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Fictional Linguistics: Six Million Forms of Communication and Counting...
Lesson I.B: Vowels

Textbook Reading Assignment: How to Create a Language – Sounds and The Language Construction Kit - Vowels

This should be the last HUGE lesson we’ll have – after this things shouldn’t take as long to explain. :-)

If you haven’t yet read through the lesson on Consonants (Lesson I, Part A), please go back and read it before this lesson. Those of you that have read it might want to review it, considering how long ago that was....Be sure to review the chart of ASCII equivalents for the consonants, also.

Vowels


You’ll recall that consonants are grouped according to certain “dimensions”: Place of articulation, manner of articulation, etc. Vowels can also be grouped according to the dimensions along which they vary. The Language Construction Kit lists these dimensions as Height, Frontness, Roundedness, Length, Nasalization, and Tenseness (How to Create a Language lists a few other dimensions as well, but we won’t go into those). The first three are the most important for “defining” a vowel; for example, if I mention the “high front unrounded” vowel, you’d all know I was talking about the “long e” sound in the word “sea”, right? :-) Well, once this lesson is over, you’d know that. You’d also know how to tell me what vowel you’re thinking of by defining those three features. So let’s start by learning what these features mean.

Height


How high is the tongue – i.e., how close to the roof of the mouth? This is usually divided into three positions, quite creatively named “High,” “Mid,” and “Low.” :-) Say “Bee” or “You.” That is High. Say “Cat” or  “Father.” That is Low. Say “Say” or “Show.” That is Mid.

Frontness


What part of the tongue is involved; that is, what part is raised or lowered? Is it the part close to the front of the mouth, the back, or the center? These are ever-so-cleverly classified as “Front,” “Central,” and “Back.” Front vowels are heard in “Bee,” “Snake,” and “Cat.” Back vowels are heard in “You,” “Show,” and “Father.” English has only two (some would lump them together and say only one) Mid vowels. Essentially, it’s the same sound but is classified as to whether it’s used in a stressed or unstressed syllable. For stressed syllables, the Mid vowel is that which you hear in “Shut Up.” The same sound, in an unstressed syllable, is the famous “Schwa Sound,” which all English vowels very sneakily mutate into whenever you don’t bother to put syllable stress on them. It’s the sound of the first syllable in “about,” for one example.

Roundedness


In pronouncing these vowels, your tongue can’t do it all alone; the position of the lips is also a consideration. Compare “See” and “Sue.” Both have High vowels; “See” has a Front vowel and “Sue” a back vowel. What else differentiates them? It’s the lip-rounding; for “See” you pull the corners of your mouth back tightly while for “Sue” you round them into a nice little “O”. In English, curiously, only our back vowels are rounded, but front vowels can be rounded as well, and you’ll hear rounded front vowels in words like French “tu, feu” and German “du, hören.” (Respectively, that’s a High Front Rounded followed by a Mid Front Rounded in each language.) You can also have un-round back vowels, although English doesn’t. (Check out the reading assignments at the beginning of the lesson for other examples of languages that use sounds not found in English.)

Tenseness


English vowels often come in pairs: a tense version and a lax version. The difference is in the tension of the tongue muscle; there’s also sometimes a slight difference in height or length of the vowel. Tense vowels are higher, sometimes longer, and more tense than lax vowels. It’s easiest to see this contrast by looking at the vowels: “Seat” is tense, “Sit” is lax. “Boot” is tense, “Put” is lax. “Rake” is tense, “Wreck” is lax.

Length


In some languages vowels contrast between “Long” and “Short” based on the amount of TIME spent on them; generally a Long vowel is pronounced twice as long as a Short vowel. Length is a feature in Latin, Greek, Sanskrit, and Old English, for example. Some languages even have more than two degrees of length! In notation, long vowels can be differentiated from short vowels by doubling them (/aa/ for a long vowel, /a/ for a short vowel) or by writing a colon (:) after them (/i:/ for a long vowel, /i/ for a short vowel).

Nasalization: Anytime a vowel is followed by a nasal consonant (n, m, N), it tends to change its sound a little. Some languages, notably French, use the nasal-sounding vowel without the nasal consonant (in French, though the consonant is written, it’s not pronounced; just the nasalized vowel is pronounced). You can hear nasalization in the difference between “Pit” and “Pin” or “Wet” and “When” or “Cat” and “Can” – the nasalized vowel tends to raise a little.

Now, let’s look at a diagram of all the English vowels. Click here to open the diagram in a new window and keep it open for reference throughout this lesson.

Oh look! More unfamiliar phonetic symbols in the diagram! Don’t worry…we’ll explain those now. Here’s the IPA’s chart of all humanly possible vowels:

Not all of these are found in English, of course. In the diagram you can see the ones that are – you can also click on them to hear how they sound! Or hear them in these words:


// in “seat” and “free” – the High Front Tense Unrounded vowel.
// in “bit” and “flip” – the High Front Lax Unrounded vowel.
// in “bait” and “gate” (note that the diagram has got the example words mixed up between this and //) – the Mid Front Tense Unrounded vowel.
// (called “epsilon”) in “bet” and “get” – the Mid Front Lax Unrounded vowel.
// (called “ash”) in “cat” and “can” – the Low Front Unrounded vowel. (Neither lax nor tense)
// (called “schwa”) in unstressed syllables such as “about” and “Rosa” – the Mid Central vowel.
// in stressed syllables such as “but” and “up” – the Mid Central vowel.
// in “boot” and “shoe” (the diagram has examples for this mixed up with //, too...) – the High Back Tense Rounded vowel.
// (called “upsilon”) in “book” and “cook” – the High Back Lax Rounded vowel.
// in “boat” and “coat” – the Mid Back Tense Rounded vowel.
// (called “open o” or “backwards c”) in “ought” and “caught” – the Mid Back Lax Rounded vowel.
// (called "lowercase a") in “father” and “cot” – the Low Central vowel.
There's also // (called "script a"), the Low Back vowel, but English doesn't really distinguish between this and // - although there's no reason why our language couldn't use both vowels as separate phonemes.


Here, now, is our chart of all the vowels with their IPA symbol as in the graphic above and the diagram, an example of their usage, description of their features, and most importantly, the way we’ll write that sound in this class.

IPA As heard in Description> ASCII symbol we will use
free high front tense unrounded: "lower-case i" i
French "tu (not in English) high front tense rounded: "lower-case y" y
pit high front lax unrounded: "small capital i" I
Not found in English...anyone know an example in another language? It's the rounded version of . high front lax rounded: "small capital y" Y
late mid front tense unrounded: "lower-case e" e
German "hören" mid front tense rounded: "slashed o" %
bet mid front lax unrounded: "epsilon" E
Not found in English...anyone know an example in another language? It's the rounded version of . mid front lax rounded: "o-e ligature" *
cat low front: "ash" &
father low central unrounded: "lower-case a" a
Not found in English...anyone know an example in another language? It's the rounded version of . low central rounded: "small capital o-e ligature" #
about unstressed mid central: "schwa" @
up stressed mid central: "inverted v" V
Luke high back tense rounded: "lower-case u" u
look high back lax rounded: "upsilon" U
blow mid back tense rounded: "lower-case o" o
caught mid back lax rounded: "open o" or "inverted c" O
We won't worry about the unrounded back vowels for now, unless we end up using them in TGL.

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