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In phonetics, every possible speech sound is identified and recorded as individual symbols. These symbols are recorded in the IPA (International Phonetic Alphabet) Chart. Today, we'll be focussing on vowels. We'll look specifically at:
The IPA chart is a system of symbols used to represent all of the possible human speech sounds. The symbols on the IPA chart are split into different sections:
Consonant sounds created with air flowing from the lungs.
Consonant sounds created without the use of air pressure from the lungs. Non-pulmonic consonants can be split into three different types: clicks, voiced implosives, and ejectives.
These are speech sounds created when there is no obstruction or friction caused during sound production.
Small symbols used to show modifications to consonant or vowel pronunciations.
Small symbols used to represent prosodic features of speech, such as tone or stress.
The other symbols section of the IPA chart shows other consonant sounds that can be produced but that don't fit into the pulmonic/non-pulmonic consonants table.
Now then, as this article is about vowels, let's have a closer look at what they are.
A vowel is a speech sound created when there is no narrowing or closure in the mouth1.
Vowels can be described according to their openness, front or backness, and roundedness.
In terms of openness, a vowel can be open, open-mid, close-mid, or closed. These terms relate to the shape and positioning of the mouth when making the vowel sound.
Open vowels are produced when the tongue is near the bottom of the mouth, creating an open stricture in the mouth. Open vowels can also be identified by the open mouth shape that's created when the vowel is being pronounced.
Stricture in phonetics refers to a narrowing in the vocal tract.
Closed vowels are produced when the tongue is near the top of the mouth, creating a narrow or more closed mouth.
Mid vowels are produced with the tongue in the vertically central part of the mouth, and open-mid and open-closed vowels are produced with the tongue slightly above or slightly below the vertically central position.
Here are some examples of open, open-mid, mid, closed-mid, and closed vowels.
The schwa vowel
The vowel sound represented by the IPA symbol /ə/ can also be referred to as the schwa sound. The schwa is the most centralized vowel sound, appearing in the center of the IPA vowel chart. This is a very soft vowel sound that doesn't have a distinctive sound of its own and isn't used in stressed syllables - this means you usually won't hear a schwa in words or phrases that are only one syllable.
Some examples of the schwa in words are shown below:
Front and back vowels are defined depending on where the highest part of the tongue is in the mouth.
A front vowel is produced when the highest part of the tongue is at the front of the mouth, and a back vowel is produced when the highest part of the tongue is at the back of the mouth. A vowel can also be central when the highest part of the tongue is in a more central position in the mouth.
Here are some examples of front, central and back vowels:
Vowels can be described as being either rounded or unrounded. These terms refer to the shape of the lips while a vowel is being produced.
A rounded vowel is produced when the lips create a rounded shape, like when you say "oh."
An unrounded vowel is produced when the lips are in a more open shape, like when you say "eee."
The vowel chart in phonetics shows all of the monophthong vowels. Vowels can also be diphthongs, though, or even triphthongs.
A monophthong is a vowel that uses one single vowel sound.
There are ten monophthong vowels used in English:
/i:/ as in cheese - /tʃi:z/
/ɪ/ as in big - /bɪg/
/ɛ/ as in beg - /bɛg/
/æ/ as in bag - /bæg/
/ə/ as in ruler - /ru:lə/
/u:/ as in dune - /dʒu:n/
/ʊ/ as in could - /kʊd/
/ʌ/ as in cup - /kʌp/
/ɔ/ as in more - /mɔ:/
/ɒ/ as in gone - /gɒn/
A diphthong vowel is a sound created by putting two monophthong vowels together in one syllable.
There are eight diphthong vowels used in the English language. These are:
Now then, as well as monophthongs and diphthongs, vowels can also be triphthongs.
A triphthong vowel is a sound made by combining three different vowel sounds in one syllable.
Triphthong vowels are the least common type of vowel in English and only appear in a few words in Standard English.
Here are some examples of words with triphthong vowels:
Not all triphthong vowels are still used in modern Standard English. Instead, some words are split into multiple syllables, and the triphthong vowels are reserved for use in an RP (Received Pronunciation) accent.
As an example, we can have a look at the word power.
The IPA vowel chart has 28 vowel sounds. These are all the vowel sounds that can possibly be made in human speech. However, not all of these vowels are used in English. There are 12 monophthong vowels and eight diphthong vowels used in English.
The vowels specific to a language are displayed in phonemic charts.
A phonemic chart shows a specific language's consonant and vowel sounds. Using a phonemic chart can be much simpler than using the IPA chart, as there are far fewer IPA symbols to contend with.
You may have noticed throughout this article that some vowels written using the IPA are followed by a colon, and some aren't (such as /æ/ and /u:/). When a colon follows a vowel, it means it is a long vowel.
A short vowel is a vowel sound produced in a short and quick manner, such as /ɪ/ in big.
A long vowel is a longer, more elongated form of a short vowel sound, such as /ɜ:/ in burn.
Only monophthong vowels are split into long or short vowels, as diphthongs and triphthongs are created from combining short vowels.
Here is a chart of the long and short monophthong vowels used in English:
Transcription of Example
Now that we've gone over all the possible vowel sounds in the English language, let's cover them again in one place with some examples.
1. O'Grady, G. 2013. Key Concepts in Phonetics and Phonology. p. 150
The English vowels are represented in the English phonemic chart. This is a chart that shows all of the IPA symbols used to represent the possible speech sounds used in English.
The IPA vowel chart arranges vowels according to openness or closedness, frontness or backness, and rounded or unroundedness. The labels for closed, open, front, and back are listed along the top and down the side of the chart, and rounded vowels are on the right where vowels appear in pairs.
The IPA vowel chart is arranged with the vowels in relative positions to where they are produced in the mouth. For example, vowels produced with the tongue at the top of the mouth are positioned at the top of the vowel chart.
There are 25 vowel sounds used in the English language. All of these have their own representative symbols in the International Phonetic Alphabet but can also all be represented in writing through the letters a, e, i, o, and u.
Vowels can be either monophthongs, diphthongs, and triphthongs. Monophthongs consist of one vowel sound in a syllable and can be either long or short. Diphthongs consist of two vowel sounds in one syllable. Triphthongs consist of three vowel sounds in one syllable.
What is the IPA chart?
A system of symbols where every possible speech sound has a representative symbol.
Which of the following isn't on the IPA chart?
True or false: A vowel is a speech sound created when there is some form of narrowing or closure in the mouth.
What type of vowel is shown on the IPA vowel chart?
What sort of chart is used to show the speech sounds used in a specific language?
A phonemic chart
If a vowel is described as open, what does it mean?
The tongue is at the bottom of the mouth during sound production.
Which of these is a close vowel?
True or false: All of the vowels on the IPA vowel chart are used in the English language.
Which of the following vowel sounds are not used in spoken English?
Which of these is the mid central vowel (the schwa sound)?
What does this describe?
A vowel created when the highest part of the tongue is at the back of the mouth.
A back vowel
What are all of these?
/i/ /ɪ/ /ɛ/ /æ/
Which is the back open vowel in the word robot?
When the lips are pulled apart at the sides, what sort of vowel sound is being produced?
An unrounded vowel
Which of these are ways of describing vowels?
True or false: All of the following are types of vowel.
monophthongs diphthongs triphthongs quiphthongs
What does this describe?
A single vowel sound.
What is a diphthong vowel?
A vowel sound created by putting two monophthong vowels together in one syllable.
Which type of vowels can be either long or short?
How can you identify a long vowel in a transcription?
A long vowel is shown by adding a colon after a monophthong vowel, such as /i:/ in /tʃi:z/ (cheese).
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