Vowels are formed by retraction of the back of the tongue, as in "father"; by advancing the front of the tongue, as in "bit"; or else they are mixed, as in "bird," in which the tongue is in a position half-way between back and front. By height they are high, as in "hit," mid, as in "hate," or low, as in "hat." The vowels of these three words are all front, but the distinctions of height apply to back and mixed vowels as well. Thus the u of "full" is high-back, just as that of "hit" is high front. All these vowels may be further modified by labialization, or rounding. Thus, if the ee of "feel" is pronounced with narrowed lip-opening, we obtain the French u in "lune" - the high-front-round. There are besides other modifications caused by the shape of the tongue itself.

Of the large number of possible vowels only a small proportion is employed in each language.

Again, among the special vowels of any one language we must distinguish between those differences which are distinctive, that is, to which differences of meaning correspond, and those which are not. Thus the first elements of the diphthongs in "by" and "out" vary considerably: some people sound them broad as in "father," some thin, as in "man," with various intermediate sounds. And yet the meaning of the words remains unchanged. The distinction between the vowels of "men" and "man," on the other hand, though really slighter than that of the different pronunciations of "by" and "out," is a distinctive one.

It often happens that two sounds, though formed in different ways, have nearly the same effect on the ear. Thus the English vowel in "turn" is formed in a totally different way from the French one in "peur," the former being an unrounded, the latter a rounded vowel, and yet they are hardly distinguishable by an untrained ear. The consequence is that two such vowels are never employed together in the same language to distinguish the meanings of words, and for practical purposes they may be considered as variations of the same vowel. Hence we have to distinguish not so much between sounds as between groups of sounds. One of the most important distinctions of these groups is that of "close" and "open," the open vowels being generally formed by a "low" position of the tongue or by some other widening of the mouth passage.

Disregarding special exceptions in individual languages, we may assume the following as the chief distinctive groups in language generally:

A. Unrounded.

(1) the dull-back,but.
(2) the clear-back,father.
(3) the mixedª,turn, father, gabe (German).
(4) the high-front,bit, beat.
(5) the close-front,été (French).
(6) the open-front,men, mare, man.

B. Rounded.

(7) high-back,full, fool.
(8) close-back,so (German).
(9) open-back,folly, fall.
(10) high-front,lune (French).
(11) close-front,peu (French).
(12) open-front,peur (French).

Of these groups the mixed (3) is, as remarked above, almost identical in sound with the close and open front (11, 12), with which latter the dull-back (1) is often identified, although in sound it is really intermediate between them and the clear-back (2). In practice, therefore, the symbols for 11 and 12 will also suffice for 1 and 3.

a, i and u, at once supply symbols for 2, 4 and 7 respectively. For 10 we have only to restore y to its original Roman value, which it still retains in Danish and Swedish. If we assign e to the close-front (5) and o to the close-back-round (8), in accordance with the general European tradition, we must find letters for the corresponding open vowels. For the open-front (6) æ at once suggests itself, the a indicating openness. For the open o (9) there is no type ready to hand; I propose therefore to adopt the turned used by Mr. Ellis in his Palæotype. This letter, which is really a turned c, is meant to suggest a turned o, which is impracticable. For the rounded e (11) the turned may be used, and for the open sound (12) . We thus obtain the perfectly parallel forms i, e, æ, and y, , . The last two at the same time supply symbols for the special English u in "but" (1) and "turn" (3).

Diphthongs are, of course, symbolised by the juxtaposition of their elements. The following are the English diphthongs:-

aias inaisle.

Diphthongs in all languages vary greatly in their constituents, and the above combinations must be understood as simply denoting general tendencies. Thus ai does not literally imply a combination of the a in "father" and the i in "bit," but merely a movement in that direction. We may start, not with a full-back vowel, but with a mixed one, which may move towards i, but without reaching it: in fact the commonest pronunciation of "aisle" may be represented by el. In the same way ei only implies a front vowel moving upwards, and, as a matter of fact, the starting-point may be either a close or open e or even the a of "man." Indeed ei often begins with a mixed vowel, in which case "veil" is confounded with "vile."

Note that ei and ou in English supply the place of close long ee and oo, which most English people are unable to pronounce.

ii and uu are often diphthongised in a peculiar way in English, by being made to end in the consonants y and w respectively, wiin (ween) and fuul (fool) becoming wiyn and fuwl.

Having thus laid a general foundation, we may proceed to discuss some special modifications required in English.

As there is no short or close e or o in English, it is superfluous yo use æ and to denote the quality of sounds whose openness is always implied by their shortness. We can, therefore, discard altogether in English, and employ æ to denote the peculiar a in "man," for which it would otherwise be difficult to find an appropriate letter.

The longs of æ and may be expressed, as with the other vowels, by doubling - ææ, . But as this is inconvenient, and as is not used in English, it is better to denote the long of æ by ae, the separation of the letters implying length. Long may, on this analogy, be denoted by ao.

ª The vowel in "turn" is open-mixed, that in "gabe" close-mixed.

Contents page

This page hosted by Yellow Internet.
James Chandler 1998.