refer to: * Something or someone from, or related to Finland * Finnish culture * Finnish people or Finns, the primary ethnic group in Finland * Finnish language, the national language of the Finnish people * Finnish cuisine See also

...
,
HungarianHungarian may refer to: * Hungary, a country in Central Europe * Kingdom of Hungary, state of Hungary, existing between 1000 and 1946 * Hungarians, ethnic groups in Hungary * Hungarian algorithm, a polynomial time algorithm for solving the assignmen ...
,
Arabic Arabic (, ' or , ' or ) is a Semitic language The Semitic languages are a branch of the Afroasiatic language family originating in the Middle East The Middle East is a list of transcontinental countries, transcontinental region ...

Arabic
and
Latin Latin (, or , ) is a classical language belonging to the Italic branch of the Indo-European languages. Latin was originally spoken in the area around Rome, known as Latium. Through the power of the Roman Republic, it became the dominant la ...

Latin
have a two-way phonemic contrast between short and long vowels. The
Mixe language The Mixe languages are languages of the Mixean branch of the Mixe–Zoquean language family indigenous to southern Mexico Mexico ( es, México ; Nahuan languages: ), officially the United Mexican States (; EUM ), is a List of sovereign s ...
has a three-way contrast among short, half-long, and long vowels. The other type of length variation in vowels is non-distinctive, and is the result of prosodic variation in speech: vowels tend to be lengthened when in a stressed syllable, or when utterance rate is slow.


Monophthongs, diphthongs, triphthongs

A vowel sound whose quality does not change over the duration of the vowel is called a
monophthong A monophthong ( ; , ) is a pure vowel A vowel is a syllabicSyllabic may refer to: *Syllable, a unit of speech sound, considered the building block of words **Syllabic consonant, a consonant that forms the nucleus of a syllable *Syllabary, writ ...
. Monophthongs are sometimes called "pure" or "stable" vowels. A vowel sound that glides from one quality to another is called a
diphthong A diphthong ( ; , ), also known as a gliding vowel, is a combination of two adjacent vowel A vowel is a Syllable, syllabic speech sound pronounced without any stricture in the vocal tract. Vowels are one of the two principal classes of spe ...
, and a vowel sound that glides successively through three qualities is a
triphthong In phonetics Phonetics is a branch of linguistics that studies how humans produce and perceive sounds, or in the case of sign languages, the equivalent aspects of sign. Phoneticians—linguists who specialize in phonetics—study the physical p ...
. All languages have monophthongs and many languages have diphthongs, but triphthongs or vowel sounds with even more target qualities are relatively rare cross-linguistically. English has all three types: the vowel sound in ''hit'' is a monophthong , the vowel sound in ''boy'' is in most dialects a diphthong , and the vowel sounds of ''flower'', , form a triphthong or disyllable, depending on dialect. In
phonology Phonology is a branch of linguistics Linguistics is the scientific study of language, meaning that it is a comprehensive, systematic, objective, and precise study of language. Linguistics encompasses the analysis of every aspect of lan ...

phonology
, diphthongs and triphthongs are distinguished from sequences of monophthongs by whether the vowel sound may be analyzed into distinct
phonemes In phonology Phonology is a branch of linguistics Linguistics is the scientific study of language, meaning that it is a comprehensive, systematic, objective, and precise study of language. Linguistics encompasses the analysis of ...

phonemes
. For example, the vowel sounds in a two-syllable pronunciation of the word ''flower'' () phonetically form a disyllabic triphthong, but are phonologically a sequence of a diphthong (represented by the letters ) and a monophthong (represented by the letters ). Some linguists use the terms ''diphthong'' and ''triphthong'' only in this phonemic sense.


Written vowels

The name "vowel" is often used for the symbols that represent vowel sounds in a language's
writing system A writing system is a method of visually representing verbal communication Communication (from Latin Latin (, or , ) is a classical language A classical language is a language A language is a structured system of communic ...
, particularly if the language uses an
alphabet An alphabet is a standardized set of basic written symbols A symbol is a mark, sign, or word In linguistics, a word of a spoken language can be defined as the smallest sequence of phonemes that can be uttered in isolation with semanti ...

alphabet
. In writing systems based on the
Latin alphabet The Latin alphabet or Roman alphabet is the collection of letters originally used by the ancient Romans In historiography Historiography is the study of the methods of historian ( 484– 425 BC) was a Greek historian who lived ...

Latin alphabet
, the letters ''A'', ''E'', ''I'', ''O'', ''U'', ''Y'', ''W'' and sometimes others can all be used to represent vowels. However, not all of these letters represent the vowels in all languages that use this writing, or even consistently within one language. Some of them, especially ''W'' and ''Y'', are also used to represent approximant consonants. Moreover, a vowel might be represented by a letter usually reserved for consonants, or a combination of letters, particularly where one letter represents several sounds at once, or vice versa; examples from English include ''igh'' in "thigh" and ''x'' in "x-ray". In addition, extensions of the Latin alphabet have such independent vowel letters as ''Ä'', ''Ö'', ''Ü'', ''Å'', ''Æ'', and ''Ø''. The phonetic values vary considerably by language, and some languages use ''I'' and ''Y'' for the consonant , e.g., initial ''I'' in Italian language, Italian or Romanian language, Romanian and initial ''Y'' in English. In the original Latin alphabet, there was no written distinction between ''V'' and ''U'', and the letter represented the approximant and the vowels and . In Modern Welsh language, Welsh, the letter ''W'' represents these same sounds. Similarly, in Creek language, Creek, the letter ''V'' stands for . There is not necessarily a direct one-to-one correspondence between the vowel sounds of a language and the vowel letters. Many languages that use a form of the Latin alphabet have more vowel sounds than can be represented by the standard set of five vowel letters. In English spelling, the five letters ''A'' ''E'' ''I'' ''O'' and ''U'' can represent a variety of vowel sounds, while the letter ''Y'' frequently represents vowels (as in e.g., "gym", "happy", or the diphthongs in "cry", "thyme"); ''W'' is used in representing some
diphthong A diphthong ( ; , ), also known as a gliding vowel, is a combination of two adjacent vowel A vowel is a Syllable, syllabic speech sound pronounced without any stricture in the vocal tract. Vowels are one of the two principal classes of spe ...
s (as in "cow") and to represent a
monophthong A monophthong ( ; , ) is a pure vowel A vowel is a syllabicSyllabic may refer to: *Syllable, a unit of speech sound, considered the building block of words **Syllabic consonant, a consonant that forms the nucleus of a syllable *Syllabary, writ ...
in the borrowed words "" and "" (sometimes ''cruth''). Other languages cope with the limitation in the number of Latin vowel letters in similar ways. Many languages make extensive use of combinations of letters to represent various sounds. Other languages use vowel letters with modifications, such as ''ä'' in
Swedish Swedish or ' may refer to: * Anything from or related to Sweden, a country in Northern Europe * Swedish language, a North Germanic language spoken primarily in Sweden and Finland * Swedish alphabet, the official alphabet used by the Swedish langua ...
, or add diacritical marks, like Umlaut (diacritic), umlauts, to vowels to represent the variety of possible vowel sounds. Some languages have also constructed additional vowel letters by modifying the standard Latin vowels in other ways, such as ''æ'' or ''ø'' that are found in some of the Scandinavian languages. The
International Phonetic Alphabet The International Phonetic Alphabet (IPA) is an alphabet An alphabet is a standardized set of basic written symbols A symbol is a mark, sign, or word In linguistics, a word of a spoken language can be defined as the smallest seq ...
has a set of 28 symbols to represent the range of basic vowel qualities, and a further set of diacritics to denote variations from the basic vowel. The writing systems used for some languages, such as the Hebrew alphabet and the Arabic alphabet, do not ordinarily mark all the vowels, since they are frequently unnecessary in identifying a word. Technically, these are called abjads rather than alphabets. Although it is possible to construct English sentences that can be understood without written vowels (''cn y rd ths?''), single words in English lacking written vowels can be indistinguishable; consider ''dd'', which could be any of ''dad, dada, dado, dead, deed, did, died, diode, dodo, dud, dude, odd, add'', and ''aided''. (But note that abjads generally express some word-internal vowels and all word-initial and word-final vowels, whereby the ambiguity will be much reduced.) The Masoretes devised a niqqud, vowel notation system for Hebrew Jewish scripture that is still widely used, as well as the trope (music), trope symbols used for its Hebrew cantillation, cantillation; both are part of Oral Torahz, oral tradition and still the basis for many bible translations—Jewish and Christian.


Shifts

The differences in pronunciation of vowel letters between English and its related languages can be accounted for by the Great Vowel Shift. After printing was introduced to England, and therefore after spelling was more or less standardized, a series of dramatic changes in the pronunciation of the vowel phonemes did occur, and continued into recent centuries, but were not reflected in the spelling system. This has led to numerous inconsistencies in the spelling of English vowel sounds and the pronunciation of English vowel letters (and to the mispronunciation of foreign words and names by speakers of English).


Audio samples


Systems

The importance of vowels in distinguishing one word from another varies from language to language. Nearly all languages have at least three phonemic vowels, usually as in Classical Arabic and Inuktitut language, Inuktitut, though Adyghe language, Adyghe and many Sepik languages have a
vertical vowel system A vertical vowel system is the system of vowels in a language that requires only vowel height to phonemically distinguish vowels. Theoretically, Roundedness, rounding, Front vowel, frontness and Back vowel, backness could also be used in one-dime ...
of . Very few languages have fewer, though some Arrernte language, Arrernte, Northwest Caucasian languages, Circassian, and Ndu languages have been argued to have just two, and , with being epenthesis, epenthetic. It is not straightforward to say which language has the most vowels, since that depends on how they are counted. For example, long vowels, nasal vowels, and various
phonation The term phonation has slightly different meanings depending on the subfield of phonetics Phonetics is a branch of that studies how humans produce and perceive sounds, or in the case of s, the equivalent aspects of sign. Phoneticians—lingu ...
s may or may not be counted separately; indeed, it may sometimes be unclear if phonation belongs to the vowels or the consonants of a language. If such things are ignored and only vowels with dedicated IPA letters ('vowel qualities') are considered, then very few languages have more than ten. The
Germanic languages The Germanic languages are a branch of the Indo-European The Indo-European languages are a language family native to western and southern Eurasia. It comprises most of the languages of Europe together with those of the northern Indian su ...

Germanic languages
have some of the largest inventories: Danish phonology, Standard Danish has 11 to 13 short vowels (), while the Amstetten (district), Amstetten dialect of Bavarian German, Bavarian has been reported to have thirteen long vowels: . The situation can be quite disparate within a same family language:
Spanish Spanish may refer to: * Items from or related to Spain: **Spaniards, a nation and ethnic group indigenous to Spain **Spanish language **Spanish cuisine Other places * Spanish, Ontario, Canada * Spanish River (disambiguation), the name of several ...

Spanish
and
French
French
are two closely related Romance languages but Spanish has only five pure vowel qualities, , while classical French has eleven: and four nasal vowels . The Mon–Khmer languages of Southeast Asia also have some large inventories, such as the eleven vowels of
Vietnamese Vietnamese may refer to: * Something of, from, or related to Vietnam, a country in Southeast Asia ** A citizen of Vietnam. See Demographics of Vietnam. * Vietnamese people, or Kinh people, a Southeast Asian ethnic group native to Vietnam ** Oversea ...
: . Wu Chinese, Wu dialects have the largest inventories of Chinese; the Jinhui dialect of Wu has also been reported to have eleven vowels: ten basic vowels, , plus restricted ; this does not count the seven nasal vowels. One of the most common vowels is ; it is nearly universal for a language to have at least one open vowel, though most dialects of English have an and a —and often an , all open vowels—but no central . Some Tagalog phonology, Tagalog and Cebuano language, Cebuano speakers have rather than , and Yolŋu Matha, Dhangu Yolngu is described as having , without any peripheral vowels. is also extremely common, though Tehuelche language, Tehuelche has just the vowels with no close vowels. The third vowel of Arabic-type three-vowel system, , is considerably less common. A large fraction of the languages of North America happen to have a four-vowel system without : ; Nahuatl language, Nahuatl and Navajo language, Navajo are examples. In most languages, vowels serve mainly to distinguish separate lexemes, rather than different inflectional forms of the same lexeme as they commonly do in the Semitic languages. For example, while English ''man'' becomes ''men'' in the plural, ''moon'' is a completely different word.


Words without vowels

In rhotic dialects of English, as in Canada and the United States, there are many words such as ''bird, learn, girl, church, worst, Wurm (dragon), wyrm, myrrh'' that some phoneticians analyze as having no vowels, only a syllabic consonant . However, others analyze these words instead as having a rhotic vowel, . The difference may be partially one of dialect. There are a few such words that are disyllabic, like ''Wikt:cursor, cursor, curtain,'' and ''turtle:'' , and (or , , and ), and even a few that are trisyllabic, at least in some accents, such as ''purpler'' , ''hurdler'' , ''gurgler'' , and ''certainer'' . The word ''and'' frequently contracts to a simple nasal consonant, nasal ''’n,'' as in ''lock 'n key'' . Words such as ''will, have,'' and ''is'' regularly contract to ''’ll'' , ''’ve'' , and s'' . However, none of them are pronounced alone without vowels, so they are not phonological words. onomatopoeia, Onomatopoeic words that can be pronounced alone, and that have no vowels or ars, include ''hmm, pst!, shh!, Dental clicks, tsk!,'' and ''zzz''. As in other languages, onomatopoeiae stand outside the normal phonotactics of English. There are other languages that form lexical words without vowel sounds. In
Serbo-Croatian Serbo-Croatian () – also called Serbo-Croat (), Serbo-Croat-Bosnian (SCB), Bosnian-Croatian-Serbian (BCS), and Bosnian-Croatian-Montenegrin-Serbian (BCMS) – is a South Slavic language The South Slavic languages are one of three branches ...
, for example, the consonants and (the difference is not written) can act as a syllable nucleus and carry rising or falling
tone Tone may refer to: Color-related * Tone, mix of tint and shade, in painting and color theory * Tone, the lightness In colorimetry and color theory, lightness, also known as value or tone, is a representation of a color's brightness. It is ...
; examples include the tongue-twister and geographic names such as . In Czech language, Czech and Slovak language, Slovak, either or can stand in for vowels: "wolf", "neck". A particularly long word without vowels is , meaning "quarter-handful", with two syllables (one for each R), or , that refers to a certain finger movement. Whole sentences can be made from such words, such as , meaning "stick a finger through your neck" (), and cs, Smrž pln skvrn zvlhl z mlh, A morel full of spots wetted from fogs, label=none. (Here has two syllables based on L; note that the preposition consists of a single consonant. Only prepositions do this in Czech, and they normally link phonetically to the following noun, so do not really behave as vowelless words.) In Russian, there are also prepositions that consist of a single consonant letter, like russian: k, lit=to, label=none, russian: v, lit=in, label=none, and russian: s, lit=with, label=none. However, these forms are actually contractions of , , and respectively, and these forms are still used in modern Russian before words with certain consonant clusters for ease of pronunciation. In Kazakh language, Kazakh and certain other
Turkic languages The Turkic languages are a language family of at least 35 documented languages, spoken by the Turkic peoples of Eurasia from Eastern Europe and Southern Europe to Central Asia, East Asia, North Asia (Siberia), and Western Asia. The Turkic langu ...

Turkic languages
, words without vowel sounds may occur due to reduction of weak vowels. A common example is the Kazakh word for one: , pronounced . Among careful speakers, however, the original vowel may be preserved, and the vowels are always preserved in the orthography. In Southern varieties of Chinese, such as Cantonese and Southern Min, Minnan, some monosyllabic words are made of exclusively nasal consonant, nasals, such as "no" and "five". So far, all of these syllabic consonants, at least in the lexical words, have been
sonorant In phonetics Phonetics is a branch of linguistics that studies how humans produce and perceive sounds, or in the case of sign languages, the equivalent aspects of sign. Phoneticians—linguists who specialize in phonetics—study the physical pro ...
s, such as , , , and , which have a
voiced Voice or voicing is a term used in phonetics Phonetics is a branch of linguistics that studies how humans produce and perceive sounds, or in the case of sign languages, the equivalent aspects of sign. Phoneticians—linguists who specialize i ...
quality similar to vowels. (They can carry tone, for example.) However, there are languages with lexical words that not only contain no vowels, but contain no sonorants at all, like (non-lexical) ''shh!'' in English. These include some Berber languages and some languages of the American
Pacific Northwest The Pacific Northwest (PNW) is a geographic region in western North America bounded by its coastal waters of the Pacific Ocean to the west and, loosely, by the Rocky Mountains to the east. Though no official boundary exists, the most common co ...
, such as Nuxalk language, Nuxalk. An example from the latter is "seal fat" (pronounced , as spelled), and a longer one is ''wikt:xłp̓x̣ʷłtłpłłskʷc̓, clhp'xwlhtlhplhhskwts''' (pronounced ) "he had had in his possession a bunchberry plant". (Follow the Nuxalk link for other examples.) Berber examples include "you took it off" and "you gave it". Some words may contain one or two consonants only: "be", "feed on".Audio recordings of selected words without vowels can be downloaded from . (In Mandarin Chinese, words and syllables such as and are sometimes described as being syllabic fricatives and affricates phonemically, and , but these do have a voiced segment that carries the tone.) In the Japonic language Miyako language, Miyako, there are words with no voiced sounds, such as 'dust', 'breast/milk', 'day', 'a comb', 'to make', 'to build', 'month', 'to cut', 'to pull'.


Words consisting of only vowels

It is not uncommon for short grammatical words to consist of only vowels, such as ''a'' and ''I'' in English. Lexical words are somewhat rarer in English and are generally restricted to a single syllable: ''eye, awe, owe'', and in non-rhotic accents ''air, ore, err''. Vowel-only words of more than one syllable are generally foreign loans, such as ''ai'' (two syllables: ) for the maned sloth, or proper names, such as ''Iowa'' (in some accents: ). However, vowel sequences in hiatus (linguistics), hiatus are more freely allowed in some other languages, most famously perhaps in Bantu languages, Bantu and Polynesian languages, Polynesian languages, but also in
Japanese Japanese may refer to: * Something from or related to Japan , image_flag = Flag of Japan.svg , alt_flag = Centered deep red circle on a white rectangle , image_coat = Imperial Seal of J ...

Japanese
and Finnic languages. In such languages there tends to be a larger variety of vowel-only words. In Swahili language, Swahili (Bantu), for example, there is ''wikt:aua, aua'' 'to survey' and ''wikt:eua, eua'' 'to purify' (both three syllables); in Japanese, ''wikt:aoi, aoi'' 青い 'blue/green' and ''wikt:oioi, oioi'' 追々 'gradually' (three and four syllables); and in Finnish, 'intention' and 'open!' (both two syllables), although some dialects pronounce them as and . Hawaiian language, Hawaiian, and the Polynesian languages generally, have unusually large numbers of such words, such as (a small green fish), which is three syllables: . Most long words involve reduplication, which is quite Productivity (linguistics), productive in Polynesian: 'grooves', 'breath', 'tough' (all four syllables), 'crying' (five syllables, from 'to weep'), or 'false mullet' (sp. fish, three or five syllables).


See also

* English phonology * Great Vowel Shift * Inherent vowel * List of phonetics topics * Mater lectionis * Scale of vowels * Table of vowels * Vowel coalescence * Words without vowels * Zero consonant


Notes


References


Bibliography

* ''Handbook of the International Phonetic Association'', 1999. Cambridge University * Johnson, Keith, ''Acoustic & Auditory Phonetics'', second edition, 2003. Blackwell * Korhonen, Mikko. ''Koltansaamen opas'', 1973. Castreanum * Peter Ladefoged, Ladefoged, Peter, ''A Course in Phonetics'', fifth edition, 2006. Boston, MA: Thomson Wadsworth * Ladefoged, Peter, ''Elements of Acoustic Phonetics'', 1995. University of Chicago * * Ladefoged, Peter, ''Vowels and Consonants: An Introduction to the Sounds of Languages'', 2000. Blackwell . * * Stevens, Kenneth N. (1998). ''Acoustic phonetics''. Current studies in linguistics (No. 30). Cambridge, MA: MIT. . * * Watt, D. and Tillotson, J. (2001). A spectrographic analysis of vowel fronting in Bradford English. ''English World-Wide'' 22:2, 269–302. Available at https://web.archive.org/web/20120412023624/http://www.abdn.ac.uk/langling/resources/Watt-Tillotson2001.pdf


External links


IPA chart
with MP3 sound files
IPA vowel chart
with AIFF sound files
Vowel charts for several different languages and dialects measuring F1 and F2


Online examples from Ladefoged's ''Vowels and Consonants'', referenced above. {{Authority control Vowels, Manner of articulation Phonetics