Tema 49- El sistema fonológico de la lengua inglesa (2): las vocales. Los diptongos. Las semivocales. Correspondencia entre sonidos y grafías

Tema 49- El sistema fonológico de la lengua inglesa (2): las vocales. Los diptongos. Las semivocales. Correspondencia entre sonidos y grafías


Vowel sounds are produced in most cases without any kind of contact between the articulators. They can be made different from each other, mainly by raising a certain part of the tongue to different levels, by modifying the shape of the lips and by raising and lowering the velum. Variations of this kind produced by changing the shape of the mouth resonator are referred to as differences in vowel quality.

The part of the tongue raised may be any point between the front and the back. We have the raising of 3 basic parts of the tongue: front, centre and back. Vowel sounds are normally voiced sounds, that is, they are produced with vibration of the vocal folds. They are usually oral sounds, that is, when the vibrating column of air reaches the top of the pharynx it generally escapes through the mouth only. Occasionally there are devoiced and nasalized vowel sounds because this is not a common characteristic. The vowel sounds are generally syllabic in English, that is, they function as the central elements of syllables either alone or accompanied by consonant sounds.

Classification of Vowel sounds:

The labels corresponding to tongue positions may be placed on 2 axes:

  1. A horizontal one indicating the part of the tongue which is raised
  2. A vertical one indicating the height to which the tongue is raised

For a more complete classification a final articulatory feature may be added lip position: rounded and unrounded. Front vowel sounds are unrounded, back ones are rounded.


The English inventory includes six short vowels (all pure), 13 relatively long (5 pure vowels and 8 diphthongs and one borderline case /ae/, sometimes long).


Short Relatively long subject to reduction

Pure vowels i, e, o, u, Λ, Ə—ae—i:, a:, o:, u:, 3:

Diphthongs ei, ai, oi, au, Əu, iƏ, eƏ, uƏ

But there are many quantity variations, f.i: depending on the phonetic environment the relatively long vowels have several degrees of length and the so-called short vowels can become even longer than the former.

Although vowel quality oppositions play the most important role in distinguishing meaning, allophonic variations of quantity may also contribute greatly to it.

Both open syllables and those closed by voiced lenis consonants, sometimes twice on nearly three times as long. f.i. the pair beat/bit is distinguished by vowel quality, the pair beat/bead mainly by vowel quantity and bit/bead by the vowel quality-quantity complex.

a) The 13 relatively long vowels retain their full length when accented either is open syllables see /si:/ or when followed by lenis consonants learned /l3:nd/. /ae/ is fully long before /b, d, g, ʤ, m, n/

b) These vowels will be half long when unaccented: seminar /`seminaּ/ or when accented and followed by fortis consonants: insert /in`s3ּt/ or when accented and followed by an unaccented syllable in the same words harder /`haּdƏ/

The English pure vowels in detail:

1. /i:/ front, between close and half-close. The most common realization is a slight diphthong /ii/, especially in accented open syllables. It is subject to quantity variations /i:/ tea, /iּ/ seat.

2. /i/ retracted, half-close, generally short. Slightly opener in final open syllables /i˛/ very, but may be nearer to /i/ when another vowel follows: very often

3. /e/ front, mid, usually short.

4. /ae/ front, between half-open and open. Usually short but long f.i: in man

5. /a:/ back, open, unrounded. Although relative long, it undergoes variations of length. Fully long /a:/ star, reduced /aּ/ in part

6. /o/ back, open, slightly rounded, normally short.

7. /o:/ back, mid, rounded. Usually long but subject to reduction. Fully long /o:/ door, reduced /oּ/ caught.

8. /u/ advanced, half-close. Slight lip-rounding, generally short.

9. /u:/ back, between close and half- close, lips rounded. Usually realized as a slight diphthong /uu/ especially in accented open syllables. Generally long but subject to length variations, fully long /u:/ blue, reduced /uּ/ as in boot

10. /Λ/ central, between half-open and open. usually short.

11. /3:/ Mid, central, lips unrounded, generally long but subject to reduction, fully long /3:/ fur, reduced /3ּ/ as in first

12. /Ə/ Mid, central, lips unrounded. More open in final open syllables: doctor


They can be classified articulatory and auditorily:

1. According to the distance the tongue travels, they can be articulatory labelled wide when the glide is long and narrow when the glide is short.

2. Depending on the direction of the movement the tongue makes in producing diphthongs, they can be articulatory classified into closing and centring. Closing diphthongs involve a glide towards a closer tongue position, centring diphthongs a glide towards a central tongue position.

3. According to the prominence of the elements, diphthongs can be auditorily classified into falling when the first element is more prominent than the second and rising when the second element is more prominent than the first.

The English diphthongs in detail:

  1. /ei/ narrow, front-closing. Glide starting at /e/ moving into the direction of /i/, fully long /e:i/ as in pay, reduced /eּi/ as in paint
  2. /Əu/ narrow, back-closing. Glide starting at /Ə/ moving into the direction of /u/, fully long /Ə:u/ as in low, reduced /Ə ּu/ as in goat
  3. /ai/ wide, front-closing. Glide starting from open retracted position moving in the direction of /i/, fully long /a:i/ as in eye, reduced /aּi/ as in advice
  4. /au/ wide, back –closing. Glide starting approximately at /a/ moving in the direction of /u/, the starting point may, however, be the same as for /ai/, fully long /a:u/ as in vow, reduced /aּu/ as in count
  5. /oi/ wide, front-closing. Glide starting between half-open and open moving in the direction of /i/, fully long /o:i/ as in toy, reduced /oּi/ as in voice
  6. /iƏ/ centring. Glide starting at /i/ moving to mid-central in non-final position and to the more open variety of /Ə/ in final position, fully long /i:Ə/ as in clear, reduced /iּƏ/ as in fierce
  7. /eƏ/ centring. Glide starting from half-open, moving to mid-central in non-final position and to the more open variety of /Ə/ in final position: fair, fully long /e: Ə/ as in rare, reduced /eּƏ/ as in scarce
  8. /uƏ/ centring. Glide starting at /u/ moving to mid-central in non-final position and to the more open variety of /Ə/ in final position: tour, fully long /u: Ə/ as in poor, reduced /uּƏ/ as in during.

Triphthongs: (English diphthongs+ /Ə/)

A third vocalic element /Ə/ can be added to all diphthongs except the centring ones.

  1. /eiƏ/ as in payer
  2. /ƏuƏ/ as in lower
  3. /aiƏ/ as in wire
  4. /auƏ/ as in sour
  5. /oiƏ/ as in employer

The sequence, however, is pronounced fully only occasionally as when using either a slow, formal style of pronunciation or when the word is given special emphasis.

Speakers of general RP tend to weaken and/or omit the second /i/ or /u/ element in ordinary conversational style. This vowel reduction, a form of compression known as “levelling” has give rise to:

a) 2 new diphthongs, one coming from /ai/ + /Ə/ and another from /au/ + /Ə/, which are considered as allophonic realizations f.i: /aƏ/

b) New sets of homophones. Pairs such as tyre and tower are often pronounced the same.


1. /i:/

– Spellings I and iCe in words of Latin origin: casino, Argentina, ski, police, expertise, magazine, unique

– Spellings ae and oe mainly in aesthetic, anaemia, Caesar, foetus, phoenix.

– Spelling e in plurals of words endimg in –is and –ex: analyses, indices, theses, bases

– Spelling ei only in cei: conceive, deceive, receive, ceiling. Exceptions: caffeine, protein, seize, seizure and the names: Keith, Leigh, Neil, Sheila

– Exceptional spellings: people, quay, geyser, key, debris, précis.

2. /i/

– Spelling ie: hippie, mischief, movies, sieve

– Spelling a: character, orange, spinach

– Spellings ai, ei, ee in bargain, captain, fountain, mountain; forfeit, sovereign, surfeit; coffee, committee, toffee, Yankee.

– Spelling aCe, especially –age: image, postage, village, furnace, preface, surface, private, octave

– Accented e only in pretty, England, English. u only in busy, business, lettuce, minute (n), missus, o only in women, iu only in circuit, conduit, build, biscuit, ea only in Guinea, Chelsea

– The past suffix –ed is pronounced is pronounced /d/ after vowel and lenis consonant sounds and /t/ after fortis consonant sounds, it is pronounced /t/ after fortis consonant sounds, it is pronounced /id/ after /t, /d/.

– Adjectives ending in –ed are pronounced /id/: aged, beloved, blessed, crooked, cursed, jagged, learned ragged, rugged, sacred, wicked, wretched

– The ending –edly of adverbs is pronounced /idly/: assumedly, supposedly. Exception: determinedly

3. /e/

– Spelling a in any, many, Thames, momentarily, necessarily.

– Spellings ei, ey only in heifer, leisure, Leicester, Reynolds

– Spelling eo only in leopard, jeopardize, Geoffrey, Leonard

– Exceptional spellings: bury, burial, said, says, friend, lieutenant, ate

4. /ae/

– Spelling i only in plaid, plait

– Spelling i in words of French origin: impasse, meringue

5. /a:/

– Spelling a in some 300 words generally before the nasals and /s/, the most common of which are: a+ nasal: command, demand, can´ t, plant, dance, glance, France, a + /s/: ask, task, past, glass, last, fast. Others: after, draft, staff, half, bath, path, rather

– Spelling au: aunt, laugh, draught

– Spelling er only in clerk, sergeant, Derby; Berkeley

– Spelling ah only in ah, bah, aha, hurrah

– Spelling oi in French borrowings: repertoire, reservoir

– Exceptional spellings: heart, hearth, our, bazaar.

6. /o/

– Spelling au mainly in because, cauliflower, laurel, sausage

– Spelling en in French borrowings: encore, entrée, rendezvous

– Spelling oCe only in gone, shone, scone

– Spelling ou only in cough, trough, Gloucester

– Exceptional spellings: knowledge, bureaucracy

7. /o:/

– Spelling ao in broad, abroad.

– Spellings oor in door, floor.

– Spelling an in French borrowings: fiancé, restaurant, séance

– Exceptional spellings: drawer (thing), awe, Sean

8. /u/

– Spelling u in accented syllables in some 30 words, generally before /l/, the most common of which are bull, bullet, bulletin, bully, full, fulfil, pull. Others: bush, cushion, push, pussy, butcher, put, pudding, sugar.

– Spelling oo mainly in book, brook, cook, cookie, foot, good, hood, hook, look, nook, rook, shook, soot, stood, took, wood, wool.

– Spelling ou mainly in could, should, would, courier, bouquet

– Spellings o only in bosom, woman, wolf, worsted, Worcester

9. /u:/

– Spelling o only in do, tomb, womb, who, whom.

– Spelling oCe only in lose, move, prove, whose

– Spelling oe in canoe, shoe

– Spelling eu in adieu, rheumatism, sleuth

– Exceptional spellings: manoeuvre, two.

10. /Λ/

– Spelling o in some 70 words, generally before the nasals and /v/, the most common of which are: /Λ / + nasal: become, come, comfort, some, London, honey, money, one, once, none, tongue, /Λ / + /v/: above, glove, love, oven. Others: another, other, mother, doze, colour, worry

– Spelling ou mainly in double, trouble, flourish, cousin, touch, young, enough, rough, Douglas

– Spelling oo only in blood, flood

– Exceptional spellings: does, twopence, twopenny

11. /3:/

– Spelling our only in bourbon, couteous, courtesy, journal, journey

– Spelling eu in French borrowings: connoisseur, raconteur, Peugeot, milieu

– Exceptional spelling: colonel

12. /Ə/

– Schwa can be represented by all five letters (and y): canal, hundred, possible, seldom, suspect, analysis; by vowel diagraphs: villain, surgeon, vengeance, parliament, region, tortoise, camouflage; and by vowel letters + r: particular, perfection, forbid, surprise

  1. ei/

– Spellings é(e), ê in French borrowings: attaché, café, fête, n´´e

– Spelling et in French borrowings: ballet, bouqet, chalet, gourmet

– Spelling ea only in break, great, orangeade, steak, Reagan, Yeats

– Exceptional spellings: gaol, gauge, dossier, Galeic, Israel.

  1. /Əu/

– Spelling oe mainly in doe, foe, goes, toe, woe, Defoe, Joe, Poe

– Spellings au an eau in French borrowings: au pair, chauffeur, mauve, beau, bureau, château, plateau

– Exceptional spellings: brooch, sew, Pharaoh

  1. /ai/

– Spelling ei only in eider, either, height, kaleidoscope, seismic, sleight (of hand), Eileen, Farenheit, Geiger

– Exceptional spelling: MacKay

  1. /au/

– Spelling ough mainly in: bough, drought, plough

– Exceptional spelling: Macleod

  1. /oi/

– Exceptional spellings: buoy, voyage

18. /iƏ/

– Exceptional spellings: souvenir, weir, weird

  1. /eƏ/

– Exceptional spellings: major, prayer (thing).

  1. /uƏ/

– Spelling our in French borrowings: bourgeois, courgette, gourd, gourmet

The reverse procedure, that is, the grouping of sounds according to a given spelling is useful in the case of a few endings which have more than one pronunciation: in –ate, -ful and –ment a different phonemic pattern identifies different grammatical functions

1. –ADE

– /-eid/ as in barricade, decade, lemonade

– /a:d/ mainly in charade, façade, promenade

– esplanade can be both

2. –AGE

– /-iʤ/ as in brekage, heritage, patronage

– /a:Ʒ/ as in camouflage, collage, sabotage

– garage can be both

3. –ATE

– /-eit/ mainly in verbs: appreciate, celebrate, concentrate

– /Ət/ in adjectives and nouns: accurate, certificate, delicate. A few adjectives and nouns are pronounced /-eit/: cognate, debate, estate, inmate, innate, rebate. Others fluctuate between both forms: advocate, candidate, delegate, magistrate

– /-it/ in climate, private

4. –FUL

– /ful/ in nouns: handful, mouthful, packetful

– /fl/ in adjectives: dreadful, grateful, hopeful

5. –MENT

– /ment/ in verbs: complement, implement, experiment

– /mƏnt/ I nouns: argument, experiment, government. Exceptions: cement, comment

6. The prefix RE- has 3 pronunciations

– /`ri/ in recount, recover, reform, remark all of them meaning again.

– /ri/ in recount (tell, recover (get back), reform (improve)

– /`re/ in represent (symbolize), recommend, recreation (amusemnet)


It is a rapid vocalic glide onto a syllabic sound of greater steady duration. Despite the fact that semi-vowels are in phonetic terms generally vocalic, they are treated within the consonant class, mainly because their function is consonantal rather than vowel-like, that is, they have a marginal rather than a central situation in the syllable.

Their consonantal function is emphasized by the fact that the articles have their preconsonantal form when followed by /j/ and /w/, that is, the yard, a yacth, the west, a wasp with /đƏ/ or /Ə/ rather than with /đi/ or / Ən/.

In addition the allophones of /j/ and /w/ when following a fortis consonant are voiceless and fricative as in cue /kju:/ and quick /kwik/, that is, they fall within a phonetic definition of a consonant.

/j/ unrounded palatal semi-vowel. Spelt y (yes), i (spaniel) also /ju:/ spelt u muse, ew new, eu, feud, eau beauty, ui suit

– [j] voiced: yes, beyond

– [j₀]devoiced: pure, tube

/w/ labio-velar semi-vowel. Spelt w, wh or u after q, g: west, which, quick, language. Note one, once, choir, suite with /w/

– [w] voiced: wild, await

– [w₀]devoiced: tweed, queen