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Vowel Space   

Exercise: feel the vowels in your mouth ...
How do we describe vowels?

The method usually used is to set up an imaginary "vowel space" and define vowels by their position in the space. We imagine a cross-section of the human head looking to the left, and define the vowels according to the position of the HIGHEST POINT OF THE TONGUE for each vowel. Here for instance is Gimson's (1980:39) picture of the different tongue-positions for the vowel-sounds in FLEECE and PALM:

It turns out that human vowel-sounds in any language can be partly defined in relation to this vowel space. Remember, the face points left on the page, and we can talk of HIGH (= CLOSE) or LOW (= OPEN) and FRONT or BACK vowels:

We symbolise this vowel space on the vowel chart in this way:

This enables us to talk of high (or close), low (or open) back or front vowels. We can also define vowels as close-mid, open-mid, or centralized.

Another feature of vowels is ROUNDING: in English, front vowels are unrounded, i.e the lips are spread (FLEECE, DRESS, TRAP etc.) while back vowels tend to have rounded lips (GOOSE, THOUGHT etc.) In other languages, front vowels can be rounded and back vowels unrounded. On the following Vowel Chart of the International Phonetics Association, both rounded and unrounded vowels are shown:
   There's a very good webpage at  where you can click the symbol to hear the sound.
For English, we obviously don't need all these vowels. Here are links to the vowel-positions of:

  • English lax vowels
  • English tense vowels
  • English diphthongs

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