Throwing in the Vowel

A subjective diagram of relative mouth positioning for English/IPA vowels by Wikimedia Commons user Ordoon

If you’re a native English speaker, you probably learned in elementary school that there are five or six vowels: a, e, i, o, u, and sometimes y. The letters that aren’t vowels are consonants. It’s a nice enough rule of thumb, and serves many purposes well.

But it’s not quite accurate.

First, there is a tiny set of words that would make this list “a, e, i, o, u, sometimes y, and very rarely w“. A cwm is a type of valley, and a crwth is a crowd, for example.

More importantly, though, there’s the problem that vowels are aural and letters are visual. In linguistics terms, the letters are graphemes while the vowels are phonemes (and possibly diphthongs and triphthongs, depending on which linguist is doing the labeling). There’s another -eme to complete the language triumvirate: graphemes are units of a language’s written representation, phonemes are units of a language’s spoken representation, and sememes are the units of a language’s meaning. English graphemes include letters, numbers, and punctuation. Phonemes are where you’ll find the vowels and consonants.

We try to line up the graphemes with the phonemes, but it’s a messy network of mappings once you get through all of English’s oddities, like the consonant sounds at the beginning of one, ewe, or union, or the vowel sounds in myth and cwm, or the derivation of ghoti. The network got a good shakeup during the Great Vowel Shift.

So instead, linguists created a new alphabet of graphemes that has a one-to-one mapping with the phonemes. It’s called the International Phonetic Alphabet (IPA). American English’s vowel sounds are

  • [i] (long e) as in seat
  • [ɪ] (short i) as in sit
  • [eɪ] (diphthong, long a) as in sate
  • [ɛ] (short e) as in set
  • [æ] (short a) as in sat
  • [ɑ] (short o) as in sot
  • [o] (long o, also part of the diphthong [oʊ]) as in so
  • [u] (long u) as in suit
  • [ʊ] as in soot
  • [ʌ] (short u) as in shut
  • [aɪ] (diphthong, long i) as in site
  • [aʊ] (diphthong) as in shout
  • [ɔɪ] (diphthong) as in soy
  • [ə] (schwa) as in the middle of separate, if you say it with three syllables
  • [ɹ̩] (syllabic consonant) or [?] (rhotic vowel) as in shirt
  • [l̩] (syllabic consonant) as in subtle

or something close to that.

The graphemes we use to represent phonemes influence the way we think about English. As I mentioned at the beginning, we tend to think that there are 5 or 6 vowels in English, because we use 5 or 6 letters to represent them. Another example: because we write the unvoiced and voiced versions of most consonant pairs with different letters (e.g., [t] and [d], both alveolar stops) , we tend to think of them as “more different” than the unvoiced and voiced pair of dental non-sibilant fricatives [θ] and [ð], both of which we spell with th (e.g., thin and then), and tack a “silent e” on when we need to, as in teeth and teethe.

So keep all this in mind when people tell you that English is one of the hardest languages to learn.


2 thoughts on “Throwing in the Vowel

  1. Getting back to the -emes, you can mix-and-match sets of things that match. Two words that have matching phonemes but different graphemes and different sememes are heterographs (e.g., “one” and “won”). You might also have called them homonyms or homophones, but sometimes those are used to indicate slightly different relationships. Two words that have matching sememes but different phonemes and different graphemes are synonyms (e.g., “loyal” and “faithful”). Two words that have matching graphemes but different phonemes and different sememes are heteronyms (e.g., “does”, the plural of “doe”, and does, the third-person singular of “do”).

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