Welcome to week two. In this week, we will address vowels in English pronunciation. All the human speech sounds in the world’s languages are denoted by symbols of the international phonetic alphabet, which has the acronym IPA. You see it here behind me. By using standardised IPA symbols, we know what sound is referred to when communicating about a sound that we do not know. In the IPA chart, vowels are represented in a vowel diagram. The vowel diagram helps us understand the way in which vowels are pronounced. You can see the vowel diagram as a cross section of our oral cavity. The left hand side is the front of our mouth, where we have more space, and the right hand side, the back.
The articulation of vowels can be described in terms of three parameters. The first parameter, represented by the horizontal lines, concerns the shape of our jaw, which can be open, in an open-mid position, a close-mid position, or close. If you first say eeee and then ah, you can clearly feel your jaw moving from a closed position to an open position– eeee, ah. This is why your GP asks you to say ah to find out what is wrong with you. If you’d say eeee, he wouldn’t be able to see anything. The vertical lines represent the position of our tongue, which can be in the front of your mouth, in the centre, or at the back.
Check this out by saying eeee and oooo– if you did it the right way, you will have felt your tongue removing from the front to the back. Eeee, oooo. This was the second parameter. And the third is lip rounding. Whenever two vowels stand next to one another– for instance ah and oh, the left one is un-rounded– ah– and the right one rounded– oh. Of course, English has less vowels than this general IPA chart for all the languages in the world. Here is a vowel diagram that shows the vowels that we find in standard British English.
They are the short vowels that we find in the word “kit”, ih, “dress”, eh, “trap”, aeh, “foot”, oo, “strut”, ɑh, “lot”, aw, and the central short vowel that has been given the name schwa, and is typically found in unstressed syllables, as in “about”, uh. Not all English varieties have the same set of vowels. For example, American English speakers use a short PALM-words in LOT-words and say “lat”, “gat”, ‘sak”. Standard British English also has five long vowels. Note that in the IPA, a column indicates length, that the vowel is long. They are the FLEECE-vowel eeee, the GOOSE-vowel oooo, the THOUGHT-vowel aaw, the PALM-vowel aah, and the NURSE-vowel uuh.
Note also that where the vowel occurs before R, as in all of the NURSE-words– like for example “bird”, “heard”, “word”, and “church”– rhotic speakers will use a short variant of the vowel because they pronounce R. In addition to the long and short vowels, English has eight so-called diphthongs, which is a special kind of long vowel. When you pronounce a diphthong, you make a glide between two vowels– for example, a–i aye. Five of the eight diphthongs are closing diphthongs, which means that they end in a close vowel– namely KIT or FOOT. We find them in the words “face”, ei, “price”, aye, “choice”, oi, “mouth”, ouw, and “goat”, ə-oh.
The remaining three diphthongs are centering diphthongs– the second vowel is the central vowel schwa. They are “near”, ea, “square”, eə and “cure”, uah.
Varieties of English may also differ in respect of these diphthongs. For example, only non-rhotic speakers have centering diphthongs. Note that they occur in words written with a final R, which non-rhotic speakers do not pronounce. Instead, they pronounce the second schwa vowel in the diphthong. Another example is that many contemporary speakers appear to have lost the CURE-diphthong uah, and used a long THOUGHT-vowel aaw instead. They say for example– “cure” kjaaw, “poor” paaw, “sure” saaw, instead of kju-ah, pu-ah, and su-ah, which is an older form. Finally, American English speakers have a slightly different pronunciation of the GOAT-diphthong. They use a somewhat closer and backer starting vowel and say goat, o-oh, rather than ə-oh.
We find a whole lot of variation in the pronunciation of vowels among speakers of English. One of the reasons for the variation is that speakers who do not have a particular English vowel in their inventory will use another vowel from their native language or dialect. Let’s listen, for example, to the range of different ways in which speakers may pronounce the vowel in the word– Dance. Dance. Dance. Dance. Dance. Dance. Dance. Dance. Variation is a natural property of spoken English, and therefore it’s perfectly fine to have your own accent. The only thing is that you should be aware of vowel features that influence your intelligibility. So this week we have the following programme for you.
You will learn which English vowels bear on intelligibility. You will practise English vowels. And you will reflect on the progress that you’ve made.