English Vowels as the Units of Phonological System.

The Classification of Vowels.

1. General characteristics of vowels

2. The principles of classification of English vowels.


1. General characteristics of vowels. Vowels are normally made with the air stream that meets no closure or narrowing in the mouth, pharyngal and nasal cavities. That is why in the production of vowel sounds there is no noise component characteristic of the consonant sounds.

The quality of a vowel is known to be determined by the size, volume, and shape of the mouth resonator, which are modified by the movement of active speech organs, that is the tongue and the lips. Besides, the particular quality of a vowel can depend on a lot of other articulatory characteristics, such as the relative stability of the tongue, the position of the lips, physical duration of the segment, the force of articulation, the degree of tenseness of speech organs. So vowel quality could be thought of as a bundle of definite articulatory characteristics which are sometimes intricately (['ɪntrɪkɪtlɪ] − ) interconnected and interdependent.

For example, the back position of the tongue causes the lip rounding, the front position of the tongue makes it rise higher in the mouth cavity, the lengthening of a vowel makes the organs of speech tenser at the moment of production and so on.


2. The principles of classification of English vowels. The analysis of the articulatory constituents of the quality of vowels allowed phoneticians to suggest the criteria which are conceived to be of great importance in classificatory description. First to be concerned here are the following criteria termed:

1. stability of articulation;

2. tongue position;

3. lip position;

4. character of the vowel end;

5. length;

6. tenseness.

1. Stability of articulation specifies the actual position of the articulating organ in the process of the articulation of a vowel. There are two possible varieties:

a) the tongue position is stable;

b) it changes, that is the tongue moves from one position to another.

In the first case the articulated vowel is relatively pure (pure vowels or monophthongs), in the second case a vowel consists of two clearly perceptible elements (diphthongs). There exists in addition a third variety, an intermediate case, when the change in the tongue position is fairly weak (diphthongoids). So according to this principle the English vowels are subdivided into:

1. monophthongs,

2. diphthongs,

3. diphthongoids.

Monophthongs are vowels the articulation of which is almost unchanging. The quality of such vowels is relatively pure. They are: [i], [e], [æ], [a:], [ɒ], [ɔ:], [ʊ], [٨], [:], [ə].

In the pronunciation of diphthongs the organs of speech glide from one vowel position to another within one syllable. The starting point, the nucleus, is strong and distinct. The glide (; , ) which shows the direction of the quality change is very weak. In fact diphthongs consist of two clearly perceptible vowel elements. There are no diphthongs in Ukrainian. The English diphthongs are: [ei], [ai], [ɔɪ], [aʊ], [ʊ], [iə], [εə], [ʊə].

Diphthongs are complex entities just like affricates. The question is whether they are monophonemic or biphonemic units. Scholars like V.A. Vasilyev and L.R. Zinger grant the English diphthongs monophonemic status on the basis of articulatory, morphonological and syllabic indivisibility as well as the criteria of duration and commutability.

As to articulatory indivisibility of the diphthongs it could be proved by the fact that neither morpheme nor syllable boundary that separate the nucleus and the glide can pass within it, for example: [′sei-iŋ] saying, [′krai-iŋ] crying, [in-′ʤɔ-iŋ] enjoying, [′slu-ə] slower, [′kliə-rə] clearer.

Monophonemic character of English diphthongs is proved by native speakers intuition, who perceive these sound complexes as a single segment.

In the pronunciation of diphthongoidsthe articulation is slightly changing but the difference between the starting point and the end is not so distinct as it is in the case of diphthongs. There are two diphthongoids in English: [i:], [u:].

2. Another principle we should consider from phonological point of view is the position of the tongue. The changes of the position of the tongue determine largely the shape of the mouth and pharyngal cavities. The tongue may move forward and backward, up and down, thus changing the quality of vowel sounds.

For the sake of convenience the position of the tongue in the mouth cavity is characterized from two aspects, that is the horizontal and vertical movement.

According to the horizontal movement Ukrainian and Russian phoneticians distinguish five classes of English vowels. They are:

1. front: [i:], [e], [æ], [ε(ə)], [ei] − the tongue is in the front part of the mouth and the front part of it is raised to the hard palate;

2. front-retracted: [ɪ], [ɪ(ə)] − the tongue is in the front part of the mouth but slightly retraced, and the part of the tongue nearer to centre than to front is raised;

3. central: [٨] [:] [ə], [(ʊ)], [ε(ə)] − the front of the tongue is raised towards the back part of the hard palate;

4. back [ɒ], [ɔ:], [u:], [a:] − the tongue is in the back part of the mouth and the back of it is raised towards the soft palate;

5. back-advanced: [ʊ], [ʊ(ə)] − the tongue is in the back part of the mouth but is slightly advanced and the central part of it is raised towards the front part of the soft palate.[1]

Moving up and down in the mouth various parts of the tongue may be raised to different height towards the roof of the mouth. As to the tongue position in its vertical movement Ukrainian and Russian phoneticians distinguish three classes of vowels with two subclasses in each class, i.e. broad and narrow variations of the three vertical positions of the tongue. Thus the following six groups of vowels are distinguished:

1. close: a) narrow: [i:] [u:];

b) broad: [ɪ], [ʊ], [ɪ(ə)], [ʊ(ə)];

2. mid: a) narrow: [e], [:], [e(ɪ)], [(ʊ)];

b) broad: [ə], [٨];

3. open: a) narrow: [ε(ə)], [ɔ:], [ɒ(ɪ)];

b) broad: [æ], [a(ɪ, ʊ)], [ɒ], [a:][2]

3. Another feature of English vowels which is sometimes included into the principles of classification is lip rounding.Traditionally three lip positions are distinguished, that is spread, neutral and rounded. For the purpose of classification it is sufficient to distinguish between two lip positions: rounded and unrounded, or neutral. The fact is that any back vowel in English is produced with rounded lips, the degree of rounding is different and depends on the height of the raised part of the tongue; the higher it is raised the more rounded the lips are. So lip rounding is a phoneme constitutive () indispensable (') feature, because no back vowel can exist without it. The lips are in the unrounded position for the English vowels [i:], [ɪ], [e], [æ], [a:], [٨], [:], [ə]. For the articulation of the English vowels [ɒ], [ɔ:], [ʊ], [u:] the lips are in the rounded position.

4. Another property of English vowel sounds checknessdepends on the character of the articulatory transition from a vowel to a consonant. This kind of transition is very close in English unlike Ukrainian. As a result all English short vowels are checked when stressed. The degree of checkness may vary and depends on the following consonant. Before fortis voiceless consonant it is more perceptible than before a lenis voiced consonant or sonorant. All long vowels are free.

So, if a stressed vowel is followed by a strong voiceless consonant it is cut off by it. In this case the end of the vowel is strong and the vowel is called checked. Such vowels are heard in stressed closed syllables ending in a strong voiceless consonant, e.g. better, cart. If a vowel is followed by a weak consonant or by no consonant at all the end of it is very weak. In this case the vowel is called free. Such vowels are heard in closed syllables ending in a voiced consonant or in an open syllable ending in a voiced consonant or in an open syllable, e.g. before, money, bead.

5. The English monophthongs are traditionally divided into two varieties according to their length:

a) short vowels: [ɪ], [e], [æ], [ɒ],[ʊ], [٨], [ə];

b) long vowels: [i:], [a:], [ɔ:], [:], [u:].

A vowel like any sound has physical duration time which is required for its production. When sounds are used in connected speech they cannot help being influenced by one another. Duration is one of the characteristics of a vowel which is modified by and depends on the following factors: 1. its own length, 2. the accent of the syllable in which it occurs, 3. phonetic context, 4. the position of the sound in a syllable, 5. the position in a rhythmic structure, 6. the position in a tone group, 7. the position in a phrase, 8. the position in an utterance, 9. the tempo of the whole utterance, 10. the type of pronunciation, 11. the style of pronunciation.

The problem the analysts are concerned with is whether variations in quantity or length are meaningful, that is whether vowel length can be treated as a relevant feature of English vowel system. Different scholars attach varying significance to vowel quantity. The approach of D. Jones, an outstanding British phonetician, extends the principle, underlying phonological relevance of vowel quantity. That means that words in such pairs as [bid] [bi:d], [sit] [si:t], [ful] [fu:d], [′fɒ:wə:d] (foreword) [′fɔ:wəd] (forward) are distinguished from one another by the opposition of different length, which D. Jones calls chronemes. The difference in quantity is considered to be decisive and the difference in quality (the position of the active organ of speech) is considered to be subordinate to the difference in quantity. According to the point of view of V.A. Vassilyev, English is not a language in which chronemes as separate prosodic phonological units can exist.

6. One more articulatory characteristic needs our attention. That is tenseness.It characterizes the state of the organs of speech at the moment of production of a vowel. Special instrumental analysis shows that historically long vowels are tense while historically short vowels are lax.

Summarizing we could say that phonological analysis of articulatory features of English vowels allows to consider functionally relevant the following two characteristics: a) stability of articulation, b) tongue position. The rest of the features mentioned above, that is lip position, character of vowel end, length, and tenseness are indispensable constituents of vowel quality. Though they have no phonological value they are considerably important in teaching English phonetics.


Answer the questions:

1. What is the quality of a vowel determined by?

2. What criteria are used for the classification of vowels?

3. What are English vowels subdivided into?

4. Define diphthongs.

5. From what aspects is the position of the tongue in the mouth cavity


6. What groups of vowels are distinguished in English?

7. What are the traditional lip positions in English pronunciation?

8. What does the checkness of English vowel sounds depend on?

9. What is duration of a vowel modified by and what does it depend on?

10. Define tenseness.

˳:[2, . 85-119; 4, c. 47-50].


  3. LECTURE 1. Contrastive Stylistic as a Linguistic Discipline
  4. Lecture 12. Evolution of the ME Lexical System.
  5. LECTURE 13
  6. Lecture 14. Evolution of the ME Nominal Morphology.
  7. Lecture 16
  8. Lecture 16
  9. Lecture 4

: 1928

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