The Mystery of Vowels

Tibetan Vowels

Vowels may be the most mysterious creatures on the planet. Their complements, the consonents, are fairly straightforward: consonents are created when we obstruct the flow of air through our mouths (either partially or completely) at points called places of articulation. These places of articulation are easily grouped by their relative position in the mouth, from front to back: at the lips, with the front of the tongue, with the back of the tongue, through narrow channels (fricatives), and using the nose (nasals). The chart I’m looking at on Wikipedia shows 18 places of articulation.

But vowels are trickier. They are formed without obstructing the flow air; instead, we shape the flow to create resonances (known as formants) in certain areas of the mouth. Linguists have identified three characteristics of each vowel:

1) Height. The height of a vowel is determined by how open the mouth (or jaw) is when the vowel is being spoken. Another way of thinking of this is how high the tongue is when the vowel is formed. This vertical shaping of the airflow produces a first formant, known as F1. F1 is acoustic; that is, it does not contain enough information by itself to convey meaning. (and not so coincidentally, height is also known as openess).

2) Backness. Backness is defined by the tongue’s position in relation to the back of the mouth when the vowel is spoken: vowels thus can be front, near-front, central, near-back, or back. This horizontal shaping of the vowel produces a second resonance, F2.

For many vowels, the combination of F1 and F2 define the vowel’s articulation or meaning. But we must also consider the position of the lips.

3) Roundness. Because the degree to which the lips are rounded (or puckered) when we pronounce a vowel is usually correlated to the backness of the vowel, roundness is often thought of as a feature of backness. Certain languages, such as French and German, nonetheless classify roundness separately from backness.

What all of this boils down to is that there is no way to correctly pronounce a vowel–instead of a single point in the mouth (as with consonents), we have two cooperating frequencies establishing the meaning of a vowel, allowing the speaker a degree of individual expression impossible with consonents.

Here is another way to think of the difference between vowels and consonents: the beginning (or onset) and the ending (or coda) of a syllable are usually consonents. Vowels form the center (syllabic peak or nucleus) of the syllable.

And here is the way that I usually understand the difference: the meaning is in the consonents, the music is in the vowels (and thus, with a bow, my WP handle: Music&Meaning).


The stage has now been set for the magnum opus of this article: the vowel chart from the IPA (along with, as it turns out, suprasegmentals and tones). Happy deciphering (and of course there will be more explanation):




Second installment in my series on the International Phonetic Alphabet.


RT’s Related Posts: 1) Phonetics: Surf’s Up!


Images: Tibetan vowels, WikiCmns, Public Domain; IPA vowel chart: Omniglot, attribution.

  1. January 11, 2011 at 1:32 pm

    And then, when you add tone to the equation, as the Cantonese do! I grew up speaking Cantonese, but I cannot imagine having to learn it. Now that I have an American accent, the problems arise with my vowels.
    I think your language essays are my favourites. So glad it’s a passion of yours.

  2. January 12, 2011 at 1:40 am

    thx, Margo. Are you still bi-lingual (or multilingual, given your life story)?


    • January 12, 2011 at 2:53 am

      My husband is the linguist. He speaks several languages and picks them up overnight. I have a smattering of Cantonese, a respectable amount of French, and a fair amount of Greek.Rusty in all.

      • January 12, 2011 at 6:13 pm

        m: my languages: french (reasonable), spanish (much less reasonably), portuguese (a nursery language), and greek (in college). never considered myself a linguist, but have long admired JRR Tolkien… RT

  1. September 22, 2013 at 3:18 am

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