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The system of English Vowels

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The movements of the body of the tongue provide a convenient articulatory basis for classifying vowels according to two principles: 1) horizontal and 2) vertical movements of the tongue.

According to the horizontalmovement five classes of English vowels are distinguished. They are:

1) front [i:], [e], [eɪ], [ɛə], [æ]

2) front-retracted [ɪ], [ɪə]

3) central [ʌ], [ɜ:], [ə], [ɜʊ], [aʊ], [aɪ]

4) back [ɒ], [ɔ:], [u:], [a:], [ɔɪ]

5) back-advanced [ʊ], [ʊə]

Not all phoneticians single out the classes of front-retracted and back-advanced vowels. So both [i:] and [ɪ] vowels are classed as front, and both [u:] and [ʊ] - as back. The point is that the vowels in these two pairs differ in quality which is partially due to the raised part of the tongue. So in this case a more detailed classification seems to be a more precise one, since it adequately reflects the articulatory distinctions actually present in the language.

Now let's view another articulatory characteristic of vowels, which is based on the vertical movement of the tongue. The way phoneticians of different schools approach this aspect is also slightly different. Some scholars distinguish three classes of vowels: high (or close), mid and low (or open) vowels. But to mark all significant changes in vowel quality it is not enough to single out these three groups of vowels. For instance, both English vowels [i:] and [ɪ] belong to the group of close vowels, but when the vowel [ɪ] is articulated the front of the tongue is not so high in the mouth as it is in the case of the vowel [i:]. Russian phoneticians made the classification more detailed distinguishing two subclasses in each class: broad and narrow variations of the 3 vertical positions of the tongue. Thus the following 6 groups of vowels are distinguished:

1) close a) narrow [i:], [u:]

b) broad [ɪ], [ʊ], [ɪə], [ʊə]

2) mid a) narrow [e], [ɜ:], [ə], [eɪ], [ɜʊ]

b) broad [ə], [ʌ]

3) open a) narrow [ɛə], [ɔ:], [ɔɪ]

b) broad [æ], [aɪ], [aʊ], [ɒ], [a:].

In addition to the above-mentioned principle of the classification of vowels phoneticians suggest five other criteria:

1) stability of articulation

2) lip position

3) character of the vowel end

4) length

5) tenseness

The stability of articulation specifies the actual position of the articulating organ in the process of the articulation. There are two possible variants: a) the tongue position is stable, in this case the articulated vowel is pure, it consists of one element and is called a monophthong; and b) the tongue position changes, in this case a vowel consists of two elements, the first one is strong, it is a nucleus, the second element is very weak – it is a glide. There exists a third variety, when the change in the tongue position is fairly weak, in this case the articulated vowel is not pure, but it still consists of one element, such vowels are called diphthongoids. So according to this principle the English vowels are subdivided into:

a) monophthongs [ɪ], [ʊ], [e], [ɜ:], [ə], [ʌ], [ɔ:], [æ], [ɒ], [a:]

b) diphthongs [ɪə], [ʊə], [eɪ], [ɜʊ], [ɔɪ], [aɪ], [aʊ], [ɛə]

c) diphthongoids [i:], [u:]

Some phoneticians, however, do not share this way of thinking and do not distinguish diphthongoids. But for the learners of English it is important to know this differentiation as it is useful for teaching purposes. Besides in modern English the tendency for diphthongization is becoming gradually stronger.

Another feature of English vowels is lip rounding. Traditionally three lip positions are distinguished: spread, neutral and rounded. In English lip rounding is not relevant phonologically (it means that no two words can be distinguished on its basis).

Our next point should be made about another characteristic of English vowels. It's checkness. The quality of all English monophthongs in the stressed position is strongly affected by the following consonant. If a stressed vowel is followed by a strong (fortis) voiceless consonant it is cut off by it. In this case the end of the vowel is strong and the vowel is called checked. If a vowel is followed by a weak (lenis) voiced consonant or by no consonant at all the end of it is weak. In this case the vowel is called free.

Now it should be useful to consider another articulatory characteristic of English vowels, that is their length or quantity. The English monophthongs are traditionally divided into short [ɪ], [e], [æ], [ɒ], [ʊ], [ʌ], [ə] and long ones [i:], [a:], [ɔ:], [ɜ:], [u:].

It should be noted that vowel length or quantity has for a long time been the point of disagreement among phoneticians. The problem is whether variations in quantity are meaningful (relevant) or not. Let's look at the pairs of words: [bɪd - bi:d], [sɪt - si:t]. Are they distinguished from one another by the opposition of different length (that's the approach of D. Jones, an outstanding British phonetician) or is the difference in quality (or in other words the position of the active organ of speech) decisive here? Most Russian phoneticians are in favour of the second conception. They state that a feature can be systemic if it does not depend on the context. As to the length of English vowels, it varies and depends on a lot of factors, the first being phonetic context. The shortest are vowels followed by voiceless consonants and the longest are in free position.

For example in "meat" [i:] is half as long as the [i:] in "me", but may approximately have the same duration as the [ɪ] in "mid". But still these words "mid" and "meat" are perceived as different words because the vowels are different in quality. So no matter what time is required for the articulation of these vowels, the main distinctive feature is quality, not quantity.

As for tenseness we shall only mention that special instrumental analysis shows that historically long vowels are tense, and historically short ones are lax.

To sum it up we may conclude that among all the articulatory features of English vowels only two are relevant: the stability of articulation and tongue position.


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