The Sounds of Language

12 Vowels

Vowels are produced without any obstruction to the articulatory tract (Ladefoged & Maddieson, 1996). Unlike consonants which result from the contact between articulators, vowels allow for a free flow of air. Therefore, we cannot define vowels in terms of place and manner of articulation. Rather, we define vowels in terms of the shape and position of the tongue. This means that while consonants in different dialects of a language remain relatively constant, vowels can differ widely. The defining terms for vowels are height, backness and roundness.


Height refers to the vertical position of the tongue. Try saying ‘ee’ and ‘aa’ repeatedly. You will notice your tongue moving up and down. Therefore, we say that the vowel produced in saying ‘ee’ is a high vowel and that produced in saying ‘aa’ is a low vowel. Backness is based on the tongues horizontal position and shape. This is can noticed in saying ‘ee’ and ‘oo’ where the latter makes the tongue go back. Roundness is not a property of the tongue but of the lips which you will notice in making sounds such as ‘oo.’ Figure 2.8 shows you the vowels found in English.


A table showing the vowels used in Canadian English organized by the location of the vocal tract where they originate (front, central, or back) and the position of the mouth when produced.

Figure 2.8 Vowels of Canadian English


Some languages such as French and Hindi also have nasalized vowel. Consider beau /bo/ ‘beautiful’ and bon /bɔ̃/ ‘good’ in French being minimal pairs in terms of nasalization of the vowel. When two vowels are combined within a syllable, they form diphthongs. These can be seen in words such as cow /kaʊ/, pie /paɪ/, and boy /bɔɪ/.


Displays the vowels that are found in most varieties of Canadian English with examples, divided into monophthongs and diphthongs.

Figure 2.9 English Vowels with Examples


Figure 2.9 shows us the vowels found in most varieties of Canadian English with examples. While consonants tend to be similar across dialects, vowels can vary greatly between dialects and countries. Therefore, you will find that the English spoken in the United Kingdom, Australia and New Zealand will have very different vowels when producing the same words.


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Psychology of Language by Dinesh Ramoo is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-ShareAlike 4.0 International License, except where otherwise noted.

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