Vowels

The first group of speech sounds I will cover are vowels.

Vowels are the foundation of speech. They are produced using the vocal cords with the vocal tract relatively open. Vowels are fundamental to syllables, each syllable has vowels, usually one vowel, as its core.

You are familiar with the letters we use in English to represent the vowels, ‘a,’ ‘e,’ ‘i,’ ‘o,’ and ‘u.’  English has, at least, 12 vowels so there are not enough letters to stand for all the vowels.  In later sections, you will see that the sounds represented by the letters ‘l,’ ‘m,’ ‘n,’ ‘r,’ ‘y,’ and ‘w’ can act as vowels under certain circumstances. You have seen ‘n’ act as a vowel in the word “kitten” [kɪɾʔn̩], above. .

Table 1- IPA for Western American English Vowels

1.        

beet

ˈbit

2.        

bet

ˈbɛt

3.        

bit

ˈbɪt

4.        

bait

ˈbeɪt

5.        

but

ˈbʌt (stressed)

ˈbət (unstressed)

6.        

boat

ˈbot

7.        

boot

ˈbut

8.        

bat

ˈbæt

9.        

bot

ˈbɑt

10.    

boy

ˈbɔɪ

11.    

bird

ˈbɝd

Sometimes the same sound is represented by more than one letter. The ‘i’ in “rabid” sounds the same as the ‘e’ in “wanted” and the ‘a’ in “sizeable.” We’ve seen it above, the schwa (ə).

Vowels are categorized by features that include, frontness and backness, a feature called either “height” or “closeness”, roundedness are the main ones. Frontness or backness identifies whether the sound is made in the front of your mouth or at the back of your mouth. Say “ee” (like in beet) and the “a” as in father. Slide between the two sounds and if you pay attention, you will feel “a” at the back and the “ee” at the front.

Height, or “closeness” is how close your tongue is to the roof of your mouth. If it is “high” it is close to the roof of your mouth. Again, say “ee” and the “a” and notice that when you say “ee,” your tongue is tight and restricts the airflow but when you say “a” it is relaxed.